If there is a Mount Rushmore of Blues Harmonica, than the four gentlemen who would be represented would be John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson; Rice Miller (aka Sonny Boy Williamson II); Little Walter Jacobs; and Walter Horton. Horton was known by a variety of names including “Mumbles,” “Shakey Walter,” and most notably “Big Walter,” the latter to distinguish him from Little Walter Jacobs who may have had a more successful career but could hardly be called a more creative or expressive master of the blues harmonica that Big Walter. Walter was tall, lean and gaunt, had a delicate aspect to himself and to quote Neil Slaven, in the notes to the recently issued 3-CD set on JSP, Blues Harmonic Giant, “dedicated to the music rather than a career.” This collection contains two CDs of material from the 1950s along with a live recording from the 70s or 80s where he is joined by his most prominent disciple, Carey Bell. Today is the first look at this compilation, focusing on the recordings issued under Horton’s name or sessions for which he was a leader.
Walter Horton was born in Mississippi in 1918, but shortly thereafter moved to Memphis where his father bought Walter his first harmonica. The family later moved to Arkansas where Johnny Shines first came across him blowing into a tin can. With the family moving back to Arkansas, where he started hanging out around Handy Park with the likes of Frank Stokes, Will Shade, Buddy Doyle, Dewey Corley, Jack Kelly and Floyd Jones. It was there that he got the nickname, Shakey Walter. Walter, it is said, made his first recordings backing Little Buddy Doyle in 1939 along with Jack Kelly while playing with the members of the Memphis Jug band and others. According to Neil Slaven’s notes to, Blues Harmonic Giant, Walter could not make ends meet playing music, so he worked hauling ice, and later was a chef at the Peabody Hotel. He even traveled to Chicago and played on Maxwell Street, but never stayed there long.
The importance of Sam Phillips opening the Memphis Recording Service in 1950 cannot be overstated as far as the recording of blues in the Memphis and Delta area. In addition to recording weddings and other events, Phillips began recording performers for out-of-town labels like RPM and Chess before starting his own Sun Records. Horton was among the earliest artists he recorded, when in February 1951 a session was held that would be sent to the Biharis in Los Angeles and issued on RPM. The very first track in this collection is, “Cotton Patch Hotfoot,” original unissued but a remarkable instrumental with simple echoey guitar from an unknown source and Willie Nix’s light drumming behind Horton. Horton sounds here like Rice Miller, the second Sonny Boy Williamson, but dispalying a bit more swooping attack. Sonny Boy’s Trumpet records sounds like a model for the shuffle “What’s a Matter With You,” which has a pretty good vocal and superb harp. “Little Boy Blues,” recorded originally by Robert Lockwood a decade earlier, was actually released and coupled with “Now Tell Me Baby,” that Walter sings forcefully, but his rough voice led RPM to issue this as by Mumbles. Walter’s harp was at least every bit as good here as that of the second Sonny Boy, then holding forth on King Biscuit Time, with Walter’s vocalized crying tone and irresistible swing.
For his second session in June, Walter was backed by the Newborn family; Phineas, Jr. on piano, Calvin on guitar and Phineas, Sr., on drums. On this session, Horton reworked a 1937 John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson’s recording as “Black Gal.” His harp playing on this is styled after that of the first Sonny Boy Williamson. It is interesting to hear the stronger accompaniment than present on the earlier session. “Hard Hearted Woman” is a song he redo later in Chicago. This earlier take is done as a shuffle, with a peppy tempo, and terrific guitar from Calvin Newborn behind Horton’s harp. On this track, Horton’s playing is more in a Rice Miller vein. “Jumping Blues” is another shuffle with his harp playing not fazed by the breakneck tempo. “So Long Baby,” takes the tempo down a bit as he hoarsely delivers the lyric to a blues adapted from Tampa Red’s “When Things Go Wrong (It Hurts Me Too).”
Walter returned to the Sun studios as a leader a year later. September 1952 found him with Jack Kelly on piano, Joe Hill Louis on guitar and Willie Nix on drums for a reworking of Big Bill’s “I Feel So Good,” as “We All Gotta Go.” Also at this session he recorded “Little Walter’s Boogie,” (obviously modeled after Little Walter’s “Juke”). This recording displays Walter's long saxophone-like lines mixed with fluttering, warbling cries. The three different takes of this are totally different with the spectacular second take being an instrumental that he would later return to as “Walter’s Boogie,” and record several with Memphis Charlie Musselwhite on Volume 3 of “Chicago The Blues Today,” and later with Johnny young on Arhoolie. “West Winds Are Blowing,” is a slow blues with a decent vocal, but displaying Walter’s lack of suppleness as a singer. In December 1952 with Albert Williams on piano, Joe Hill Louis on guitar and likely Willie Nix on drums for two takes of “Grandmother Got Grandfather Told.” where his harp has a bit more amplified sound as he negotiates the moderate tempo. In July, 1953, Walter covered Little Walter’s “Off the Wall,” with a band that included Pinetop Perkins on piano and Earl Hooker and two takes provided show his full tone, although not as quite as sharply controlled as Little Walter, and the backing doesn’t swing as hard as the Myers brothers and Fred Below. Later, after doing a Muddy Waters session in Chicago, and some Johnny Shine sessions for J.O.B., Horton was back in Memphis recording “Easy,” one of the great harmonica blues instrumental recordings. This is a stunning reworking of Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Almost Lose My Mind,” with simple accompaniment from Jimmy DeBerry, that showcases his haunting tone, and judicious use of hand effects.
Within the next year, Horton would be established in Chicago and made his first recording as a leader there for the States label on a Willie Dixon produced session. “Hard Hearted Woman,” is transformed into a slow blues with one of his most expressive vocals and some of his most potent harp with the tenor sax riffing of Red Holloway and John Cameron part of the backing for Horton’s soaring solo. It and its backing side “Back Home to Mama,” are presented in issued and alternate takes. Along with the shuffle “Have a Good Time,” and “Need My Baby,” recorded for Cobra, this completes the issuance of Horton’s fifties recordings as a leader that take up the entire first disc and beginning of the second disc of this set.
For Part 2 of this tomorrow, I will examine some of Horton’s accompaniments. I purchased this collection.