Born: July 12, 1935 | Died: April 29, 1990 Primary Instrument: Guitar, electric
Samuel David Lawhorn was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, on July 12, 1935, to J. C. and Estella Lawhorn. Soon afterward, his parents separated and his mother remarried. His stepfather's name was Ferman Gilbeit and in his early years, Gibeit was the only father that Sammy knew. The couple later moved to Chicago, leaving young Sammy behind to be raised by his grandparents in Arkansas.
Little Rock proved to be an inspiring locale for Sammy, as he became interested in the Blues music that he first heard being played by blind street musicians. Well-known musicians from Texas such as Lightnin' Hopkins, T-Bone Walker and Lowell Fulson would also pass through the city on occasion, catching the ear of the youngster.
Like many Blues musicians of his generation, Sammy's first instrument was the diddley-bow he made on the side of his grandparent's home using nails and bailing wire. He made regular trips to Chicago to visit his mother and stepfather. Noticing his interest in music, his mother bought him his first real instrument: a ukulele. He soon upgraded to an acoustic guitar and despite his love for Blues, he began playing the sanctified music of his church. His progress impressed his mother even more and during another visit to Chicago, she purchased an electric guitar for him.
It only took Sammy the next two years to teach himself to play guitar. His stepfather would take him to the clubs in Chicago so he could gain inspiration and technique from the local Blues masters. It has been said that even Big Bill Broonzy took note of the teenager, offering insight and pointers.
By the time that he was 15, Sammy had already developed enough skills to be hired to accompany harmonica player, Elmore Mickle, better known as Driftin' Slim. This led to work with Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), including appearances on the famedKing Biscuit Radio Show. Another artist he occasionally sat in with was guitarist, Houston Stackhouse, who taught Lawhorn the fine craft of playing slide guitar.
In 1953, Sammy Lawhorn was inducted into the military. He spent a tour of duty in Korea with the Navy as an aerial photographer and was even wounded during one such flight into combat. Lawhorn remained in the service until discharged in 1958.
He then returned to the Delta; once again taking up playing the Blues. He reportedly made several recordings in Memphis during this period, including sessions with Roy Brown, Eddie Boyd and the Five Royales. He also began a regular stint with harmonicist, Willie Cobbs. Lawhorn even claimed credit for composing Cobbs' trademark classic, You Don't Love Me. It was while working with Cobbs that Lawhorn made his first professional appearances on stage in Chicago in 1959-1960. During one of these shows, his guitar was stolen and Sammy decided to stay in the city for good.
The early 1960s found Lawhorn working in several clubs throughout Chicago, often playing behind artists like Junior Wells, Elmore James and Otis Rush. By late 1963, he was sitting in with the Muddy Waters Band at Pepper's Lounge and Sylvio's.
After recording with Muddy in October of 1964, Sammy became a full-time member of the band. Over the years he appeared on numerous albums including, Live At Mister Kelly's, The London-Muddy Waters Sessions, The Woodstock Album and Folk Singer Also, during his tenure, the Muddy Waters Band were involved with sessions for a number of other artists such as Big Mama Thornton, John Lee Hooker and Otis Spann's solo outings.
Sammy Lawhorn's guitar work was impassioned and his use of the tremelo bar may have been unparalleled by any other Blues musician then or since. But his drinking problem grew to be too much for Muddy, who demanded that his band adhere to proper ethics. He fired Lawhorn in 1973, replacing him with 23-year-old Bob Margolin. But, Muddy was often heard to say that Lawhorn was the best guitarist he ever had in his band.
Following his dismissal by Muddy, Lawhorn returned to the clubs of Chicago. He eventually took up residency as the house guitarist in the renowned Theresa's Lounge until its closing in the 1980s. The venue was a frequent stop for the best Blues musicians from everywhere and Lawhorn found himself even working alongside his childhood idols, T-Bone Walker and Lightnin' Hopkins.
Occasionally over these years, Sammy would be a much sought after sideman. He was featured on the recordings of many musicians, most notably, James Cotton's Take Me Back, Junior Wells' On Tap, a handful by Koko Taylor, as well as with Jimmy Witherspoon, Wild Child Butler, Little Mac Simmons and L.C. Robinson. And, he was a giving person as well, always willing to help anybody who wished to learn from him.
Sammy Lawhorn's health began to fail due to his many years of heavy alcoholism. He also complained of severe arthritis, which was partially brought on from an incident involving a robbery in his apartment that resulted with his being thrown out a third floor window. He had landed on his feet, breaking them both and his ankles. These woes caught up with him on April 29, 1990. Sammy Lawhorn died at the age of 54.
Source: Greg Johnson