Big Mama Thornton and Big Walter Horton were both big influences in the development of blues in the mid-20th century. Thornton was a big-voiced belter with a towering persona. Horton stood a head above his harmonica-playing counterparts of the day, in both talent and physical size.
The obvious question, asked by any self-respecting nine-year-old blues fan, is, of course, who would win in a fight?
Born in 1917, Big Walter Horton was in his mid-’30s when he started to hit his stride in the 1950s Chicago blues scene, playing with Eddie Taylor, Johnny Shines and Muddy Waters. Big Mama Thornton, on the other hand, at nine years younger, was just 26 in 1952 when she recorded her number one hit, “Hound Dog.” The age difference alone has to give the edge to Big Mama.
From the age of 14, Thornton was toughing it out on the road with Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Revue. Horton, on the other hand, was recording at the age of 10 and playing juke joints and street corners in Memphis. If the fight were taken to the back alley, you’d have to give it to Big Walter.
On the basis of talent and influence, these two big performers weigh in pretty close. Thornton’s voice is undeniable; you know it is her as soon as you hear it. The same can be said for Horton’s harp. His tone was unmatched and his foray into amplification was groundbreaking. Pound for pound, talent for talent, Thornton and Horton were pretty evenly matched.
The defining factor of comparative bigness between Thornton and Horton is their respective personalities. Horton was a shy man, more at home as a side player than a band leader. It doesn’t help that his other nickname is “Shakey.” He added immeasurably to the outfits led by Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Robert Nighthawk, Howlin’ Wolf and many others, but rarely stepped out as a band leader. Thornton was a big personality; on stage she was the centre of attention.
Their material as well favours Thornton as a tougher character. Compare Horton’s repertoire of “Easin’ in Slow,” “Have a Good Time” and “Hard Hearted Woman,” versus Thornton’s “I Smell a Rat,” “Stop Hoppin’ On Me,” “Sassy Mama” and, of course, “Hound Dog.”
In knock-down-drag-out fisticuffs, my money goes squarely on Thornton. Pull out the harmonica though, and the odds may turn.
Have a look at Thornton and Horton blowing harp together on the same stage. In this ensemble number, Horton is the only one on stage taller than Thornton, along with J.B. Lenoir, Doc Ross and John Lee Hooker. The tune, called “Down Home Shakedown,” is from American Folk Blues Festival, filmed in Germany. You be the judge.
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on Jun 24, 2012