Walter Horton, better known as Big Walter (Horton) or Walter “Shakey” Horton (April 6, 1921 – December 8, 1981) was an American blues harmonica player. A quiet, unassuming, shy man, he is remembered as one of the premier harmonica players in the history of blues. Willie Dixon once called Horton “the best harmonica player I ever heard.”
Horton was born in Horn Lake, Mississippi. He claimed to be born in 1917, but his birth date is often cited as April 6, 1918. Various sources give the year as 1917 or 1921. He was playing the harmonica by the time he was five years old. In his early teens, he lived in Memphis, Tennessee. He claimed that his earliest recordings were done there in the late 1920s with the Memphis Jug Band, but there is no documentation of them, and some blues researchers have stated that this story was likely to have been fabricated by Horton.
Like many of his peers, he lived on a meager income during much of his career and endured racial discrimination in the racially segregated U.S. In the 1930s he played with numerous blues performers in the Mississippi Delta region. It is generally accepted that he was first recorded in Memphis, backing the guitarist Little Buddy Doyle on Doyle’s recordings for Okeh Records and Vocalion Records in 1939. These recordings were acoustic duets, in a style popularized by Sleepy John Estes and his harmonicist Hammie Nixon, among others. On these recordings, Horton’s style was not yet fully realized, but there are clear hints of what was to come. He eventually stopped playing the harmonica for a living, because of poor health, and worked mainly outside the music industry in the 1940s.