Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
BLUES FOR BIG WALTER
ER 1601-025 (2016)
By Pierre Lacocque
Featuring Kim Wilson (track 1), Mark Wenner (tracks 3, 11); Sugar Ray Norcia (track 8); Bob Corritore (tracks 2, 15); Mark Hummel (tracks 5, 10); Steve Guyger (tracks 4, 12); Li’l Ronnie Owens (tracks 7, 13 & 16); Andrew Alli (tracks 9, 14), Kurt Crandall (track 6)
1). Someday, 3:29; 2). She Loves Another Man, 3:23;
3). Worried Life, 3:31; 4). If It Ain’t Me, 4:02;
5). Hard Hearted Woman, 4:29; 6). Great Shakes, 4:42;
7). We’re Gonna Move To Kansas City, 4:12; 8). Sugar Ray’s Medley, 18:47; 9). Evening Shuffle, 3:07;
10). Easy, 4:24; 11). Walking By Myself, 2:28; 12). Little Boy Blue, 4:37; 13). Need My Baby, 3:29; 14). Easy II, 3:14; 15). Rambling On My Mind, 3:13; 16). Think Big, 3:59.
Total Time: 76:00
Produced by Ronnie Owens (CD graphic design also).
Executive Producer: H. Watkins Ellerson
Recorded in various studios and/or live settings in the USA, and two abroad (Steve Guyger’s “If It Ain’t Me”, in Finland; and Kurt Crandall “Great Shakes”, in The Netherlands).
This is a non-for-profit project. Everyone donated his or her talent free of charge. Proceeds are given to The Blues Foundation and its Handy Artists Relief Fund (H.A.R.T). The H.A.R.T. Fund project was created to help Blues musicians and their families who are in dire financial need.
"When Big Walter played, the blues fell all over you."
(Recorded Big Walter Horton in the early 50's)
"Big Walter is the best harmonica player I ever heard."
In 2008 we had the pleasure of welcoming Dennis Gruenling’s tribute CD to Little Walter, Just Keep Lovin' Him (BackBender Records, BBR 708V), with various world-class artists performing on it like Kim Wilson, Rick Estrin, Steve Guyger, and Dennis Gruenling himself.
This time around, we get to listen to an exciting homage to one of the greatest Chicago blues harp Masters ever: Big Walter Horton [BWH] (b. April 6th, 1921 Horn Lake, MS; d. at age 60 due to heart failure on December 8th, 1981, Chicago, IL). BWH was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame posthumously in 1982.
Nine seasoned harp players contribute one or more songs. Sometimes three as in the case of Lil’ Ronnie Owens. These harp players are among the best in the world today (Kim Wilson, Mark Hummel, Bob Corritore, Sugar Ray Norcia, Steve Guyger, Mark Wenner, Li’l Ronnie Owens, Kurt Crandall and Andrew Alli). Some in that list may be lesser known but they are no less stellar.
What is obvious to the discerning ear is that these harmonica players did serious woodshedding. Just listen to the wonderful Sugar Ray Norcia’s “Sugar Ray’s Medley” tribute to the Master. From “That Ain’t It”, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”, “Rockin’ My Boogie”, “St Louis Blues” to “Everybody’s Fishing” (and even Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill”), Sugar Ray and his band move seamlessly from one BWH song to another in one ever-flowing 18:46 minutes long track! On its own merit, that song is worth the price of admission.
So many performers got my attention here. The list would too long to provide, but among them are Kim Wilson (“Someday”), Bob Corritore (“She Loves Another Man”), Kurt Crandall (“Great Shakes”), Li’l Ronnie Owens (“We’re Gonna Move to Kansas City”), Steve Guyger (“Little Boy Blue”) and Mark Hummel’s (“Easy).
The accompanying musicians on the CD also deserve a special mention. Some like Robert Lockwood, Jr., Henry Gray, Mike Welch, and Jimmy Rogers are legendary and better known, some less so, but all are/were masters at delivering that vintage Chicago sound. BWH was uncanny at his supportive harp work as a sideman, playing understated riffs and melodic phrasings. They return the favor in kind here towards the nine featured harp players.
Blues For Big Walter offers a generous 16-song serving. Every rendition is thoughtfully crafted, and offers a delightful presentation of Big Walter’s musical soul and genius. Many of the BWH’s best known songs are covered - sometimes twice as with Mark Hummel’s “Easy” and with Andrew Alli’s “Easy II” - yet they complement each other well, and with little to no overlaps.
These songs are presented either in a full-band format or within a stripped-down setting of only harp and guitar (check out Steve Guyger’s surreal rendition of “Little Boy Blue”). “La Cucaracha”, one of BWH’s signature songs, surprisingly does not appear on this compilation. Not an easy song to redo, mind you, as it has a lot of timing challenges. Big or “Shakey” Walter Horton - also occasionally known as “Mumbles”, but he did not like that moniker - did record that song in different versions and with different slants; just as he did with his “Walter’s Boogie”, sometimes under different titles like “Blues Harp Shuffle” or “All-Star Boogie”, for instance. However, and in fairness to this project, there are too many BMH classics that could not be included here due to time restrictions. I am thinking of songs like “Trouble In Mind”, “Blues In The Morning”, and “Good Moanin’ Blues”, among others.
To reproduce the Big Walter Horton harp tone - as these artists do so well here - is not an easy task. His recorded phrasings may be clean enough to be reproduced by advanced players, but it remains that BWH used his huge hands to create his harmonica sound (he took pride of that fact in interviews); and on acoustic songs he also sometimes used a cup or a drinking glass to add a cavern-like sound. But what is lesser known is that he would often dip his harps in water or alcohol (beer, gin, etc.) to make them sound louder, sweeter, and horn-like! The Hohner Marine Band’s wooden combs and brass reeds of old could not take abuse like that for long as they would soon get out of tune or be difficult to play, but he didn’t seem to care. He often did this when I saw him perform in Chicago in the late ’60s, ‘70s, and early ‘80s (he died in 1981).
A concern that a producer would have about an homage CD of this sort is that the nine chosen performers would be doing the same repetitive BWH licks over and again, thus making this tribute trite. It does not happen here. The 16 songs are fresh, exciting to listen to, and heartfelt.
Blues For Big Walter is a pure, authentic, and unadulterated Chicago Blues recording. There are no rock ‘n’ roll notes here. This CD contains a huge trove of BWH ideas. It is a primer for the BWH student, and also for those who want to hear how influential his playing is on contemporary performers. I, for one, had forgotten how influential BWH continues to be on my playing style.
I commend producer Li’l Ronnie Owens not only for his astute selection of the record’s contributors, but also for his labor of love behind this seminal project. On EllerSoul Records’ homepage he writes: “I hope we get to do a Volume II because there are so many great players that we couldn’t get on this one CD.” May this turn out to be true!
***** FIVE STARS
For info or to buy the CD: www.ellersoulrecords.com
Pierre Lacocque is the bandleader/harmonica player/songwriter for Delmark Records artists Mississippi Heat.
For info: www.mississippiheat.net