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Big Walter Horton

Big Walter Horton (born April 6, 1918  – died December 8, 1981) was an African American blues harmonica player.

Born Walter Horton in Horn Lake, Mississippi, he was playing a harmonica by the time he was five years old. In his early teens, he lived in Memphis, Tennessee where he became part of the a group known as the "Memphis Jug Band". His earliest recordings might have been with the Memphis Jug Band, but because there was little notes on the musicians involved, it's hard to know. His career was marked by existing on a meagre income and living with constant discrimination in a segrated America. For years, he played with blues groups across the southern United States and in the 1940s began playing in Chicago. His first official recordings were made there, during the early 40's. They are mostly accoustic duo with a guitarist, a setup popularized mainly by Sleepy John Estes with his harmonicist Hammie Nixon. On these recordings, Walter's style is not fully constructed, but there are clear hints of what is to come. There is also rumors that he might have taught some harp to Little Walter and even the original Sonny Boy Williamson, but this is probably not true. He eventually stopped playing the harp for a living, due to poor health, and took different jobs. With family and friends he frequently returned to Memphis where, in the early 1950s, he made some of the first recordings for Sam Phillips at Sun Records, who would later record Rock and Roll superstar Elvis Presley and Country giant Johnny Cash.

It is also during the fifties that he came back on the forefront of the Chicago Blues scene as the harmonicist for the Muddy Waters Band. He is featured on some of the best numbers by Waters, both on diatonic harmonica and chromatic harmonica. Big Walter's style had then fully matured. Big Walter is caracterized by his very precise playing, using the full register of the harp (he was probably the first to use the higher notes of the harp with great dexterity). His tone was close to Little Walter's, because he used amplification to bring somme power to his harp, but Big Walter had a more 'lazy' sound, with more flexibility than Little Walter. He also made great use of techniques such as tongue-blocking.

Also known as "Shakey" because of his head motion while playing the harmonica, Horton became part of the Chicago blues scene during the years when blues music gained popularity with white audiences. He toured extensively with a band and in the 1970s he performed at blues and folk festivals in the U.S. and Europe, alone and frequently with Willie Dixon's "Chicago Blues All-Stars." He has also appeared on 70's blues and rock stars album's such as Fleetwood Mac and Johnny Winter. Unfortunatelly, he has never recorded the legendary album that his fans wanted. Some of the best compilations of his work are Mouth-Harp Maestro and Fine Cuts.

A quiet, unassuming man, Big Walter Horton is remembered as one of the most gifted harmonica players in the history of blues music. He passed away in Chicago in 1981 and was buried in the Restvale Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.

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