When I asked Grant about the harmonica players who influenced him and modern Trad Blues, he quickly named Big Walter Horton, Little Walter, and Sonny Terry. These legends have profoundly shaped harmonica music and remain inspirational icons.

Big Walter Horton, often dubbed ‘Shakey’ due to his unique head motion while playing the harmonica, wasn’t just a harmonica player – he was a maestro. Born on April 6, 1921, in Horn Lake, Mississippi, Walter’s harmonica journey began when he was a mere child, gifted a harmonica by his father. By the age of seven, his dedication to the instrument had outshone everything else, leading him to leave school. His family’s move to Memphis marked a significant turn in his musical journey, though some tales from this era, like his supposed early recordings with the Memphis Jug Band, might be more legend than fact.

Names like ‘Mumbles’ and ‘Tangle Eye’ painted a picture of Walter’s unmistakable style, involving intricate tongue-blocking techniques and a tone that was both enviable and inspiring. Willie Dixon, a Blues legend himself, proclaimed Walter as the finest harmonica player he’d ever heard, an accolade echoed by many in the industry.

Yet, among the stories that encapsulate Walter’s essence is an iconic night in a Chicago club. As the lights dimmed and Walter took the stage with nothing but his harmonica, he began to play. Every note resonated, every melody told a story, and the club’s walls vibrated with the melancholic yet hopeful tunes of The Blues. That evening, Big Walter wasn’t merely performing – he embodied The Blues.

Walter’s influence spanned cities like Memphis and Chicago, leaving an enduring legacy. His skills are still a subject of study for many aspiring harmonica players, attesting to his timeless artistry. Recognized posthumously in The Blues Hall of Fame in 1982 and honored with a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail in 2008, Walter ‘Shakey’ Horton stands tall, a beacon in the world of Blues.

Little Walter: Born on May 1, 1930, in Marksville, Louisiana, and passing away on February 15, 1968, in Chicago, Illinois, Little Walter emerged as an iconic American Blues singer and harmonica virtuoso, leaving an indelible mark on the landscape of 20th-century music. His influence as a harmonica improviser resonated powerfully, solidifying his status as one of the foremost figures of his era.
Raised amidst the fields of a Louisiana farm, Little Walter’s musical journey began in his childhood, as he started playing the harmonica. By the age of 12, he was already captivating audiences on the bustling street corners and within the vibrant clubs of New Orleans. This early immersion into the world of performance paved the way for a lifelong dedication to his craft. In his youth, he ventured northward, eventually finding his artistic home in Chicago around 1946. It was there that his recording career took flight in 1947, and he cemented his presence as a pivotal member of Muddy Waters’s Blues band from 1948 to 1952.

Little Walter emerged as a cornerstone of the postwar Chicago Blues scene. Drawing influence from both accomplished guitarists and seasoned harmonica players, he introduced a unique and unparalleled phrasing to the realm of Blues harmonica. His solos exhibited a masterful interplay of riffs and flowing lines, meticulously crafted to captivate his audience. Pioneering the practice of playing a harmonica directly into a handheld microphone, he pioneered expressive techniques that heightened the emotive quality of his music.

Despite having a limited vocal range, Little Walter’s singing often channeled the essence of Muddy Waters’s distinctive style. Among his repertoire, the widely beloved “My Babe” became a sensation, while other standout works like “Sad Hours,” “Off the Wall,” and “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer” solidified his reputation as an artist of unparalleled skill and creativity.

The significance of Little Walter’s contributions was widely acknowledged. He was honored as an inaugural inductee into The Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, a testament to his enduring impact on the genre. Moreover, in 2008, his legacy was further celebrated with induction into the prestigious Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Little Walter’s innovative harmonica techniques, expressive performances, and lasting influence ensure that his legacy remains vibrantly alive in the tapestry of American music history.

A legendary tale: During a recording session in the mid-50s, Little Walter, discontented with the traditional acoustic sound, plugged his harmonica into an amplifier. The result was a raw, piercing tone that resonated with electric energy. This electrified sound became his trademark, drawing crowds by the hundreds. It wasn’t just about volume; it was the emotion, the passion, the rage, and the joy, all amplified through his harmonica, making every listener feel each note deep within.

Sonny Terry: Saunders Terrell, known as Sonny Terry (October 24, 1911 – March 11, 1986), was a distinguished American Piedmont Blues and folk musician who left an enduring mark on the world of music. His spirited Blues harmonica style, characterized by exuberant vocal whoops, hollers, and even vivid imitations of trains and fox hunts, set him apart as a unique and captivating performer.
Born in Greensboro, Georgia, Terry’s musical journey started under the guidance of his farmer father, who taught him the basics of Blues harmonica during his youth. An unfortunate accident left him blind at the age of 16, compelling him to turn to music as his means of livelihood. Terry’s remarkable musical influence extended even to the realm of farming, where he played the harmonica to plow horses, enhancing their efficiency.

Terry’s Blues career began in Shelby, North Carolina, where he eventually joined forces with the Piedmont Blues-style guitarist Blind Boy Fuller. This partnership laid the foundation for Terry’s future collaborations, most notably with Brownie McGhee after Fuller’s passing in 1941. Their musical synergy became prominent during the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s. Their reputation crossed racial lines, capturing the hearts of white audiences, and they collaborated with distinguished figures like Styve Homnick, Woody Guthrie, and Moses Asch. Their contributions yielded classic recordings, a testament to their enduring musical legacy.

In 1938, Terry’s prowess earned him an invitation to perform at the inaugural From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall, and later that year, he recorded for the Library of Congress. His first commercial recordings came in 1940, marking the onset of a prolific musical journey. Among his renowned works are “Old Jabo,” a poignant song about a snake-bitten man, and “Lost John,” showcasing Terry’s impeccable breath control.

In a departure from their “pure” folk image, Terry and McGhee embraced a jump Blues combo style in the 1940s, featuring honking saxophone and vibrant piano. The duo was known under various names, including “Brownie McGhee and his Jook House Rockers” or “Sonny Terry and his Buckshot Five.”
Terry’s influence extended beyond music. He made appearances in diverse settings, such as being part of the original 1947 cast of the Broadway musical Finian’s Rainbow and his roles in films like The Jerk (1979) and The Color Purple (1985).

Acknowledgment of Terry’s monumental contributions came in the form of a 1982 National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, an esteemed recognition in the folk and traditional arts. Tragically, Terry passed away of natural causes in Mineola, New York, just days before the release of the film Crossroads in 1986. Nonetheless, his legacy lives on as he was posthumously inducted into The Blues Hall of Fame in the same year. Sonny Terry’s energetic harmonica style, innovative performances, and genre-spanning collaborations ensure his enduring impact on the world of music.

A legendary tale: In a small tavern in North Carolina, as the crowd settled, Sonny Terry took a deep breath and let out one of his signature whoops. It wasn’t just a call to attention; it was an invitation into his world. As he began to play, accompanied by Brownie’s guitar, each note painted stories of the rolling hills of Piedmont, tales of love, loss, and life. It was said that when Sonny played, even those unfamiliar with The Blues felt a connection, as if the harmonica was speaking directly to their souls

These legends – Big Walter Horton, Little Walter, and Sonny Terry – stand as monumental lighthouses, illuminating the path for today’s harmonica maestros. Delving into the contemporary harmonica scene, one can’t help but notice the profound influence these pioneers have etched onto modern players. Embarking on my harmonica odyssey, I’ve dived deep and crafted a list of remarkable contemporary harmonica artists. Naturally, many gems are yet to be added. I’m leaning on BAOTB attendees, staff, and our Whirlybird community to enrich and refine this collection. This compilation isn’t a ranking, but a celebration. And, naturally, Joe and Grant, the esteemed BAOTB instructors, have a special mention atop this list.

Joe Filisko: A revered harmonica player, educator, and historian, Filisko’s deep understanding of pre-World War II Blues harmonica styles has earned him a well-deserved reputation. He is committed to preserving traditional playing methods through workshops and performances. BAOTB master instructor.

Grant Dermody: Dermody’s harmonica playing pays tribute to the roots of American music. Influenced by early Blues harmonica greats like Big Walter Horton and Sonny Terry, he combines harmonica skills with soulful vocals and a commitment to acoustic Blues and roots music. BAOTB master instructor.

James Cotton: The late James Cotton’s dynamic and powerful harmonica performances were influenced by both Sonny Terry and Little Walter. His commanding stage presence left a lasting legacy in the harmonica community.

Charlie Musselwhite: Musselwhite’s contemporary harmonica playing reflects inspiration from Big Walter Horton and other Blues harmonica legends. His contributions enrich modern Blues music by capturing the essence of traditional Blues sound.

Kim Wilson: A harmonica virtuoso, Wilson draws from the playing styles of all three legends. His incorporation of elements reminiscent of Little Walter, Sonny Terry, and Big Walter Horton has solidified his position as a modern Blues harmonica master.

Rick Estrin: Frontman of Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, Estrin’s harmonica style draws from both Little Walter and Sonny Terry. Known for his storytelling and innovative techniques, his contributions expand the horizons of harmonica performance.

Mark Hummel: Hummel’s harmonica artistry resonates with the essence of Blues history, channeling influences from Big Walter Horton, Little Walter, and other Blues luminaries. His dedication enriches the modern Blues landscape.

Jason Ricci: Ricci’s innovative playing style, influenced by the likes of Little Walter and Sonny Terry, sets him apart as a standout in the harmonica community. His versatility and groundbreaking approach captivate audiences.

Billy Branch: Carrying the torch of Chicago’s rich Blues heritage, Branch embodies the essence of Chicago Blues while paying homage to the legacies of Little Walter and Big Walter Horton.

Paul Butterfield: A key figure in The Blues revival of the 1960s, Butterfield’s profound influence on harmonica playing bridged the gap between Blues and rock audiences, shaped by the style of Little Walter.

Corky Siegel, John Popper, Dennis Gruenling, Madcat Ruth, Howard Levy, Jason Wells, and Billy Gibson: These players complete the ensemble of contemporary harmonica players who draw inspiration from the legends. Each contributes their unique touch to the harmonica landscape, expanding and preserving the legacy of harmonica playing.

This list underscores the enduring impact of Big Walter Horton, Little Walter, and Sonny Terry. Their influence, carried forward by these contemporary harmonica players, continues to enrich the world of music, preserve traditions, and inspire the next generation of harmonica enthusiasts.

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