The Improviser

Craig Horton

Until quite recently, Craig Horton was a phantom of the blues. His main claim to fame was the scorching guitar solo on a 1962 recording by Chicago drummer Jump Jackson titled “Midnight Shuffle.” Yet his name didn’t appear on the label of the 45, which is so obscure that’s it’s known only to a handful of dedicated record collectors. And there were those who remembered Horton’s brilliance the nights he sat in with Muddy Waters’ band at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, and would ask each other, “What ever happened to that guy?”

Born 61 years ago in Conway, Arkansas, and based in Oakland since 1966, the singing guitarist had pretty much drifted away from the music scene — working a variety of day jobs, including three years on the GM assembly line in Fremont — by the time drummer Scott Silveira coaxed him back into performing a few years ago. One night, Silveira hired young blues guitar hotshot Rusty Zinn, who was between tours with his own band, to play behind Horton on a gig at Eli’s Mile High Club. “Do you know anything about ‘Midnight Shuffle?'” Zinn asked Horton before the evening was over, having recognized the older musician’s signature style.

Zinn’s admiration for Horton led to him producing most of the tracks on Horton’s debut CD In My Spirit for Big Daddy Records in Southern California (Frank “Paris Slim” Goldwasser produced two selections). Horton and his band celebrate the disc’s release Saturday at 10 p.m. at Eli’s, 3629 Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Oakland. For more information, phone Eli’s at 510-655-6661.

“It’s a new beginning for me,” the guitarist says of the album. “Regardless of the obstacles that were put in my way — and the obstacles that I put in my own way — I hung in.”

The resonance in Horton’s singing voice suggests that of T-Bone Walker. There’s also a hint of Walker in Horton’s guitar playing, along with traces of B.B. King, Freddie King, and Wayne Bennett. “Truthfully speaking,” Horton insists, “I have never, ever just sat down and listened to one particular person. I listened to some of all of it.”

Horton played gospel music before turning to the blues at age twelve, and credits three women — his mother, his grandmother, and famous gospel singer-guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe — as early inspirations. “My mother used to play one string — a hay-baling wire with a fruit jar on top — and sing at the same time,” he says. “She would do that at home, on the side of the house. That was her hobby. She loved the Ink Spots and ballads like that. She loved the blues, too. She just loved music, period. My grandmother played in church. She taught me how to complement — you know, chords and different things — so I could play in church.”

Besides an incisive tone, what perhaps most distinguishes Horton’s blues guitar playing is its unpredictablity. He is a true improviser who plays whatever pops into his head at the moment, whether it works or not — though it usually does. “I always play without a net,” he explains. “It is hard for me to follow set patterns. I’m into trying to execute what I feel. I’m into feelings.

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