Sammy Lawhorn

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Although never a big name blues artist or even a regular bandleader, guitarist Sammy Lawhorn is one of the most frequently recorded blues sidemen in the genre's history, which certainly has something…
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Take Me Back
Although never a big name blues artist or even a regular bandleader, guitarist Sammy Lawhorn is one of the most frequently recorded blues sidemen in the genre's history, which certainly has something to do with the fact that he is one of the music's most accomplished and versatile players. His longtime presence in the Muddy Waters band speaks for itself: this great bluesman had an uncanny way of picking brilliant sidemen, even when he was practically on his death bed. While Waters himself was a slide guitar soloist whose high notes could deafen a chipmunk at 40 paces, one of the best aspects of his various bands was the use of a second guitarist, a musical recipe that by the '50s was simmering to perfection in the Waters' partnership with the great Jimmy Rogers. When the latter player left Waters to start a solo career in 1957, there was a lineup of second guitarists coming into the band, each of them superb players. Right around Halloween, 1964, Lawhorn entered the studios with Waters for the first time, ready to unleash both tricks and treats on the first three tracks of what would turn into a large chunk of the Chicago blues discography. Lawhorn would continue in the group for practically a decade. He was one of the many fine musicians to come from Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was basically raised by his grandparents after his parents left for Chicago. Blind street musicians were the source of the first blues music the youthful Lawhorn heard, followed by gigs featuring touring blues stars from the Texas area such as Lightnin' Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, and Lowell Fulson. Lawhorn's first instrument was the "diddley bow," created by connecting bailing wire to the side of his grandparent's home with nails -- house music, literally. When he began traveling to Chicago to visit his mother and stepfather, they noticed his interest in music and bought him his first real instrument, a ukulele, soon replaced by an acoustic guitar upon which he began performing sanctified church music. It wasn't the blues, yet he impressed his mother enough so that she shelled out the money to buy him an electric guitar. Over the next two years he worked on his playing, even getting some pointers from the legendary Big Bill Broonzy. At 15 his professional career began, accompanying harmonica player Elmore Mickle, who used the stage name of Driftin' Slim. An even better harmonica player snatched him up, none other than Sonny Boy Williamson II, and the guitarist began playing on the King Biscuit Radio Show. Fellow Williamson sideman Houston Stackhouse was apparently the player who first taught Lawhorn the basics of slide guitar. From 1953-1958 Lawhorn was in the Navy, and found himself on a tour of Korea as an aerial photographer. During one of these missions he was wounded by enemy fire discharged. He relocated to Memphis in 1958, where he did recording sessions with players such as Roy Brown, Eddie Boyd, the Five Royales, and harmonica player Willie Cobbs, with whom a dispute arose over the writing credit to one of the most popular urban blues standards of all time, "You Don't Love Me." Lawhorn moved to Chicago in the late '50s after having his guitar stolen there on a visit, perhaps an expression of a philosophy that he would rather have his instruments stolen than his songs. Starting in the early '60s he was a regular sideman at the best Chicago blues clubs, playing with some of the top names, sitting in with Muddy Waters and edging toward the pinnacle of his profession (i.e. the position he eventually took over as second guitarist in the Waters band). He participated in many album releases with Waters, including sessions where the band backed up other great artists such as Big Mama Thornton, John Lee Hooker, and Waters' longtime pianist sidekick, Otis Spann. While many blues guitarist bandleaders have used their second guitarists as simply rhythm or chordal players, Waters liked to work with players who had their own solo style, which in the case of Lawhorn included striking use of the tremolo or whammy bar. Unfortunately, Lawhorn's drinking problem seriously hampered his career; he was observed passing out while sitting in the club, over his amplifier on-stage, or in the band's touring vehicles, and sometimes missing shows altogether. Waters fired him in 1973, but never stopped saying that Lawhorn was the best guitarist he ever had in his band. After this Lawhorn went back to working in various Chicago clubs and continued to show up on fine blues recordings such as James Cotton's Take Me Back and Junior Wells' On Tap. His health began to suffer from the years of boozing as well as the terrible physical aftermath of a robbery in his apartment in which he was tossed out a third floor window by the burglar. His death in 1990 was attributed to natural causes.