Big Walter Horton

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Big Walter Horton
Big Walter Horton (public domain).jpg
Background information
Birth nameWalter Horton
Also known asShakey Horton, Mumbles Horton, Tangle Eye, Shakey Head, Mumbles
Born(1921-04-06)April 6, 1921
Horn Lake, Mississippi, U.S.
OriginMemphis, Tennessee
DiedDecember 8, 1981(1981-12-08) (aged 60)
Chicago, Illinois[1]
GenresBlues, Chicago blues
Occupation(s)Musician, singer
Years activeLate 1930s–1981

Walter Horton, better known as Big Walter (Horton) or Walter "Shakey" Horton (April 6, 1921[2] – December 8, 1981) was an American blues harmonica player. A quiet, unassuming, shy man, he is remembered as one of the premier harmonica players in the history of blues.[3] Willie Dixon once called Horton "the best harmonica player I ever heard."[3]

Robert Palmer named him as "one of the three great harmonica soloists of modern blues", with the two others being cited as Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson II.[4] Walter was known for his unique and masterful tongue-blocking techniques and a marvelous fat tone.[5][6]



Horton was born in Horn Lake, Mississippi. He claimed to be born in 1917, but his birth date is often cited as April 6, 1918. Various sources give the year as 1917 or 1921, although it is most likely he was born in 1921.[7][8] He was playing the harmonica by the time he was five years old[5][9] when his father gave him a harmonica as a gift.[3] Horton dropped out of school at the age of seven.[8] In his early teens, he lived in Memphis, Tennessee after moving there with his mother.[3] He claimed that his earliest recordings were done there in the late 1920s with the Memphis Jug Band,[3] but there is no documentation of them, and he would have been around six years old at the time of the recording sessions that took place in 1926, so this was likely fabricated by Horton.[7][10] Some blues researchers agree that this is the case.

Like many of his peers, he lived on a meagre income during much of his career and endured racial discrimination in the racially segregated U.S. In the 1930s he played with numerous blues performers in the Mississippi Delta region.[5] Horton likely spent a short period of time in Chicago in 1938.[11] It is generally accepted that he was first recorded in Memphis, backing the guitarist Little Buddy Doyle on Doyle's recordings for Okeh Records and Vocalion Records in 1939.[3][12] These recordings were acoustic duets, in a style popularized by Sleepy John Estes and his harmonicist Hammie Nixon, among others. On these recordings, Horton's style was not yet fully realized, but there are clear hints of what was to come. Horton had already started playing on the streets for tips and the like. Johnny Shines, a childhood friend of Horton's, said, "I met Walter, really, in 1930, and he would be sitting on the porch, blowing in tin cans, you know, and he'd get sounds out of those things."[13]


Horton eventually stopped playing the harmonica for a living, because of poor health[11] (possibly tuberculosis), and worked mainly outside the music industry in the 1940's.[3] He worked as a cook, ice man, and undertaker.[11][13]

Walter Horton also met and taught harp players James Cotton and Little Walter in the 1940's.[13] By the early 1950s, he was playing music again, the style that Big Walter is known for today started with his recordings in the early 50's, and by this it can be assumed that he had adapted his expertise greatly during the 1940's. He moved to Chicago permanently in 1953 and was among the first to be recorded by Sam Phillips, at Sun Records in Memphis. For his recordings for Sun, Horton was accompanied by the young pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr., who later was a well-known jazz pianist. Horton's instrumental track "Easy", recorded around this time, was based on Ivory Joe Hunter's "I Almost Lost My Mind".[14][15] During the early 1950s he appeared on the Chicago blues scene, frequently playing with Memphis and Delta musicians who had also moved north, including the guitarists Eddie Taylor and Johnny Shines.[3] When Junior Wells left the Muddy Waters band at the end of 1952, Horton replaced him long enough to record on one session in January 1953.[3] Horton was fired from the band by the end of 1953, likely due to his drinking or unreliability,[16][3] and replaced by Henry "Pot" Strong.[17][18]

Also known as "Mumbles",[3][5] "Shakey", along with "Tangle Eye" and "Shakey Head"[8] (because of his head motion while playing the harmonica, along with him suffering from nystagmus),[8][6] Horton was active in the Chicago blues scene during the 1960s, as blues music gained popularity with white audiences. From the early 1960s onward, he recorded and frequently performed as a sideman with Taylor, Shines, Johnny Young, Sunnyland Slim, Willie Dixon and many others.[3] Horton recorded his first solo album in 1964[7] as he was mainly known as a backing musician.

In October 1968, while touring the U.K., he recorded the album Southern Comfort with the guitarist Martin Stone (previously with Savoy Brown and later a member of Mighty Baby).[15] In 1969, Walter recorded "Johnny Shines with Walter Horton", where some of his best third position playing can be heard ("Sneakin' and Hidin' Part 1 and 2"). Along with this, Walter also recorded with Johnny Winters, JB Hutto and the Hawks, Koko Taylor, Fleetwood Mac, and J. L. Smith in 1969.


Horton toured extensively in places such as Germany,[19] Finland,[20] and England. He toured usually as a backing musician and, in the 1970s, he performed at blues and folk music festivals in the United States and Europe, frequently with Dixon's Chicago All-Stars. He also performed on recordings by blues and rock stars, such as Fleetwood Mac and Johnny Winter.[15]

In the late 1970s he toured the United States with Homesick James Williamson, Guido Sinclair, Eddie Taylor, Richard Molina, Bradley Pierce Smith and Paul Nebenzahl, and he performed on National Public Radio broadcasts. Two of the compilation albums of his work are Mouth-Harp Maestro and Fine Cuts. Also notable is the album Big Walter Horton and Carey Bell, released by Alligator Records in 1972.[3]

He worked at blues festivals and often performed at the Maxwell Street market in Chicago.[3] In 1977, he played on the Muddy Waters album I'm Ready, produced by Johnny Winter. He also recorded for Blind Pig Records during this period.[3] Horton accompanied John Lee Hooker in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers.[3] Although in the film his playing is actually overdubbed by Joe Berson as Horton was reportedly undone by the tedious cinematic process of multiple takes and abandoned the set.[21] His final recordings were made in 1980.[15]

Horton died of heart failure in Chicago in 1981, at the age of 60,[3][22] in a neighbor's apartment,[8] and was buried in Restvale Cemetery, in Alsip, Illinois.[23] Walter's death certificate also mentioned acute alcoholism.[6]


Horton was renowned for his innovative contributions to the music of Memphis and Chicago.[6] His technique and tone continue to be studied and emulated by harmonica players around the world and he was heralded as one of the most brilliant and creative musicians ever to play the harmonica.[6][5]

Horton was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1982.[3]

In 2008, Horton was honored with a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail in Horn Lake.[6]

On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Big Walter Horton among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.[24]

Other info[edit]

Walter Horton has a daughter named Christine, who has children herself. Walter also named and recorded a song (in a similar style to 'Louise') for her in his 1970 album 'Big Walter Horton w/ Carey Bell.' [25][7] Walter Horton was known to often tell tall tales,[26] and would give lessons to his admirers. [27][26] Walter Horton would always use Hohner Marine Band harmonicas.[28]


Album Artists Label Notes
The Soul of Blues Harmonica Horton Argo 1964
Chicago Blues Horton and Johnny Young Arhoolie Records 1968[29]
Big Walter Horton with Carey Bell with Carey Bell Alligator Records 1972
Sad and Lonesome Sunnyland Slim, Eddie Shaw, Walter Horton. Jewel 1972
Walter Shakey Horton with Hot Cottage Walter Horton, Hot cottage. Stony Plain Records 1974, recorded in Canada.
Fine Cuts Walter Horton. Blind Pig Records 1977
Old Friends Together for the First Time Horton, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Kansas City Red, Floyd Jones, and Sunnyland Slim Earwig Records 1981 (Horton played harmonica on three tracks)[30]
Big Walter "Shakey" Horton Toronto '73 Horton M.I.L. Multimedia 1998


  1. ^ Sec. J-1, lot 39, grave 5, Restvale Cemetery, Alsip, Illinois. Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons (3d ed.). (Kindle location 22179). McFarland & Company.
  2. ^ Eagle, Bob; LeBlanc, Eric S. (2013). Blues: A Regional Experience. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger. p. 193. According to this source, the year of birth is from Horton's birth certificate.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Huey, Steve. "Big Walter Horton: Biography". AllMusic. Retrieved May 30, 2009.
  4. ^ Robert Palmer (1981). Deep Blues. Penguin Books. p. 238-9. ISBN 978-0-14-006223-6.
  5. ^ a b c d e "Secret History of Chicago Blues" (JPEG). Retrieved April 27, 2021.
  6. ^ a b c d e f "Big Walter Horton". Mississippi Blues Trail.
  7. ^ a b c d "Illustrated Walter Horton discography". Retrieved April 26, 2021.
  8. ^ a b c d e neonadmin. "Big Walter Horton". Blues Foundation. Retrieved April 26, 2021.
  9. ^ "Big Walter Horton".
  10. ^ "Memphis Jug Band - Discography of American Historical Recordings". Retrieved April 26, 2021.
  11. ^ a b c "Big Walter Horton Article From Cascade Blues Society's Blues Notes (February 2000)". Bob Corritore - Official Website. September 21, 2013. Retrieved April 26, 2021.
  12. ^ According to Dixon and Godrich (Recording the Blues, p. 92), the ARC/Vocalion company files list Hammie Nixon as the harmonica player, not Horton, but aural evidence suggests this is incorrect.
  13. ^ a b c "Horton, Walter |". Retrieved April 27, 2021.
  14. ^ Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books. pp. 118–119. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.
  15. ^ a b c d Filisko, Joe (December 9, 2009). "Walter Horton's Recordings" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on July 11, 2011. Retrieved January 16, 2010.
  16. ^ "Big Walter Horton's Shuffle, transcribed by Glenn Weiser". Retrieved April 26, 2021.
  17. ^ "HENRY " POT " STRONG". Retrieved April 26, 2021.
  18. ^ "Muddy Waters' Harmonica Players - a Chronology". Retrieved April 26, 2021.
  19. ^ "(1965) Blues by Big Mama Thornton - Hound Dog and Down Home Shakedown". YouTube. Retrieved April 27, 2021.
  20. ^ "Big Walter Horton & Eddie Taylor - Live in Finland 1976". YouTube. Retrieved April 27, 2021.
  21. ^ "Big Walter Horton: Blues Harp Maestro". April 8, 2018. Retrieved April 26, 2021. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  22. ^ Eagle and LeBlanc, p. 193.
  23. ^ Walter "Shakey" Horton.
  24. ^ Rosen, Jody (June 25, 2019). "Here Are Hundreds More Artists Whose Tapes Were Destroyed in the UMG Fire". The New York Times. Retrieved June 28, 2019.
  25. ^ Editor, ROBERT LEE LONGCommunity. "Horn Lake harmonica player's daughter singing the blues". DeSoto Times-Tribune. Retrieved May 8, 2021.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  26. ^ a b "Big Walter Horton — Blog". Kim Field. Retrieved May 8, 2021.
  27. ^ Peter "Madcat" Ruth's Blues Harmonica Lessons with Big Walter Horton, retrieved May 8, 2021
  28. ^ "Happy Birthday Marine Band – KJ Music". Retrieved May 13, 2021.
  29. ^ "Johnny Young & Big Walter". Retrieved October 1, 2014.
  30. ^ "Old Friends". Retrieved September 17, 2014.

External links[edit]