Walter Horton was, quite simply, one of the most exciting, influential, tasteful, powerful and imaginative harmonica players of all time. He created a unique, fluid style that combined keen precision with a genius for tone, at the same time blending a sure mastery of his instrument with a rare emotional intensity. This quiet, shy man left his mark on dozens of classic Chess recordings that defined the Windy City blues style.
One of the founders of the classic Chicago blues sound, Willie Dixon, had this to say about Horton: "Big Walter is the best harmonica player I ever heard. He can play things on the harmonica that nobody else can. A lot of things that other people think they're creating, he was doing years ago. Big Walter's the one who trained Little Walter. And he taught Sonny Boy. Just about all the best harmonica players you'll find today are students of Big Walter's. For my money, he's the greatest harmonica player in the world."
He was born on April 6, 1917 in Horn Lake, Mississippi. He began teaching himself to play harmonica at age 6, and by age 10 he was playing local dances, picnics, and affairs in and around Memphis. In the late 20's, Horton recorded with the Memphis Jug Band and into the 30's he was a sideman in numerous blues bands touring the South. Around the same time Horton worked juke joint parties and the streets with Homesick James and Honey Boy Edwards, leaving Memphis for a brief time to play the streets of Chicago for tips.
Soon he dropped out of music entirely for nearly a decade until 1949, when he joined the Eddie Taylor band. He did some recording for the Chess and Sun labels in 1952 and 1953. After some urging from Eddie Taylor, Horton set up in Chicago permanently, working frequently with Muddy Waters. It was during this time that Horton established himself as a top studio musician with Chess Records, playing on blues sessions that are now considered classic and historic contributions to the Chicago blues scene. Horton occasionally lead his own groups, but being somewhat of a loner, preferred the role of a sideman. He worked on stage or in the studio with Johnny Shines, Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush, and others.
He was often a featured performer with the Jimmy Rogers band during the 60's. During this time, with the revival of interest in indigenous American music, Horton started appearing at folk and blues festivals in the U.S. and Europe. For 15 years he toured the college concert circuit nationwide, appearing at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival and the Monterey Jazz Festival, along with tours of Europe with Willie Dixon's Blues All Stars. The late 70's found Horton joining up with guitarist John Nicholas to play extensively on the Midwest and East Coast circuits.
In 1977 he recorded his first Blind Pig album, Fine Cuts, backed by Johnny Nicholas' Rhythm Rockers. That same year he also joined Muddy Waters and Johnny Winter on their very successful album, I'm Ready. The critical acclaim from these recordings led John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd to include Horton in their famous "Blues Brothers" movie. Big Walter died in 1981, and the following year he was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall Of Fame.
Walter's second Blind Pig album, Can't Keep Lovin' You, was released in 1984.