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 third and final part of my look at this compilation, focusing on the alive performance with Carey Bell issued on the 3rd disc.As noted in the last part, Horton benefited from the Blues Revival in the sixties and seventies, through recordings and his participation as a sideman on various recordings. Horton was a member of another project that brought together some of the more down home Chicago blues artists. Michael Franks brought together Horton with Sunnyland Slim, Floyd Jones, Honeyboy Edwards and drummer Kansas City Red for an album aptly titled “Old Friends,” which was one of the earliest releases on Franks’ Earwig Records label. The release led to the third occasion I saw Walter Horton perform live at Carnegie Hall when Old Friends were part of a show with Lightning Hopkins, Clifton Chenier and John Lee Hooker. This is the last time I recall seeing this harmonica master perform.
This takes us to the third CD that is part of The Blues Harmonic Giant. Originally issued as Deep Blues, this is a live recording whose source is not identified in this disc. The only other person identified of this live recording from the seventies is Carey Bell who sings on a few selections and does a harp duet with Walter. Carey Bell does refer to a Brother John on guitar, suggesting maybe John Nicholas, but nothing definite. I do not have any earlier issuance of this material so can add no more.
The sound is not quite high fidelity, but Walter is prominent with a backing band, that does a credible job at playing idiomatic Chicago blues, a bit down in the mix. It opens with a nice “Hard Hearted Woman,” before a lengthy shuffle entitled “Sick & Tired,” a different tune than Chris Kenner’s R&B hit. This number provides plenty of space for Horton to showcase his harp playing, although listening to it on a recording, it perhaps goes on a bit too long. It is followed from a mid-tempo “Walter’s Jump,” a focused, short instrumental where he again displays his harmonica virtuosity.
Carey Bell then takes the stage for a rendition of “Leaving in the Morning,” a rendition of Little Walter’s, ”I’ve Got to Go,” takes the harp solo and then the song morphs into “It Ain’t Right.” Then there is a slow late night blues instrumental, “Walter & Carey,” on which Bell uses his chromatic harp and allows to the two to play off each other as well as each gets space to display their playing on this lengthy showcase. It is followed by a rendition of “Walking By Myself” with Bell handling the vocal while Horton soars on harp. Bell closes things out on harp with “My Eyes Keep Me in Trouble,” and its strutting vocal with Walter joining in during the performance.
On its own, one would hardly call this disc an essential recording although there is some excellent playing. It sounds like a typical live performance of the period. It makes a convenient supplement to the two CDs of vintage Walter Horton. Walter’s singular blues harmonica voice was stilled in 1981 and the blues world has been poorer ever since, but this set reminds us of how much he was able to extract from the little marine bands he played.
For purposes of FTC regulations, I purchased this CD.