Song Lines: Walter Horton’s recordings of ‘If It Ain’t Me / Baby I Need Your Love / I Need Your Love / That Ain’t It

April 2021 marks the centennial of Walter Horton’s birth (April 06, 1921).

While not as celebrated as Little Walter or either of the two Sonny Boys, this has less to do with any perceived lack of musicianship and more to do with Horton’s being best known for his work as a sideman, enhancing and elevating other peoples’ work. 

It was originally believed that Horton was born in 1917 (the date most likely provided by Horton himself); he also claimed to be the harmonica player listed as “Shakey Walter” on four 1927 recordings by the Memphis Jug Band.  This would have proved quite impressive for a ten-year old, but simply astounding for a six-year-old!

Needless to say, he did not play on those recordings.

He did cut ten tracks (six seeing release) backing Little Buddy Doyle in 1939, but it wasn’t until 1951 that he went back into the studio; he cut at least one unissued instrumental at Sun Studios, and a month later recorded another six titles with two tracks seeing release on the Modern label under the name “Mumbles”.   Another two songs from a later session came out on the RPM label. 

For the next few years his studio work was as a session player, playing with Willie Nix and Johnny Shines. 

In 1953 he replaced Junior Wells in Muddy Waters’ band, which also lead to a long association with Willie Dixon.  When Dixon briefly left Chess, Horton joined him on sessions for the United, ABCO, Cobra and U.S.A. labels.  When Dixon returned to the Chess fold, so did Horton; his first LP, “Soul of Blues Harmonica” was released on the Chess subsidiary label Argo in 1964, credited to Shakey Horton.

He would only release a handful of LPs under his own name, after that until his passing in 1981.

In 1956, during his time at Chess Records, Horton played on two sessions with Jimmy Rogers; the first produced ‘Walking by Myself’ which is remembered now mainly for Horton’s harp work.

The B-side, ‘If It Ain’t Me (Who You Thinking Of)’ would provide Horton with a signature number that he would record in a variety of settings and under a confusing array of titles over the years

Jimmy Rogers – If It Ain’t Me (Who You Thinking Of) –

Along with Rogers and Horton, the backing band features Otis Spann at the piano, Robert Lockwood Jr. on second guitar, Willie Dixon on bass and drummer A.J. Gladney. 

This is classic post-war Chicago blues, (not surprising as Rogers helped define the sound as a member of Muddy Waters’ band) with Horton taking the solo.

While on tour in Germany in 1965 with the American Folk Blues Festival, Horton was informally recorded performing a few songs at a house party; one of the songs he sang was ‘If It Ain’t Me (Who You Thinking Of)’.  It was titled ‘Baby, I Need Your Love’ when it was released in 1989 on “Solo Harp”, which paired Horton’s numbers with home recordings from 1963 by Sonny Boy Williamson II. 

Horton was touring England with the 1968 line-up of the American Folk Blues Festival when he agreed to take an afternoon to cut an LP with British guitarist Martin Stone (Stone’s Masonry, Savoy Brown) along with tour mates bassist Jerome Arnold (ex-Butterfield Blues Band) and drummer Jessie “J.C.” Lewis (Otis Rush).

The story behind the session is that Horton wasn’t happy with the way that it was going and drank himself into a stupor before they had enough material for an LP, even with Arnold taking the lead vocal on one track and Lewis singing two.

Reduced to a trio, Stone and the rhythm section jammed until they felt they had filled enough time to pad out the LP; with wah-wah set to stun, and much backward guitar playing in post-production, the end result was a twelve-minute psychedelic raga titled ‘Netti Netti’ that, regardless of your patience for such things, was ridiculously out of place with the rest of the LP.

I like what they do with the arrangement here, with the rhythm section transforming a land yacht of a vehicle into a sleek and speedy muscle car; that said, the post production application of excessive reverb on Horton’s vocal are a garish paint job making it difficult to appreciate the beauty of the ride. 

Southern Comfort – If It Ain’t Me, Babe –

Horton was in a similar situation just a few months later, in the early days of January 1969 when he joined the ensemble assembled for Fleetwood Mac’s “Blues Jam in Chicago”.

The band here consisted of Fleetwood Mac members Peter Green and Danny Kirwan on guitars and John McVie on bass joined by Otis Spann (who, like Horton, played on Rogers original) at the piano and S.P. Leary behind the drums.

Impatient to just play, Leary joins Mike Vernon in attempting to get Horton to at least supply a count-in or at least cue the others as to when to start.  It takes just over a minute, but once they begin, it is all hands on deck to steer the number safely to port.

The first break is an adrenaline pumping lesson in precision playing as Green stands his ground, Horton blows a storm, Leary pounds out fills and paradiddles and Spann’s right hand stitches the disparate elements into a cohesive whole.

Big Walter Horton w/ Fleetwood Mac – (False Starts – 1:06) I Need Your Love (Take 2) –

A few weeks later, (the session is simply dated “January 1969) Horton was back in the studio with Johnny Shines, a musician with whom he had worked many times before. 

Unlike the previous two versions, the arrangement here has been slowed to a crawl, allowing Horton to take his time with not only the vocal but also his harp work.  Shines sits this one out and a young Luther Allison is a bit busy on guitar, bringing Buddy Guy to mind, but Horton will not be rushed, turning in a fine performance –

Johnny Shines with Big Walter Horton – If It Ain’t Me –

Six months later, in July of 1969, Horton and Shines were among the members of The Chicago Blues All Stars, a group put together by Willie Dixon; in addition to Horton, Shines and Dixon, Sunnyland Slim provided and piano and vocals and the band was anchored by Clifton James on drums.

They recorded an LP while in Cologne, Germany for the MPS label, “Loaded With the Blues”

The arrangement here seems a cross between Rogers’ original and the one recorded in Chicago with Fleetwood Mac. 

As on the latter, the piano changes the number dramatically.  Also welcome is Shines’ guitar work during the break.  To my ears, this is Horton’s best vocal on the four versions here.

Chicago Blues All Stars – Baby, I Need Your Love –

Horton’s performance of the song at the 1970 American Folk Blues Festival, under the title ‘That Ain’t It’ was commercially released, and the same title was used on his 1972 Alligator release “Big Walter Horton with Carey Bell”

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