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Big Walter Horton

Big Walter “Shakey” Horton - Blues harmonica, vocalist (1918 - 1981)

Walter Horton, also known as Big Walter or Shakey Horton,is counted among the best blues harp players. He is also considered by many to have had the best tone of any Chicago harp player.

Horton was born in Horn Lake, Mississippi in 1918, got his first harmonica from his father when he five, and won a local talent contest with it. Shortly thereafter his mother moved to Memphis, then a hotbed of blues, and according to blues researcher Samuel Charters, Horton was playing with the Memphis Jug Band by the time he was nine or ten. He also may have recorded with them in 1927 as he himself claimed- two of their sides issued that year list "Shakey Walter" as the harp player.

During the thirties he played with Robert Johnson, Honeyboy Edwards, and others, and later gave pointers to both Little Walter and Rice Miller. His first verifiable sides were done in 1939. In the late forties he went to Chicago, but later returned to Memphis to record for Modern/RPM and Sun. Of these sessions, the 1953 instrumental “Easy,” based on Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Almost Lost My Mind,” became a hit.

By now Horton had become one of the best harp players anywhere. His tone was incredible-he could make the harmonica sound like a trombone at times. He also had a wonderful sense of phrasing. "You could tell it was Big Walter all the way down the street (from the club) when he was playing," Jerry Portnoy told me. "He would create these tensions and then hang a long note out there that would just kill you."

Following the success of "Easy," Horton went back to Chicago to play with Eddie Taylor. But when Junior Wells got drafted, Horton took his place in Muddy Waters’ band. It didn’t last long, though-Horton showed up drunk at a rehearsal and Muddy fired him. He did do some recording later with Muddy nonetheless. Big Walter worked mostly as a sideman. Always described as shy and nervous, he preferred this role to that of a bandleader. His playing graces numerous records behind Johnny Shines, Johnny Young, Sunnyland Slim, Otis Rush, Koko Taylor, and others. He also taught a number of younger players, including Charlie Musselwhite, Madcat Ruth, and Carey Bell.

By the 1970’s he was working folk and blues festivals, often with Willie Dixon's Chicago Blues All Stars. In 1972 he teamed up with Carey Bell and recorded some duets with him for Alligator. The 1980 movie The Blues Brothers featured him in a cameo among the Maxwell Street musicians. He died in 1981.

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