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
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]
Occupation(s)Musician, singer
Years activeLate 1920s–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]


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. He was playing the harmonica by the time he was five years old.[5][3] In his early teens, he lived in Memphis, Tennessee. 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 some blues researchers have stated that this story was likely to have been fabricated by Horton.

Like many of his peers, he lived on a meager 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. 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][6] 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. He eventually stopped playing the harmonica for a living, because of poor health, and worked mainly outside the music industry in the 1940s.[3] By the early 1950s, he was playing music again. He was among the first to be recorded by Sam Phillips, at Sun Records in Memphis, who later recorded Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. 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".[7][8]

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 play on one session, in January 1953.[3]

Also known as Mumbles and Shakey (because of his head motion while playing the harmonica), 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] He toured extensively, 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.[8]

In October 1968, while touring the U.K., he recorded the album Southern Comfort with the guitarist Martin Stone (previously with the band Savoy Brown and later a member of the band Mighty Baby).[8] 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 best 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] His final recordings were made in 1980.[8]

Horton died of heart failure in Chicago in 1981, at the age of 60,[3][9] and was buried in Restvale Cemetery, in Alsip, Illinois.[10]


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.[11]

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.[12]


Album Artists Label Notes
The Soul of Blues Harmonica Horton Argo 1964
Chicago Blues Horton and Johnny Young Arhoolie Records 1968[13]
Big Walter Horton with Carey Bell with Carey Bell Alligator Records 1972
Walter Shakey Horton with Hot Cottage Stony Plain Records 1974
Fine Cuts 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)[14]
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 Huey, Steve. "Big Walter Horton: Biography". AllMusic. Retrieved May 30, 2009.
  4. ^ Robert Palmer. Deep Blues. Penguin Books. p. 238-9. ISBN 978-0-14-006223-6.
  5. ^ "Big Walter Horton".
  6. ^ 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 proves this wrong.
  7. ^ Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books. pp. 118–119. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Eagle and LeBlanc, p. 193.
  10. ^ Walter "Shakey" Horton.
  11. ^ "Big Walter Horton". Mississippi Blues Trail.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ "Johnny Young & Big Walter". Retrieved October 1, 2014.
  14. ^ "Old Friends". Retrieved September 17, 2014.

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