Big Walter Horton

What you’re hearin’ right there is one of the very first songs recorded at Sun Studios. Sun Studios, of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison fame, of course. But that incredible, aching sound is none other than Big Walter “Shakey” Horton. One of the greatest harmonica players of all time. Sam Phillips, founder of Sun, said it best “When Big Walter played, the blues fell all over you.”  So who was Big Walter? Let’s hear about him from another great harp player, Charlie Musselwhite.

He was from Memphis.  Actually, he was from Mississippi but grew up around Memphis,  Walter was the kind of guy that to entertain himself he was always putting everybody on with a straight face.  He’d just tell you whatever he thought was funny to himself as the absolute truth.  He was a great harp player.  To me, he was the first harp player that really stepped away from being just another harp blower and became a player.  He could play anything.  He would play big band swing era tunes like String of Pearls and In the Mood and stuff like that.  I once heard him playing on a chromatic what sounded to me like the Vienna Waltz or something, classical sort of stuff, and I don’t know what it was.  And I was afraid to ask him, because I knew he wouldn’t give me the right answer.  He told me that he taught Sonny Boy Williamson II, Rice Miller, and Little Walter, and I used to think, sure, okay, Shaky, I’ll believe you.  But over the years, more and more people that I knew that had known Walter in Memphis when he was growing up all said that it was true, that Sonny Boy and Little Walter came to Memphis to meet Shaky Walter to learn how to play, because he was the harp player. – Charlie Musselwhite



(April 6, 1918 – December 8, 1981)

Walter Horton, also known as Big Walter and Shakey Horton, was born April 6, 1918 in Horn Lake, Mississippi. Having taught himself to play harmonica at 5 years old, he got his moniker, “Shakey,” from the way he moved his head as he played. As a young man he relocated to Memphis, where he played among the Beale street set. Dubbed by Willie Dixon as possibly the greatest Harmonica player he ever heard, legend has it that Big Walter gave lessons to Sonny Boy Williamson II and even taught harp master Little Walter, to whom he gave up his name.

Big Walter’s first recordings were made in 1939, backing guitarist Little Buddy Doyle. He was also among the first to be recorded by Sam Philips for Sun Studios. Phillips is the one who famously said “When Big Walter played the blues fell all over you.” Soon he moved to Chicago where he worked with other legends of Chicago blues.

Big Walter was known for being able to play almost anything on the harp—from big toned blues, to classical waltzes. You can hear his impeccable sense of time on iconic tracks like Otis Rush’s “I Cant Quit You Baby” and Jimmy Rogers’ “Walkin’ By Myself.” Look for him accompanying John Lee Hooker in the classic Blues Brother’s scene.

Big Walter passed away in 1981.