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Big Walter “Shakey” Horton

Big Walter “Shakey” Horton in the key of A) as with the more

standard cross harp (D harp in the key
(b Apr 6, 1917 - d May 1981)
of A). He did not do much with
Chicago-style harmonica and vocals chromatic harmonicas. Although Big
Big Walter “Shakey” Horton is one of the Walter could play in the style of other
all-time great blues harp (harmonica) harp players (and was often asked to do
players. Along with Little Walter, Horton so), he has no credible imitators. He is
defined modern amplified Chicago-style one of a kind.
harmonica. There is no harp player (and Walter Horton was born in Horn Lake,
that includes Little Walter) with Horton's Mississippi (April 6, 1917), but his
big tone and spacious sense of time. mother soon moved to Memphis where
Horton (who is said to have been Walter taught himself how to play the
somewhat shy) was not a natural group harp (harmonica) at five years of age.
leader and therefore has produced few He later learned more about his
solo albums. His best work is as a instrument by working with harp players
sideman; his backup harmonica and Will Shade and Hammie Nixon.
virtuoso harp solos have graced many
In the late 1920s, he performed and
great Chicago blues recordings --
recorded with the Memphis Jug Band
turning an otherwise good cut into a
(1927) and generally worked the
dynamite jam.
Southern dance and juke-joint circuit as
Walter is the master of the single note well as Memphis street corners. Horton
and his characteristic walking base line moved to Chicago in the late 1940s, but
(usually with a deep tone and selection was often to be found back in Memphis
of notes that is unsurpassed) is instantly for recording dates with Sun and
recognizable. As an accompanist, he Modern/RPM labels. He claimed to be
has few equals. His backup harp is blowing amplified harp as early as 1940,
always unobtrusive yet bright and fresh - which would make him the first. Johnny
- enhancing whatever else is going on. Shines recalls that Sonny Boy
Give Big Walter a chance to solo and Williamson (Rice Miller) user to come to
you are in for some of the most tasteful Walter for lessons. He also says that he
lines Chicago-style harp has ever used the name “Little Walter” before the
produced. He made a specialty of Little Walter Jacobs did, but gave it up
playing entire tunes (often in blues style) to Jacobs. Jacobs acknowledges that he
on the harmonica (“La Cucuracha,” “ran” with Big Walter in Memphis during
“Careless Love,” “I Almost Lost My the 1940s. Horton later called himself
Mind,” etc). This might sound trite, but “Big Walter” to distinguish himself. The
give them a listen. You’ll see. term “Shakey” came from the way he
As for harmonicas, he used Hohner’s moved his head while playing.
Marine Band. He was just as
comfortable playing first position (A harp
Big Walter “Shakey” Horton

He recorded four sides in 1951 for the albums, but this is not what has made
Modern/RPM label under the name Walter a legend. Here is what has:
“Mumbles,” but was not fond of that The recording of “Easy” with guitarist
moniker. It was not until 1953 that he Jimmy DeBerry (recorded by Sam
really left Memphis and relocated to Philips of Sun Records in the early
Chicago to work as a sideman with his fifties) is a striking harp instrumental that
friend Eddie Taylor. He soon joined the remains unrivaled for sheer power. For
Muddy Waters band (replacing Junior a superb example of Big Walter playing
Wells, who had been drafted into the behind Muddy Waters (and soloing), try
military) and played with Muddy for the cut “Mad Love (I Want You to Love
about a year. Me)” that was recorded in 1953. Walter
Over the next years, Horton worked with also plays on the classic Jimmy Rogers’
Chicago blues artists such as Johnny tune “Walking by Myself,” on the Otis
Shines, Jimmy Rogers, and Otis Rush -- Rush tune “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” and
both in the Chicago blues clubs and at many others. Also hear great Walter on
record studios. He recorded with Chess, the Flyright album “Johnny Shines &
Cobra, and States throughout the Robert Lockwood,” “Joe Hill Louis: The
1950s. During the 1960s, Horton Be-bop Boy” on Bear Family, “Memphis
continued to work with Jimmy Rogers, Harmonica 1951- 1954” on Sun, and
Shines, Tampa Red, Big Mama “The Blues Came Down from Memphis”
Thornton, Robert Nighthawk, Johnny on Charly. This last album contains the
Young, and Howlin’ Wolf. In the 1970s, incredible instrumental, “Easy.”.
Walter was active in the blues clubs, in Walter’s singing is seldom mentioned
recording studios, and also began to except in an apologetic way. This is
appear at blues and folk festivals -- something I have never understood. I
primarily with Willie Dixon’s Blues All- love to hear Walter sing and his singing
Stars. He died in Chicago on Dec. 8, style has all the elements of his harp
1981 and was inducted into the Blues playing, in particular, sincerity and
Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1982. (above all) humor. Make a point to listen
While his early acoustic recordings in to some Big Walter songs like “Need My
Memphis (1951-1954) are excellent, it is Baby,” “Everybody’s Fishin’,”and “Have
the recordings from the late 50s and a Good Time.” They are priceless. His
mid-sixties that are unrivaled. When original recording of “Hard Hearted
Horton’s music is discussed in print, Woman” on the album “Chicago Blues --
often the reference is to his later albums the Early Fifties” (Blues Classics) never
on Blind Pig (“Can’t Keep Lovin’ You” fails to raise the hair on the back of my
and “Fine Cuts”) and Alligator (“Big neck. His hard-to-find first album for
Walter Horton with Carey Bell). I don’t Chess is “The Soul of Blues Harmonica”
want to take anything away from these is also worth a listen, although not
Big Walter “Shakey” Horton

But if you want to hear Walter at his harmonica solos mark a high point in his
best, pick up the Vanguard CD career. A must hear.
“Chicago/The Blues/Today!, Volume 3” (1 star) Live at the El Mocambo --
and listen to the music Walter lays Recorded at the El Mocambo Club in
down. Both as backup harp and in Toronto on July 25, 1973, this is not
solos, this is not only classic Big Walter, vintage Horton.
but Chicago blues at its finest -- not to
be missed. The music on this album is (4 stars) Horton -- Memphis
incredible -- Horton’s contrapuntal Recordings 1951 -- These are the
backup harp seems to float in the Modern/Cobra masters --seventeen cuts
background, loping along, always from the sessions Walter did with Sam
stretching and opening up the time. And Philips in 1951, including several
Horton's taste in notes and depth of tone alternate takes.. This is mostly great
is unparalleled in the history of amplified acoustic harp, but it does contain the
Chicago-style Harmonica. As Willie songs “Have a Good Time,” and “Need
Dixon says: “Big Walter is the best My Baby” with Walter playing amplified
harmonica player I ever heard.” I agree. harp -- and great songs and solos these
He was the man. are! Worth finding.

(3 stars) Horton -- Soul of Blues (4 stars) Horton -- Mouth Harp

Harmonica Maestro/Ace -- These sixteen cuts are
from the Sam Philips recordings from
Big Walter’s first album and with an all the early 1950s. Features Walter on
star cast -- Buddy Guy (g), Jack Myers
acoustic harp. Contains many of the
(b), Willie Dixon (v), and Willie Smith (d). same cuts on the Kent/Crown album,
Although not definitive, this album is but lacks the amplified songs given
worth seeking out for Horton fans. It there.
features Walter in a variety of musical
styles, including a good rendition of (3 stars) Horton -- Can’t Keep Lovin’
“Hard Hearted Woman” and a wild You -- Probably from the mid-seventies,
version of “La Cucuracha” this is later Horton, with John Nicholas
on guitar and Ron Levy on piano. The
(5 Stars) Chicago/The Blues/Today!, album features a variety of material,
Vol. 3 including a good version of “Hard
One of the all-time great blues albums. Hearted Woman.” Not vintage, but worth
Period. It features Big Walter with the a listen.
Johnny Shines Blues Band, the Johnny (4 stars) Horton -- Fine Cuts -- This is
Young South Side Blues Band, and Big perhaps the best of the later Horton
Walter Horton’s Blues Harp Band (with material from the late 1970s when he
Charlie Musselwhite). The timing and was working with John Nicholas. Horton
sense of musical spaciousness is reworks many of his earlier classics
incredible. Walter’s backup harp and including “Everybody’s Fishin’,” “Need
Big Walter “Shakey” Horton

My Baby,” and “La Cucaracha.” Not as record under his own name. Includes
riviting as the originals, but any Big the definitive recording of the classic
Walter is worth a listen. Walter tune “Hard Hearted Woman.”
(3 stars) An Offer You Can’t -- Michael Erlewine
Refuse/Red Lightin -- An album
released on the Red Lighnin label in
1972 consisting of one side of Big
Walter Horton and the other side with
very early Paul Butterfield (1963) (See:
Paul Butterfield).
The Horton side consists of eight tracks
of Horton with guitarist Robert
Nighthawk (no bass or drums).
Nighthawk is playing pure backup here,
very little else. It is not clear when these
were recorded. Perhaps not classic
Walter, but any Big Walter is worth a
listen. There are three instrumentals that
make for good listening, including a
version of “Easy” (not up to the original
Walter recording). The instrumental
“West Side Blues” has some interesting
Walter harp licks that I have not heard
elsewhere. The other five cuts are
Walter singing. Of these, there is a great
version of “Louise” and Walter singing
“Tin Pan Alley” which never fails to raise
the hair on the back of my neck. If you
can find this album, it is good to have.
(4 stars) Harmonical Blues Kings: Big
Walter-Alfred Harris/ Pearl Pl-12 -- Six
cuts (one side) of an album shared with
Alfred Harris. This is very early amplified
Walter, recorded in the fall of 1954 for
the black-owned United/States labels.
On four of cuts, Big Walter is playing
backup harp and solos for singer
Tommy Brown; the other two cuts
represent Big Walter’s first Chicago