Big Walter Horton was widely regarded as one of the most brilliant and creative musicians ever to play the harmonica. Born near Horn Lake, Mississippi, on April 6, 1921 (the date officially confirmed by Mississippi’s Vital Records office), Horton quit school in the first grade and made his way doing odd jobs and playing harmonica with members of the Memphis Jug Band and other local veterans such as Jack Kelly, Little Buddy Doyle, and Garfield Akers, as well as younger friends including guitarists Johnny Shines, Floyd Jones, and Honeyboy Edwards. Horton and his companions performed in Church Park, W. C. Handy Park, in hotel lobbies, and anywhere else they could earn tips.
Horton began recording for legendary Memphis producer Sam Phillips in 1951. Some of his records appeared under the name of “Mumbles,” and some later discs were credited to “Shakey” Horton – both nicknames (and others he was tagged with as a youngster, including “Tangle Eye” and “Shakey Head”) referred to his physical mannerisms. (Horton was diagnosed with nystagmus, a condition related to eye movement that can result in involuntary head shaking.) Although he often had difficulties in coping with personal and professional business affairs, none of his peers doubted his innate genius on the harmonica or his knowledge of music.
Horton joined the Muddy Waters band in Chicago in 1953. Chicago’s foremost blues producer/songwriter, Willie Dixon, who called Horton “the greatest harmonica player in the world,” began recording him for labels including States, Cobra, and Argo, and hired him to play harmonica on sessions by Otis Rush, Koko Taylor, Jimmy Rogers, and others. Horton also toured and recorded with Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues All Stars, and played on the Fleetwood Mac album “Blues Jam in Chicago.” Full albums of his work appeared on several labels, including Alligator, Chess, and Blind Pig.
Horton, more comfortable as a sideman than as a singer or bandleader, only sporadically worked with his own group, and despite his professional stature, he continued his lifelong tradition of playing the streets for tips, often appearing at Chicago’s Maxwell Street market. He toured internationally, but in Chicago most of his work was in small clubs, often with longtime friends such as Floyd Jones, Honeyboy Edwards, Eddie Taylor, and Sunnyland Slim.
Horton’s playing – sometimes powerful and dramatic, other times delicate and sensitive — left an influence on harmonica masters Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 (Rice Miller), on younger musicians such as Carey Bell, Charlie Musselwhite, and Billy Branch, and on the generations to follow. His technique and tone continue to be studied and emulated by harmonica players around the world. His shy, gentle nature, often hidden beneath a gruff or glum exterior, endeared him to many. The uplifting beauty of Horton’s music contrasted with the sorrows and tragedies of his personal life. He was found dead in a neighbor’s apartment in Chicago on December 8, 1981.
(Bio adapted from Mississippi Blues Trail marker text.)