‘Blues for Big Walter’ Album Review

 “When Big Walter played the blues fell all over you” ~ Sam Phillips, Sun Records & Sun Studio, Memphis, Tennessee

Blues For Big Walter on EllerSoul Records is an eclectic grab-bag of tribute interpretations of some of Big Walter Horton’s most memorable songs.  The iconic legend of blues harmonica, and perhaps the most influential, is saluted by some of today’s top practitioners of the blues harp.

Walter Horton was born April 1917 in Horn Lake, Mississippi. His mother moved to nearby Memphis, TN shortly thereafter. Walter received a harmonica from his father as a gift at the age of five years old. He was self-taught and practiced long and hard, eventually playing for tips in Handy Park at Beale Street and Third Street. At the tender age of twelve Walter was performing and recording sides with the Memphis Jug Band. MJB founder Will Shade, along with Hammie Nixon (best known as sideman to Sleepy John Estes) traded harp technical tips and tricks with Horton.

Horton survived during the Great Depression by performing wherever he could (house parties, dances, juke joints, fish fries, street corners) and doing small jobs to get by. He later joined the touring bands of Big Joe Williams and Ma Rainey. He first recorded as a sideman for Little Buddy Doyle in 1939 and twelve years later made his own recording debut for Sam Phillips under the pseudonym “Mumbles.” Horton also recorded studio sides using the nickname “Shakey.” He alternated between Memphis and Chicago. Robert Lockwood’s “Little Boy Blue” and his own “Walter’s Blues” were some early recording highlights.

According to accounts by Horton himself, he began experimenting with amplification of his mouth harp somewhere around 1940, making him, along with contemporaries “Little Walter” Jacobs and Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller), early pioneers of this procedure. Big Walter achieved big, fat, full, saxophone-like notes on his harp along with matchless vibrato, creating a unique, fluid style that fused blues feeling with an uplifting jazzlike tone.

Many of Big Walter’s pinnacle performances came as an accompanist for Johnny Shines, Jimmy Rogers, Tampa Red, Otis Rush, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters, to name a select few. He was a sideman for Chess Records and other labels, and performed and toured the U.S.A. and Europe with Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues All-Stars. Horton died in Chicago on December 8, 1981, leaving behind a lasting legacy while helping secure the sacred importance of harmonica as a significant sound of the blues tradition. Big Walter Horton was posthumously inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1982.  

“Blues For Big Walter is a project that I’ve wanted to do for some time now. Get together some great friends/blues harmonica players and pay respect to one of the all time greats, Big Walter Horton. Big Walter has been a major influence on all of the great players of my generation and beyond. We want to do our part in spreading the blues gospel of Walter Horton. Some people, including the legendary Willie Dixon, said he was “the best he ever heard,” and he’d heard and worked with all the greats. This is a non-profit project with proceeds going to charity. Everyone involved is donating music for the cause. We’re very excited about the record and are so grateful for the stellar lineup that is involved. We have the great Kim Wilson with Big Jon Atkinson, Mark Wenner, Mark Hummel, Steve Guyger, Sugar Ray Norica, Bob Corritore on tracks with Jimmy Rogers and Robert Lockwood, Kurt Crandall and yours truly (Li’l Ronnie). I hope we get to do a Volume II because they’re so many great players that we couldn’t get on this one CD.” ~ Li’l Ronnie Owens

Li’l Ronnie Owens served as producer for Blues For Big Walter and the charities that he was referring to in the above quotes were The Blues Foundation and Hart Fund (Handy Artists Relief Trust).  The mission of the Blues Foundation is relatively stated as THE organization whose mission is to preserve blues heritage, celebrate blues recording and performance, expand worldwide awareness of the blues, and ensure the future of this uniquely American art form. The H.A.R.T. Fund project was created to help Blues musicians and their families who are struggling in the midst of dire financial need.

Li’l Ronnie has been involved in the blues revival scene since his teens, backing up blues legends John Lee Hooker and Taj Mahal and fronting his own bands for over a quarter century. Li’l Ronnie serves up three key songs on the record; two that include his soulful vocals. All three songs display his impressive prowess on blues harp. “We’re Gonna Move To Kansas City” is my favorite of the three, and one of the finest songs on the collection. Big Bill Broonzy once remarked that Charlie Jackson’s “I’m Gonna Move To Kansas City” was the first big blues record according to Alan Lomax’s book “The Land Where Blues Began.” Most blues historians credit the song to Jim Jackson, but those early songs were passed along by word of mouth, with lyrics ever-changing, so it’s always hard to tell. Regardless, Li’l Ronnie does a marvelous version with a barbed vocal that imparts the chorus “We’re gonna move to Kansas City, baby, where they don’t love you.” Li’l Ronnie is ably assisted on the song by Ivan Appelrouth and Gordon Harrower on guitars, Clark Stern on piano, Todd Woodson on drums, and Tod Ellsworth on bass. This group, with Li’l Ronnie leading the way on vocals and harp, rolls along like The Kansas City Southern steaming on down the tracks. “Need My Baby” is another song with a nice rolling tempo with the same musical personnel as “Kansas City,” and includes very fine piano tinkling accompaniment by Stern. The instrumental “Think Big” closes the record with Li’l Ronnie on harp on this furious live performance from the Canal Club back in November of 2009. “Think Big” also had appeared on Li’l Ronnie and The Grand Dukes release Young And Evil in 2001, and has that Chess Records/Big Walter feel down pat with Li’l Ronnie’s harp howling like a bloodhound closing in on the prey.

Austin, Texas based Kim Wilson, best known for his great work with The Fabulous Thunderbirds, opens the recording puffing the harp like a wild, mocking wind on the song “Someday.” Rising young blues star Big Jon Atkinson offers a marvelous vocal and teams with Danny Michael for enjoyable guitar work interaction complementing Wilson’s fiery harp. Kim Wilson is one of my favorite current blues harp virtuosos, as he seems to always deliver the goods.

Mark Hummel grew up in L.A. and has toured extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe building his reputation as one of the finest harp players of his generation.  He has long been one of the top West Coast blues harp masters alongside names like Paul DeLay, Rick Estrin, and Rod Piazza. On this release he skillfully covers two of Big Walter Horton’s most memorable songs:  “Hard Hearted Woman” and “Easy.” Hummel provides a quality vocal and forceful blues harp to “Hard Hearted Woman” while guitarists Sue Foley and Shorty Lenoir unite with Hummel’s chordal cascading harmonica on the ever popular Horton instrumental “Easy,” which sometimes is termed Big Walter’s signature song.

Bob Corritore grew up in Chicago and has been playing harmonica since age twelve after hearing Muddy Waters on the radio. Bob played his harp on Maxwell Street before becoming old enough to sneak into the blues clubs. He hung around with and gathered pointers from The Windy City’s eminent harmonica players, including Big Walter Horton. Corritore has recorded, as well as, produced lots of albums. For Blues For Big Walter, Corritore reaches back into his musical vaults for a marvelous pair of Big Walter tributes. The first is from 1992, the Chicago blues romp “She Loves Another Man,” featuring the much celebrated Jimmy Rogers providing his attractive light baritone vocals and guitar stylings. Rogers was most famous for his groundbreaking work with Muddy Waters’ first Chicago band (nicknamed the Headcutters or Headhunters) and was inducted in the Blues Hall of Fame in 1995. The second number Corritore dispenses is from 2001, a bone-chilling rendition of “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” written by Robert Johnson with the late Robert Lockwood Jr. on vocal and guitar. Bob Corritore supplies stellar harmonica accompaniment on this pair of engaging homages. 

Sugar Ray Norcia provides Blues For Big Walter with a key cornerstone performance with his energetic eighteen minute plus medley. “That Ain’t It,” “Walter’s Boogie,” Everybody’s Fishing,” “I Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” and “Blueberry Hill” comprise the wonderful tribute pastiche offered up by Sugar Ray and his backing band for almost four decades; The Bluetones. The Bluetones consist of Sugar Ray on vocals and harp, “Monster” Mike Welch on guitar, Anthony Geraci on keyboards, Neil Gouvin on drums, and Michael “Mudcat” Ward on bass. On the medley, Sugar Ray and the Bluetones prove clearly capable of grabbing ahold of the listener’s attention and sustaining it, as they shift from one great song to the next. These five consummate blues players are masters of the idiom, and Sugar Ray sings with a quaking passionate abandon and plays his harp with exquisite tone and phrasing, lit up like a mid-summer Mississippi moon.

Although Steve Guyger has toured with the late great Jimmy Rogers, recorded and played alongside Paul Oscher, rubbed elbows with many of the great Chicago bluesmen and contemporary players, still he remains one of the best kept secrets in the blues. Here, he performs the Jimmy Rogers Chess Records classic “If It Ain’t Me” and the slow country blues of “Little Boy Blue,” both with sparse arrangements showingwhy he has earned his place alongside the other great blues harp masters on this record.

Mark Wenner co-founded The Nighthawks in 1972 along with guitarist Jimmy Thackery. The Nighthawks have always remained a hard-touring band with numerous recordings who helped open many doors and forged many touring routes for their contemporaries, including the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray. On Blues For Big Walter Wenner plays two venerable blues standards in his own inimitable style. The first is the Big Maceo Merriweather composition “Worried Life Blues. Merriweather recorded the side for Bluebird Records, a RCA Victor subsidiary, with guitarist Tampa Red in 1941. The combination of Maceo on piano and Tampa Red on guitar was constantly a potent combo. On Wenner’s interpretation, his vocal is more Delta authentic than Eric Clapton’s well-known version of the song. Unlike Clapton’s guitar-centric take, Wenner’s translation leaves no doubt that the harmonica is the song’s lead instrument.  Most of the same musicians who backed Li’l Ronnie on his Big Walter tributes appear alongside Wenner (Appelrouth, Harrower, Stern, and Woodson). Wenner’s second contribution is Jimmy Roger’s “Walkin’ By Myself” which chugs along with Wenner’s blues harp fluttering like a hummingbird. Gordon Harrower ably handles the vocal as well as bass guitar on this blues classic.

“I have heard cats from a dozen or more countries play great blues. I think it is almost a universal language” – Mark Wenner

Johnny Shine’s “Evening Shuffle” is taken for a lively spin by Andrew Alli on harmonica. Todd Ellsworth does a stand-up job on stand-up bass and the vocal is uncredited in the liner notes. Alli also covers “Easy” at a more-leisurely pace adding plenty of vibrato on his harp with the bare-bones accompaniment of only Ivan Appelrouth on guitar to allow Alli the spotlight.

“Much of my playing style is rooted in his music. I can’t think of any other way to pay my respects to this legend then play a couple of his tunes along side the biggest names in blues harmonica today.” ~ Andrew Alli

As it should, the harmonica dominates this album.  Lovers of blues guitar may object to the high harmonica quotient here; but for the scores of fans of blues harmonica Blues For Big Walter will prove about as popular as the punch bowl at a barn dance.