Harpist Walter Horton was the second of two Walters to grace Muddy Waters band in the 1950's. His recording career began in 1951 in Memphis with some sides for Modern label, continued with his all-time classic cut, Easy, for Sun in 1953, following a landmark session with Johnny Shines a month earlier. After moving to Chicago he spent several months late in 1953 (and one recording session) as a member of Muddy Waters group, taking over for an MP-dodging, AWOL Junior Wells. Later he appeared on sessions with literally just about every first rank Chicago bluesman, and cut several albums as frontman.
Horton had a fat and thick tone, marked by a heavy throat vibrato. His early acoustic sides call to mind Sonny Boy Williamson's work on Trumpet records before he moved north--there's a lot of hand wah-wah effects used. His later amplified work was of the same caliber as the man he claimed to have taught, Little Walter. Debates still are waged over just which Walter it is playing on several sides by both Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers.
Unfortunately Horton was also a heavy duty alcoholic and his latter day live gigs were hit and miss propositions. If he wound up loaded he might often stand rooted to mid-stage, eyes downcast, playing occasional laconic fills over funeral-tempo 12 bar numbers all night long, doing his favorite La Cucuracha at least once every set. Other times he was capable of the flash and power he displayed on earlier recordings.
Luckily this set leans more towards controlled power--its some of the best late career Horton I've heard. Recorded at Minneapolis' Union Bar in January 1979, Horton was backed by Lynwood Slim's band, a trio of journeyman players, anchored by guitarist Robert Bingham. There are 8 tracks here, and 53 minutes of a good night, with a good quality soundboard recording (though just a touch heavy on the reverb). In the seventies the Union Bar was a prime area club--Albert Collins recorded a live album there for Alligator, and one snowy night in March, a then unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan made his local debut--playing his ass off for a crowd of some twenty people.
There are a couple of instrumental pieces here, a set opener and closer titled Union Shuffle, a romp with a loping feel somewhat similar to "Juke". Horton wasn't a great singer, but he sounds fine here. "All Because Of You" is a funky workout built on Ray Charles ground-breaking tune melding gospel and blues--"Lonely Avenue". On the mid-tempo "Come On Little Girl" Horton affects a verse or two with the Wolf-like growl that Sonny Boy Williamson used now and then.
"Mean Mistreater" features some acoustic harp--Walter hits some notes that make you shake your head and grin, and damn, that tone is killer! He reprises his early hit "Little Boy Blue", adding an extended solo, and covers "Shake Your Money Maker". The set closes with a tasty instrumental version of the classic jazz ballad, "Don't Get Around Much Anymore". There are a number of Horton live albums around--this one, cut a spare two years before his death in 1981, is one of the better ones.
Available from Bluebeat Music in California, (831) 338-4784.
This review is copyright © 1999 by Tony Glover, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.