I have worked on several blog posts on ‘great blues harp players’…which have tended to be those players who have since died.So I thought I would explore those who are still living and could be developing into one of those greats …but what criteria to use?
Our harp guru, Adam Gussow, stated his criteria for great blues harp players..so let me re-state:
ORIGINALITY. I call this the three-second test. If you turned on the radio and heard this player, could you tell within three seconds that it was them–assuming you knew their music to begin with? Lurking within what harp players call “tone” is the absolutely individuated voice, if you’re lucky enough to develop one.
INFLUENCE. Are the players in question central to the tradition of blues harmonica as it has emerged over the past 100+ years? Are they foundational in some way? Do they help modernize, consolidate, or conserve the tradition? Have they spawned imitators, including very good players who never escape their orbit? If you leave them off the list, has an injustice plainly been done? (John Lee Williamson changed the way everybody who came after him played harp. Billy Branch and Sugar Blue are, in very different ways, both the inheritors and modernizers of the Chicago blues harmonica tradition.)
TECHNICAL MASTERY. Does this player make music at a speed or with a complexity that sets him or her above the rest? (Little Walter in “Back Track” and “Roller Coaster,” James Cotton in “Creeper Creeps Again,” and Paul Butterfield in “Goin’ to Main Street” set a standard here, and Sonny Terry wins admission on the basis of pretty much any thing he’s every recorded. Sugar Blue raises the bar yet again. And please don’t forget DeFord Bailey.) Or, alternately, does this player have an extraordinary ability to hit the deep blues pitches, especially the so-called “blue third” that I discuss in many of my videos? (Junior Wells exhibits this sort of mastery.)
SOULFULNESS. In some ways, this criterion should lead things off. We’re talking about blues harmonica, after all, not basket weaving. We’re talking about an extraordinarily expressive instrument. The thing it seeks to express is a range of passions and moods, many of them very powerful and a few of them downright ugly. Does this player attack his or her instrument with ferocity that makes you shiver, or jump? Or with a late-night hoodoo-spookiness that makes you feel your own loneliness? Or with some magical combination of all those things that makes you cry? (Howlin’ Wolf makes the Top-10 list for obvious reasons; so does Rice Miller, a.k.a. “Sonny Boy Williamson II.” Rev. Dan Smith, who may be less familiar to you, is the definition of soulful)
RECORDED EVIDENCE. In order to earn a spot on one of the lists below, a player (or the partisans of a player) must be able to convince with the help of recorded evidence. Buddy Bolden was the greatest trumpet player ever to come out of New Orleans, many say, but he never made a recording. Obviously the best and most influential players can’t be fully summarized by 10 minutes’ worth of vinylized or digitized performances, and some players–John Lee Williamson in particular–don’t benefit from this exercise. Still, it has its virtues as a teaching tool and a way of guiding the conversation.
Thank you Adam.
I think technical mastery is a good starting point, but without soul or feeling the harp player would not be my sort of player and without creative and innovative playing -which often comes out of technical mastery plus ‘feel’ for the song, then they also would not appear in my list.
So let’s start and see if you agree with some on my list. I will mainly let them play and see what you think. Of course there is a great spawning ground for harp players in the States, but I have to include some European players as they are also influential.
In some ways we are in a transition -some of those who played with the likes of Muddy Waters are now getting on ,such as the great James Cotton, so while placing them still towards the top of any list we can start to introduce some of the younger players who maintain the tradition, while exploring styles and crossovers for themselves.
Let’s be traditional and begin with those who experienced their formative years with Muddy Waters who always ensured he had a good harp player.
Three harp players who played with Muddy Waters are James Cotton, Paul Oscher and Jerry Portnoy – a good place to start.
James Cotton (called Cotton by his friends) was born on the first day of July,1935, in Tunica, Mississippi. He was the youngest of eight brothers and sisters who grew up in the cotton fields working beside their mother, Hattie, and father, Mose. On Sundays Mose was the preacher in the area’s Baptist church. Cotton’s earliest memories include his mother playing chicken and train sounds on her harmonica and for a few years he thought those were the only two sounds the little instrument made. His Christmas present one year was a harmonica, it cost 15 cents, and it wasn’t long before he mastered the chicken and the train. King Biscuit Time, a 15-minute radio show, began broadcasting live on KFFA, a station just across the Mississippi River in Helena, Arkansas. The star of the show was the harmonica legend, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller).
The young Cotton pressed his little ear to the old radio speaker. He recognized the harmonica sound AND discovered something – the harp did more! Realizing this, a profound change came over him, and since that moment, Cotton and his harp have been inseparable – the love affair had begun. Soon he was able to play Sonny Boy’s theme song from the radio show and, as he grew so did his repertoire of Sonny Boy’s other songs. Mississippi summers are ghastly, the heat is unrelenting. He was too young to actually work in the cotton fields, so little Cotton would bring water to those who did. When it was time for him to take a break from his job, he would sit in the shadow of the plantation foreman’s horse and play his harp. His music became a source of joy for his first audience. James Cotton’s star began to shine brightly at a very early age.
By his ninth year both of his parents had passed away and Cotton was taken to Sonny Boy Williamson by his uncle. When they met, the young fellow wasted no time – he began playing Sonny Boy’s theme song on his treasured harp. Cotton remembers that first meeting well and says, “I walked up and played it for him. And I played it note for note. And he looked at that. He had to pay attention.” The two harp players were like father and son from then on. “I just watched the things he’d do, because I wanted to be just like him. Anything he played, I played it,” he remembers. (Jacklyn Hairston)
After that illustrious start, he never looked back, working with Muddy Waters for 12 years before cutting out on his own -his awards and many recordings provide the evidence for a great and influential harp player.
Got my Mojo Working -with Muddy Waters
Dealing with the Devil -1995 -nice acoustic track
James Cotton and Sax Gordon 1992
Cotton won a Grammy Award in 1996 for the Traditional Blues Album “Deep in the Blues”
Born in New York Paul Oscher’s career as a musician began at the age of fifteen when he played for the musician, Little Jimmy Mae.
Later Oscher was a member of the Muddy Waters Blues Band from 1967-1972.He also plays guitar and piano and sings.
Here he is reminiscing about Little Walter (and playing of course)
Here he is playing with James Cotton
and playing for Woodsongs radio!
“The first guy that I ever met who could really play the harp, he used tongue blocking before any of his contemporaries.” Magic Dick
Jerry Portnoy was born in 1943 and grew up in the blues-drenched atmosphere of Chicago’s famous Maxwell Street Market during the golden age of Chicago Blues.
Here he is talking about his music (and playing)
Live at Muddy Waters
With Otis Grand -Scratch my Back
Eric Clapton and Jerry Portnoy -Holy Mother 1996
Wilson was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1951, but he grew up in Goleta, California, where he sometimes went by the stage name of “Goleta Slim.” He started with the blues in the late 1960s and was tutored by people likeMuddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Eddie Taylor, Albert Collins, George “Harmonica” Smith, Luther Tucker and Pee Wee Crayton and was influenced by harmonica players like Little Walter, James Cotton, Big Walter Horton, Slim Harpo and Lazy Lester.
He now plays with the fabulous Thunderbirds
Not a bad accolade to be called by Muddy Waters – “The greatest harmonica player since Little Walter”
Blue began his career as a street musician and made his first recordings in 1975 with legendary blues figuresBrownie McGhee and Roosevelt Sykes . The following year, he contributed to recordings by Victoria Spivey and Johnny Shines before pulling up stakes and moving to Paris on the advice of pioneer blues pianist Memphis Slim .
sugar blue,muddy,BB and Taj
Hoochie Coochie Man -Switzerland 1995
SB and Willie Dixon
Interview with Romanian Television
SB and Sunnyland Slim
He won a Grammy in 1985 for his work on the Atlantic album, Blues Explosion, recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
Was born in 1947 . He has been playing with his band The Mighty Flyers since 1980 which he formed with his pianist wifeHoney Piazza.Their boogie sound combines the styles of jump blues, West Coast blues and Chicago blues. A great chromatic player.
At the Sierra Nevada Brewery:
Rod Piazza,George Smith and Charlie Musselwhite
Cover of Sad Hours by Little Walter
Compared to the musicians above, Jason is the ‘New kid on the Block’ but certainly is accomplished.
In 1999, Ricci won the Mars National Harmonica Contest, and began playing with Keith Brown, later recording with him as well.
South Florida Blues Festival 2008
Quite a solo!
and another in Dubuque , the same year
Chicago 2009 showing his dexterity and improv skills
and with his band New Blood
Being British, I have to add at least one player from these islands -Paul Lamb , who was first influenced by Sonny Terry, who he had the pleasure to work with.
“The only difference between Paul Lamb and the great harmonica players from the States is that Paul doesn’t have a U.S. passport.”
– The Great British R & B Festival , Colne , U.K.
He has played with the likes of Buddy Guy and Junior Wells and was inducted into British Blues Awards Hall Of Fame
Here he is chatting and playing:
Playing in Denmark
Playing in the style of Big Walter Horton
and back again with his band, the Kingsnakes
This is the end of part 1 with part 2 coming soon where we shall look at players such as Mark Hummel, Rick Estrin, Steve Baker and Eddy Martin just to name a few.
Who would you put in your top 20 living blues harp players?
I did not forget Charlie Musselwhite, who I admire, but I have highlighted his playing in earlier blogs…but just to finish, enjoy one of his great songs -Christo Redemtptor