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 second part of my look at this compilation, focusing on the accompaniments included on the second disc.
The second disc also includes a number of his accompaniments to other artists. Particularly noteworthy is a session with drummer Willie Nix that also included guitarist Willie Johnson with wonderful renditions of Leroy Carr’s “Prison Bound Blues” (taken at an unusual shuffle tempo), and Robert Lockwood’s “Take a Little Walk With Me,” standing out for Nix’s infectious singing, Billy Love’s rollicking piano and Horton’s crying accompaniment very much in a Sonny Boy Williamson vein on the Carr tune, but a bit more punch on the Lockwood cover. Horton’s harp is dazzling on Joe Hill Louis’ “Hydramatic Woman,” a fresh reworking of “Rocket 88.” Also included on this second disc, are recordings from the legendary January, 1953 J.O.B. session under Shines’ name including the soaring harp over Shines’ vocals on “Evening Sun,” and “Brutal Hearted Woman,” whose four thrilling choruses from Horton on the former number, along with alternate takes of “Evening Sun,” and a couple of unissued tracks.
In December, 1953 Horton was present on one of Tampa Red’s final Victor-Bluebird sessions with a band that included Little Johnny Jones on piano, and Odie Payne on drums. “Big Stars Are falling,” musically has echoes of some of Muddy Waters recordings and Horton’s authoritative playing along with Willie Lacey’s jazzy mix of single note runs and chords adds a nice flavor. A nice latin groove is present on “Rambler’s Blues,” with more scintillating guitar from Lacey along with Horton laying down a terrific chorus followed by his comping behind Lacey’s break. The last Horton accompaniments presented here are behind Sunnyland Slim’s coupling, “Highway 61,” and “It’s You Baby.” Some really great playing although the original recordings do leave something to be desired. This set provides a good sampling of accompaniments although it isn't exhaustive. It does not some of his famous accompaniments behind Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers, or Horton's playing for States on a 78 behind Atlanta shouter Tommy Brown ("Southern Woman" and "Remember Me"). The selected tracks here do illustrate why Horton was so in demand for session work by Sam Phillips and later Willie Dixon.
Horton’s career took received a boost during the blues revival in the sixties when his harmonica work became prominent, and after the deaths of Little Walter and Rice Miller, he was clearly the Blues Harmonica giant. On the third volume of Chicago, The Blues Today, his harmonica is prominently featured backing Johnny Shines (except on “Dynaflow Blues”) and Johnny Young (on the songs Young plays guitar and not mandolin) along with the afore-mentioned duet with Musselwhite. His playing throughout these selections are terrific. The late Pete Welding used Horton on the albums he produced in the Masters of Modern Blues series on Testament (that were issued on CD by Hightone) including recordings by Shines, J.B. Hutto, and Floyd-Jones and Eddie Taylor. He also was a prominent member of Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues All Stars and featured on their Columbia album of the sixties. The first time I saw Horton was as part of this ‘super-group,’ at New York City’s Electric Circus in the late sixties.
Tomorrow I will consider the third disc of the JSP set, that contains a live recording by Horton with Carey Bell.