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.
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.
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”
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.
When I was a teenager in Swansea I heard the record ‘East -West’ by the Butterfield Blues Band – a very creative fusion of sounds with solid blues notes from the harp of Paul Butterfield and the guitars of Elvin Bishop and Mike Bloomfield. Paul Butterfield remains firmly in my top ten of great harp players.
Growing up in Chicago and mixing with the likes of Muddy Waters,Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Otis Rush, Butterfield was ushered into the magic world of the blues while also having some classical music background (on flute) and more than a passing interest in Jazz.
Lets start with driftin blues from 1967
And how did he get that sound….hard work and a touch of genius…
Butterfield practiced long hours by himself — just playing all the time. His brother Peter writes, “He listened to records, and he went places, but he also spent an awful lot of time, by himself, playing. He’d play outdoors. There’s a place called The Point in Hyde Park, a promontory of land that sticks out into Lake Michigan, and I can remember him out there for hours playing. He was just playing all the time … It was a very solitary effort. It was all internal, like he had a particular sound he wanted to get and he just worked to get it. “
Like most Chicago-style amplified harmonica players, Butterfield played the instrument like a horn — a trumpet. Although he sometimes used a chromatic harmonica, Butterfield mostly played the standard Hohner Marine Band in the standard cross position.Remember, he was left-handed and held the harp in his left hand, but in the standard position with the low notes facing to the left. Butterfield played and endorsed (as noted in the liner notes for his first album) Hohner harmonicas, in particular the diatonic ten-hole ‘Marine Band’ model. His primary playing style was in the second position, also known as cross-harp, but he also was adept in the third position, notably on the track East-West from the album of the same name, and the track ‘Highway 28’ from the “Better Days” album.
Seldom venturing higher than the sixth hole on the harmonica, Butterfield nevertheless managed to create a variety of original sounds and melodic runs. His live tonal stylings were accomplished using a Shure 545 Unidyne III hand-held microphone connected to one or more Fender amplifiers, often then additionally boosted through the venue’s public address (PA) system. This allowed Butterfield to achieve the same extremes of volume as the various notable sidemen in his band.
Butterfield also at times played a mixture of acoustic and amplified style by playing into a microphone mounted on a stand, allowing him to perform on the harmonica using both hands to get a muted, Wah-wah effect, as well as various vibratos. This was usually done on a quieter, slower tune.
He tended to play single notes rather than bursts of chords. His harp playing is always intense, understated, concise, and serious — only Big Walter Horton has a better sense of note selection.
While listening to one of Adam Gussow’s insightful harp lessons based on a Carey Bell recording, I was reminded of a talent that is not so well known. I thought I would bring together some examples of his playing.
From the American Folk Blues Festival 1983 with Louisiana Red and Jimmy Rogers on guitars:
Originally influenced by jazz players , so much so, that he would have liked to have learned to play the saxophone. Due to financial limitations he had to accept the ‘Mississippi saxophone’ or blues harp.
In 1956 Bell moved up to Chicago to try his luck and soon was drawn to the likes of Little Walter and Big Walter Horton. He was also influenced by Sonny Boy Williamson II. To make ends meet Bell developed his talent on bass guitar .
Bell played harmonica (harp) and bass for other blues musicians during the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s before embarking on a solo career. Besides his own albums, he recorded as an accompanist or duo artist with Earl Hooker, Robert Nighthawk, Lowell Fulson, Eddie Taylor, Louisiana Red and Jimmy Dawkins. He even played with Muddy Waters , Willie Dixon,Howlin Wolf and Earl Hooker.
….and here he is playing bass
Here is a recording from 1964 on Maxwell Street with Bell playing with Robert Nighthawk (Cruisin in a cadillac)
Another from the American Folk Blues Festival of 1983 accompanying Louisiana Red (guitar/vocals) and with his friend and godfather Lovie Lee on piano.
And here is a great clip which shows Bell’s virtuosity and feeling on the harp -Easy to Love you. This is from the 1982 American Folk Blues Festival and recorded in Germany. He is accompanied on guitar by his son Lurrie Bell and notice the chromatic harmonica and the range of his playing.
Here is another great blues from 1981 – ‘A man and his blues’ -with Hubert Sumlin and Lurrie Bell on guitars. Again Carey gets a wide range of sounds out of his harmonica. Great interplay between guitar and harp.
Carey Bell and the sons of blues -American Folk Blues Festival (1982 Germany) – apart from the sensitive and joyous harp playing check his relationship with guitar playing son Lurrie Bell.
When you feel confident with Carey’s style why not work on some harp of your own with a great lesson from the wonderful teacher, Adam Gussow:
Apart from bending notes ,wah wah must be the next key ‘effect’ that belongs in the blues harp player’s basic toolbox. Many players can produce a wah wah effect but do not have the control to provide the variety of sounds that more advanced players can achieve. Adam Gussow, once again, provides those specific hints to give any learner the power to produce a really professional sound, with practice.
Just sit back and listen to the lesson. Following the lesson we can sample those players who have mastered the different wah wah effects , such as Sonny Boy Williamson II , Big Walter Horton and Sonny Terry . Lastly, pick up your harp, go back to Adam’s lesson and practice.
One of the best exponents of the wah wah effect on harp was Sonny Boy Williamson – particularly the first type illustrated by Adam:
With Sonny Boy II and ‘Your funeral and my trial’ have a look at his hand positions whn making his different wah wah sounds
Check out Big Walter Horton in the next video s he shows you many ways of holding the harp and what difference it makes to the sound , particularly wah wah.
This is Sonny Terry’s Hooting the blues -check out the variety of sounds he gets with his hand movements (see type three in Adam’s classification)
Sonny Terry helped Paul Lamb get started -takee a look at how the student progressed:
Some great wah wah in the middle and a little more teaching from Paul Lamb….
lYou might like to look at how other teachers approach the wah wah sound (but not as good as Adam for me)
Watch and listen to another teacher -Ronnie Shellist
Listen to others,watch others and just practice so that you develop ‘muscle memory’ and eventually you can get your own sound.
As well as a general description of some of the “top 10′ blues harp players I thought I would explore in some more detail, some of the real greats. I have started with Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee Williamson) and Sonny Boy Williamson II (Aleck Rice Miller) and now we have Marion ‘Little Walter’ Jacobs. One of the best ways to learn blues harp is to first listen to as many great players as you can exploring the wide variety of sounds that can be produced by this humble instrument.
Little Walter (born Marion Walter Jacobs in Marksville, LA, and raised in Alexandria, LA) (May 1, 1930 – February 15, 1968) was a blues singer, harmonica player, and guitarist.
Jacobs is generally included among blues music greats—his revolutionary harmonica technique has earned comparisons to Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix in its impact. There were great musicians before and after, but Jacobs’ virtuosity and musical innovations reached heights of expression never previously imagined, and fundamentally altered many listeners’ expectations of what was possible on blues harmonica. . Little Walter’s body of work earned him a spot in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the sideman category on March 10, 2008, making him the only artist ever to be inducted specifically for his work as a harmonica player.
One version of the life of Little Walter:
Arriving in Chicago in 1945, he occasionally found work as a guitarist but garnered more attention for his already highly developed harmonica work. (According to fellow Chicago bluesman Floyd Jones, Little Walter’s first recording was an unreleased demo on which Walter played guitar backing Jones.) Jacobs grew frustrated with having his harmonica drowned out by electric guitarists, and adopted a simple, but previously little-used method: He cupped a small microphone in his hands along with his harmonica, and plugged the microphone into a guitar or public address amplifier. He could thus compete with any guitarist’s volume. Unlike other contemporary blues harp players, such as the original Sonny Boy Williamson and Snooky Pryor, who had been using this method only for added volume, Little Walter utilized amplification to explore radical new timbres and sonic effects previously unheard from a harmonica Madison Deniro wrote a small biographical piece on Little Walter stating that “He was the first musician of any kind to purposely use electronic distortion.”
Early Little Walter recordings, like many blues harp recordings of the era, owed a strong stylistic debt to pioneering blues harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee Williamson.) Little Walter joined Muddy Waters’ band in 1948, and by 1950 he was playing on Muddy’s recordings for Chess Records; for years after his departure from Muddy’s band in 1952, Little Walter continued to be brought in to play on his recording sessions, and as a result his harmonica is featured on most of Muddy’s classic recordings from the 1950s.
Jacobs’ own career took off when he recorded as a bandleader for Chess’ subsidiary label Checker Records on 12 May 1952; the first completed take of the first song attempted at his debut session was a massive hit, spending eight weeks in the #1 position on the Billboard magazine R&B charts – the song was “Juke”, and it was the only harmonica instrumental ever to become a #1 hit on the R&B charts. (Three other harmonica instrumentals by Little Walter also reached the Billboard R&B top 10: “Off the Wall” reached #8, “Roller Coaster” achieved #6, and “Sad Hours” reached the #2 position while Juke was still on the charts.) “Juke” was the biggest hit to date for Chess and its affiliated labels, and secured Walter’s position on the Chess artist roster for the next decade. Little Walter scored fourteen top-ten hits on the Billboard R&B charts between 1952 and 1958, including two #1 hits (the second being “My Babe” in 1955), a feat never achieved by his former boss Waters, nor by his fellow Chess blues artists Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson II. Following the pattern of “Juke”, most of Little Walter’s single releases in the 1950s featured a vocal on one side, and an instrumental on the other. Many of Walter’s numbers were originals which he or Chess A&R man Willie Dixon wrote or adapted and updated from earlier blues themes. In general his sound was more modern and uptempo than the popular Chicago blues of the day, with a jazzier conception than other contemporary blues harmonica players.
and many people’s favourite…My Babe
Key to the highway
and an early recording of Moonshine Blues (Little Walter Trio)
His legacy has been enormous: he is widely credited by blues historians as the artist primarily responsible for establishing the standard vocabulary for modern blues and blues rock harmonica players. – His influence can be heard in varying degrees in virtually every modern blues harp player who came along in his wake, from blues greats such as Junior Wells, James Cotton, George “Harmonica” Smith, Carey Bell, and Big Walter Horton, through modern-day masters Kim Wilson, Rod Piazza, William Clarke, and Charlie Musselwhite, in addition to blues-rock crossover artists such as Paul Butterfield and John Popper of Blues Traveler.
Blues with a feeling:
His 1952 instrumental ‘Juke’ was selected as one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll, and on 19 December 2007, was inducted into the Grammy Awards Hall of Fame as an “example of recorded musical masterpieces that have significantly impacted our musical history”
Little Walter was also a much in demand session player and played with a number of great artists, here he is playing with Hound Dog Taylor.
The subject of how Little Walter got “his sound” has been an area of great interest among blues harp players over the last 50-plus years, and has spawned much speculation and debate concerning the exact types of amplifiers and microphones he used. Unfortunately – and amazingly, considering his huge popularity during his heyday – there are no known photographs of Little Walter performing with his own band in the 1950s that show his amplifier, either on a live gig or in the studio. Many of the people who were present on his gigs and studio sessions have been queried over the years – musicians Jimmy Rogers, Dave Myers, Louis Myers, and Jimmie Lee Robinson, among many others – but none of them were paying enough attention to Little Walter’s equipment at the time (let alone their own) to remember any of the specifics of Little Walter’s set-up when they were asked about it later.
There’s also the issue of defining “The Little Walter sound”. It’s more-or-less generally accepted these days that Little Walter’s signature harmonica sound was the harsh, heavily distorted sound of a cheap mic and an old tube amp pushed to its limits. But if one takes the time to listen to the recordings of Little Walter’s amplified harp playing in chronological order, it becomes obvious that his sound changed noticeably and sometimes dramatically from session to session, from the almost-acoustic sound of “Juke” and “Can’t Hold On Much Longer”, to the broken-kazoo rasp of “Rocker”, and everything in between. In fact, close examination reveals that there were a lot more recordings made with a light-to-moderately amplified harmonica sound than there were with the over-driven, harshly distorted sound that so many latter-day harp players think of as ‘the LW sound’. So although we may not know specifically what he was playing through on any given session, based on the ever-changing nature of his amplified harp sound on records, it does seem pretty clear that he went through a wide array of different amplifiers, and that there was no single microphone & amplifier combination that he settled on, or considered essential to achieving his desired results.
When Little Walter himself was asked about it, he was unable to even remember the brand name of his favorite amplifier, let alone the model, and offered a somewhat confusing description of what it looked like. So unless a pile of Little Walter performance photos that has been buried in someone’s closet for last half century suddenly comes to light, it appears that the precise identity of any of the many different amplifiers Little Walter undoubtedly used during his prime years will remain in the realm of educated guesses and wild speculation. It simply is not known with any certainty, and it would be wise to question the motives of anyone who claims otherwise – they’re probably trying to sell you something.
Some diligent detective work has turned up a few possible candidates in the amplifier category though. According to several of the musicians who played in his bands, in the early ’50s Walter had a portable P.A. system which he took on the road and used for both vocals and harp, which makes sense – guitar amps were for guitars, and P.A. systems were for microphones. As a singer/harp player, Little Walter needed something not just for harp, but also for his vocals, so a P.A. system would have been the logical choice for the job. Guitarist Jimmie Lee Robinson, who played in LW’s band from 1955 to 1959, said LW never even brought an amp to his local gigs in Chicago – he always played through the house P.A. system in local clubs. But it’s important to consider that Little Walter’s choice of a P.A. system (as opposed to a guitar amp) for his harmonica probably wasn’t based on any special ‘mojo’ factor afforded by the P.A. amp vs. a guitar amp. More likely, it was simply because that’s what ALL singers used; it’s what was available at the time, and if you were a singing harp player in the ’50s, you played your harp into the same mic you sang into. In other words, one wouldn’t have one mic/amp combination for the harp, and a separate mic plugged into a P.A. system for the vocals, as so many do today – according the guitarists Jimmie Lee Robinson and Dave Myers, Walter always used the same mic for both harp and vocals on club gigs. It was just a happy accident that the relatively low quality of vocal mic / P.A. set-ups available at the time was well suited for the amplified harp sound.
There are a number of photos taken in Chicago blues clubs during that era that show house P.A. systems consisting of the same type of portable systems referred to above, so it’s entirely likely that he would have a similar set up of his own for road gigs. Guitarist Dave Myers, who played in LW’s band from 1952 until 1955, said that he thought that LW had a “Macon” amplifier at one point; since there doesn’t appear to be such a brand available at the time, he probably confused the name with “Masco”, a brand of portable P.A. systems which were common then. At that time, the standard portable P.A. systems consisted of two separate speaker cabinets and a small stand-alone tube amp that could be attached together into a single, suitcase-like unit for portability. Among the companies that manufactured these systems were Stromberg-Carlson, Masco, Knight, Bell, Bogan and others, and each of these companies made various models, but many with the same basic two-speaker-cabinets-and-an-amp configuration. It’s likely that Little Walter used at least one of these brands at some point.
See the site for more details and an interview with Little Walter.
The “Juke” session. A 7″ reel, not in the original tape box, but a photocopy of the original session log is with the tape. There’s no ‘take one’ on this reel, but it is a full reel, suggesting that T1 was not removed from the reel, but that the tape was rewound immediately after T1 (probably a breakdown), and it was recorded over. The first thing at the beginning of this tape is T2, which is the issued master take of “Juke”, separated from the rest of the tape by white leader tape on both sides. Immediately before T3:
Jimmy Rogers: I’ll give you that boogie…
The take begins, with what sounds exactly like the issued alternate take, but instead of launching into the song after the repeated ‘stabbing’ intro, everyone just keeps on stabbing, apparently not knowing where to do the ‘stop’ where LW will then launch into the body of the song. They eventually falter, and everyone stops.
Elga: (Apologetically) I was off. [I assume this is Elga – it’s definitely not Muddy, Jimmy or LW.]
LW: (calmly) Ya see, if he’d a kicked it off right…we coulda made it, and I could given you the ‘bop bop bop bop bop ba BOP’ (describing the final hits before he launches into the body of the song.)
Muddy: When you give me the ‘bop bop bop BOP’…
Elga: Well, I’m watching your foot, when you start. Well, I’m gonna start with you this time, when YOU start.
[Walter seems to be in a good mood, speaking without any trace of irritation in his voice.]
The engineer (Putnam) calls Take 4 in the middle of the above discussion, and LW starts playing almost immediately, while Elga is still speaking, with no count in.
[My impression is that the first complete take, T2, must have been the best worked-out version – the one they were doing on the band stand – and that afterwards they decided to try and spice it up a little bit by adding in the new intro. It may have been felt that the new arrangement wasn’t tight enough or something, after trying it out a few times in the studio. At any rate, there are no further attempts at this after T4.]
After the take ends, a few seconds later you can hear what was on this reel before it was re-used for this Chess session – a commercial for “Lava” hand soap. A 1950s-style radio announcer can be heard for a few seconds saying “Lava soap gets out grease, grit from under the nails, and every other…” The next thing heard on the tape is the continuation of the LW session. Immediately before T1:
Len: (giving LW direction on how to do the song)…’Crazy About You Baby’, then WHAM!…
T1 starts with LW’s harp, heavily amplified sound, then is stopped from the control booth during the intro.
Len: You squeak on your intro on the harp, I don’t know why…
Putnam: Turn the volume down a little, I’ll pull it up in here.
Len: Turn your volume down.
LW (quietly): It’s turned down, Leonard.
Putnam: Take 2…
…and LW starts immediately, with no count in. T2 is the issued alt. – the harp is less amplified than T1.
The tape is stopped, then once again an old time radio commercial is heard bleeding through for a few seconds, this time for a live broadcast from Chicago’s Hotel Sherman on local radio station WMAQ.
When the tape starts again, LW can be heard snorting loudly, clearing his sinuses. Someone in the studio says something unintelligible in the background.
LW: Yeah! (laughing nervously…) Heh heh heh heh…
Putnam: Walter, you’re too loud…
Evans: It’s too loud, the amp.
Putnam: Take 4
LW starts again, this time playing strictly acoustic style – no amp at all, and noticeably faster than the earlier takes. Putnam almost immediately breaks in and stops the take.
Putnam: Use the hand mic…
LW: (Agreeably) No, you said it was too low, I mean, it’s… (tape stops)
Tape starts again.
Putnam: Take 5
LW starts again. It sounds exactly like the issued master take, but Putnam stops them again.
Putnam: I didn’t have a good balance…(pauses)…Take 6.
This take is leadered on the tape, and is the issued master, and the last thing on the tape.
The next reel up was a 10” reel. There were no session log sheets with it, but attached to the box was a sheet of paper that had these words written on it:
Only 19 – M. Waters 8979
Close To You – M. Waters 8980
Walkin’ Thru The Park – Muddy Waters 9140
Key To The Highway – vocal – Little Walter 8981
Inst. – Juke – In two Inst. 8982
“ “ 9141
(pulled 12/10/76 to Walter Vol. 2)
The tape starts with the leadered master to 19 Years Old – no count in. No other takes or talking. This is followed by…
Engineer (doesn’t sound like Putnam): OK, we’re rolling on take 2.
LW: Say man, take it [or “dig it”], why don’t you play with your brushes, get a better sound…
? (musician, to LW): Why don’t you let him drive it?
Muddy: Let him drive it…
LW: I want ‘em to hear me…
Muddy: Let’s make it.
Muddy then counts the song in, and they play “Close To You”, with the drummer (Clay?) using sticks instead of brushes. This is the only take on the tape, and has leader tape after it separating it from the next song.
[LW was apparently complaining that the drummer was playing too loud and was drowning him out.]
Next cut begins with LW in the middle of describing the rhythm of his intro to “Walkin’ Thru The Park” to the band.
LW: (snapping fingers on accents): Bamp, Bam de Bamp!
Len: Alright, take two, watch it.
LW: (into harp mic) Alright…(then continues demonstrating his intro to the band, blowing it on harp, but off mic.)
? (probably Clay): That’s a Latin American intro…I don’t know…(pause)…one, two, one two three…
(band begins and plays complete master take)
After the leader tape at the end of this take, the next thing heard is…
Len: Take two to Key To The Highway, is that what you’re playing?
LW (loudly, emphatically into harp mic): Yeah! We’re takin’ it to it!
? (Spann or Clay?): One, two, one two three…
(band begins and plays complete master take)
After the leader tape at the end, we hear:
Len (with irritation in his voice): Awright, take 10 on the instrumental…don’t fuck with the mic, man, let’s go!
LW (into heavily reverbed harp mic): OK Len.
And the band then plays the master take of “Rock Bottom”. This take has a pretty bad edit/splice near the end, which isn’t in the issued master, so it must have broken at some later date. After the leader tape:
Len (sounding agitated, almost yelling): Let’s go! Take 9! Walter!
(LW, Muddy, and others in studio are all talking at once, unintelligible through the HEAVY echo.)
Muddy: Do that…
LW: Yeah. Aw…No. I mean, when you do THAT, I’m back around with…(verbalizes a harp lick)…
?: (laughing, apparently at LW)
Muddy: I mean, when you do THAT, I’ll be HERE (plays guitar lick)
LW (sounding irritated): (Unintelligible) is back over there, and I lay in the hole…
Len (clearly impatient): Walter, let’s go, take 9!
LW: OK…count it off, (unintelligible – sounds like “Matty”, or maybe “Smitty”)
Drummer taps off the count, and the band plays the take that was issued as the Alt. Version, which is faded out in the studio as they continue to play.
After this take, there is a fragment of some pre-take harp and guitar noodling from an earlier attempt at “Rock Bottom”, followed by a fragment of the middle of an earlier take of it, followed by a few seconds of Muddy and Walter working out their guitar and harp parts between takes, during which we hear:
Len: Hold it, hold it, hold it, hold it. Walter, you wanna (unintelligible, maybe “get…???”, or “break for supper”), or are you ready to go?
Then another fragment of another take in progress. Then a count in to yet another un-numbered take, during which someone in the studio cautions LW:
? (musician): Don’t say shit!
LW: (cracks up laughing)
The drummer then taps out the time to begin another take, but at the end of his tapping, apparently distracted by LW’s laughing, no one plays a note. After a pause…
LW: (Blows a lick on a HEAVILY reverbed harp mic)…all right man…let me know when you’re ready. (Sounds relaxed and in a good mood.)
Len: Take seven.
LW (snapping fingers in time): One, two, one two three…
The band starts a slower, lazier sounding version of “Rock Bottom”. Before the first twelve bars are through, Leonard breaks in.
Len: Pick the tempo up a little bit.
LW: Pick up on it?
Before the take number can be announced, someone in the band counts off a faster version, and the band launches into it. About one verse in, this take is cut off, apparently recorded over beginning at that point. A few seconds later we hear a little bit of unintelligible off mic discussion, and noodling on harp and guitar, followed by Walter apparently answering someone who can’t be heard on tape…
LW: Yes, I already know.
Another un-slated take is then tapped in by the drummer, but it’s followed by leader tape, then the tape ends.
A few months after returning from his second European tour, he was involved in a fight while taking a break from a performance at a nightclub on the South Side of Chicago. The relatively minor injuries sustained in this altercation aggravated and compounded damage he had suffered in previous violent encounters, and he died in his sleep at the apartment of a girlfriend at 209 E. 54th St. in Chicago early the following morning.The official cause of death indicated on his death certificate was “coronary thrombosis” (a blood clot in the heart); evidence of external injuries was so insignificant that police reported that his death was of “unknown or natural causes; no external injuries were noted on the death certificate. His body was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Evergreen Park, IL on February 22, 1968
Blues harp learning and playing -sometimes there is not enough time to surf the net to locate the site that is particularly useful, so I thought I would review three or four of the best for finding out about blues harp learning and playing.
Blues harps Ray Harris
I would have to start with Adam Gussow, who as a teacher, is now well known and his site does not disappoint. It may not have many flashing lights but for straight forward intelligent information then it is certainly worth a look.
Two items that interested me was Adam’s take on blues harp tablature and the assessment of levels of proficiency:
A word about my tabs: Many years ago, when I got my first harmonica teaching gig at the Guitar Study Center in New York, I purchased a few of the commercially-available instruction books. Most of them used standard harp tablature–numbered arrows pointing up and down–but none of them indicated, with even minimal precision, the duration of each note, not to mention the rhythmic emphases (syncopation or “swing”) that made for real blues. A few of them offered this information in the form of actual musical notation instead of tablature, but like most harp players, I didn’t read music. So I developed my own form of tablature from the ground up.
My tabs give you numbers and arrows to indicate which hole you play and whether it’s draw or blow, like standard harp tabs, but they also give you a precise rhythmic count underneath the arrows. As you’ll see if you order one of my videos, I’m a stickler about counting time. If you can’t count your way through a tab, you can’t play the song with the precision and intensity it deserves. Modern Blues Harmonica is NOT about mush-mouth harp. No matter what level you are, I believe in treating you like a serious musician. Counting time accurately is part of what it means to be a musician. My tabs, in any case, are specifically designed to ground you in rhythmic fundamentals. Most of them are hand-drawn, but please don’t confuse this handmade aspect with carelessness, backwardness, or lack of precision. I take great pride in my work. You can find a few other accurate, precision-engineered harp transcriptions on the web–Glenn Weiser and David Barrett are both excellent–but I believe that my tabs offer a combination of accuracy, accessibility, and an attention to syncopation that makes them unique.
What level are you?
INTERMEDIATE: You are able to bend the 4, 3, and 2 draw without much trouble. The 4 and 2 sound pretty good; the 3 isn’t as bluesy as it should be because you don’t yet have the control to consistently hit the “blue third,” a ½-step bend. You’ve probably tried tongue-blocking but you’re not very good at it. Simple melodies are easy for you. You’ve spent some time jamming along with 12-bar changes—either CDs or jam tracks or, if you’re lucky, the guitar-playing of a friend. You may even have gotten up at a jam session, or sat in with a local band. You have some very basic harmonic knowledge: you know, for example, that the 2 draw is the root of the I chord, and that the 4 draw is a good note to play on over the V chord. But you’re still finding your way through the 12-bar changes and you need some guidance about which notes/holes work best over which chords. When asked to improvise over 12-bar blues changes for two or three choruses, you run out of ideas. Your playing definitely sounds “bluesy” to your friends and fellow players, but you’re beginning to realize just how much you don’t know about blues harmonica. You occasionally still have trouble getting clean, strong single notes, although moving from hole to hole now seems quite natural to you. You can keep the beat fairly well and you may even have a chord pattern—chugging, a train song—that really drives. You’re not sure what “swing” is, as a rhythmic concept, or how to work it into your playing.
The forum section is useful not only for present forum posts but for the archive of posts – you are bound to find some answers to some of your technique , technical and tablature questions.
And if you want to buy…there are plenty of resources to buy and download.
And there are the lessons -great teacher and great lessons on all aspects of harp playing as well as maintenance and gear.
Along with the text are lots of pictures and diagrams, charts, and tables, to summarize information and provide a quick reference to information in an easy to find, clear, and understandable way. There is advice to help you choose which harp to get, what keys to get first, and much much more.
A mine of good information here -just look at the range of topics covered on this site:
Harmonica Club.com began in June of 2000 when we started building a harmonica tab website. People used email their songs and tabs and I’d post them on the site. We were eventually able to develop a site where members could upload songs and tabs directly, each member having their own profile.
There is a forum and a members area for those who want to sign up and get extra benefits and also a section on learning and playing:
BluesHarp Legends – NEW! Courtesy of The All Music Guide to the Blues we have all new photos, bio’s and MP3 music clips of the Founding Fathers of the BluesHarp… the men who invented and defined the Blues Harmonica sound.
If you are wanting to learn blues harmonica (blues harp) the best place to start is with Adam Gussow.
Listen to one of his many and great lessons (you can see I am a fan!)
Having said this , learners learn in different ways, and so it is good to look up several teaching sites and try to learn what you can from each. Some provide some beginners lessons for free in the hope that you will join and pay anything from 4 USD per month upwards for membership. Some provide forums which can be very helpful,when choosing harps, learning specific techniques,knowing which key a particular blues tune is in or just exchanging ideas and realising you are part of a musical community. I will list a few of the popular sites with some of their particular features.
This is Dave Gage’s site , harmonicalessons.com A very comprehensive site – as well as lessons , he has forums, playing tips of the day . even information on making harp repairs, and a full list of playing techniques
Full membership costs $37.95 but there are other membership schemes. Examples of the info available on the site:
“Number and Arrow” system of notation– The “up” arrows indicate blow (exhale) notes and the “down” arrows are for the draw (inhale) notes- The little “b’s” under the bent arrows are flat signs. One “b” is a half step bend and two “b’s” are a whole step bend (as shown in the graphic below).All riffs are played in the 2nd position– For more information on 2nd position, visit the General Overview section.Use your own timing– Except for the triplet riffs, you can use your own timing with these riffs to make them fit into whatever song you are playing with. Listen to the sound file below the riffs to help get you started.
For Intermediate and Advanced players– you can add a 4 draw bend between the 4 blow and the 4 draw of the “Almost Blues Scale” riff. This will make it a complete one octave blues scale.
“Jam-To” Blues MIDI File– If you would like a quick, easy background song to begin jamming to, you can use the “Jam-To” MIDI File in “G” to try out the different riffs and ideas outlined here. Additional MIDI files are also available.
12 Bar Blues MIDI File:
Here is a 12 bar blues MIDI file in the key of “G”,Slow_Blues_in_G.mid, that you can download and play/practice to with a standard key of “C” diatonic played in 2nd position. There is over 5 minutes of MIDI music that you can jam to (7 times through the 12 bar blues).
Once you click on the MIDI file it should download and begin to play. If it hasn’t started playing automatically, you can double-click on this file and it should open your operating system’s default MIDI player (Windows Media Player on a PC or QuickTime on a Mac).
Since the first four bars of the song is an intro, the first full 12 bar blues pattern begins on the 5th bar. You can start playing at anytime or wait until the fifth bar to begin the full 12 bar blues pattern.
To accurately come in on bar 5, hit the play button on your MIDI player, and then count 1 2 3 4, 2 2 3 4, 3 2 3 4, 4 2 3 4 (four beats or foot taps per bar), and you’re in. Another way to come in at the beginning of the first full 12 bar blues pattern, is to listen for the drums to do a short 2 beat pickup (or fill) just before all the instruments begin playing at bar 5.
And what about harmonicas. Hohner marine band harps have been favourites for decades but the move to plastic parts such as you will find on Lee Oskar harps, have become new stars with new harp players.
I can agree that Lee Oskars are really worth trying,not expensive, but good quality and a wide range of keys (try the Em!)
There are two basic trills used by blues harp players, the hole 4 and 5 draw trill and the hole 3 and 4 draw trill. The idea here is pretty simple. You just draw in on the harp and move the harp back and forth across your mouth either with your hands or by shaking your head. Mastering these trills is not easy however. Again, you have to be careful to sound each note individually or the effect will not be the desired one. Once you have mastered the basic trills you can try things like bending the trilled notes while you trill. You can also experiment with finding other trills on the harp on your own.
The trills look like this:
4-5 draw trill
4 5 4 5 4 5 4 5 4 5 4 5
D D D D D D D D D D D D
Click here to download an audio file of the “4-5 draw trill” above played on a “C” harmonica:
Check out the introductory lessons at harmonica club on this site there is plenty of info about all aspects of harmonica playing,including a range of techniques and a useful forum.
$4US per month-and for this you can download tabs/songs in the members area.
There is good introductory video at bluesharmonica
and at blues academy there are some free lessons to get you interested as well as sound files and tabbed songs/tunes and membership starts from $19.95
With the above links and the video starters below – just try some of the lessons first – as I have said, you really have to get the feeling of playing with the teacher – their teaching styles are very different, but you will learn something from all of them. Beware, there are some players with free lessons on youtube that will actually teach you bad habits -the ones below are the better ones to try first.
J.P.Allen has his own site with some good articles on playing the harp as well as listening to others:
We hear a lot about the ‘amplified’ blues harp greats such as Little Walter and James Cotton (thanks Muddy!) but less is known about more acoustic blues harp players from before 1950’s. So this posting charts a few of the players who blazed their own trail and provided a fertile ground for others to play and dance upon. Let’s start with the more famous John Lee Curtis ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson who really did change the status of the blues harp and prepared the ground for the explosion of amplified blues harp playing in Chicago in the 50’s.
What is interesting about SBW I is that he straddled the transition between acoustic harp and amplified harp, made many innovations but was not able to capitalise on them as much as SBTII (Aleck Rice Miller).
John Lee Curtis Williamson was born near Jackson, Tennessee in 1914. His original recordings were considered to be in the country blues style, but he soon demonstrated skill at making the harmonica a lead instrument for the blues, and popularized it for the first time in a more urban blues setting. He has often been called “the father of modern blues harp”.
Williamson taught himself the harmonica as a child, influenced by great players like Will Shade and Hammie Nixon from nearby Memphis. At age eleven, he received his first harmonica as a Christmas gift from his mother. According to his half-brother, T. W. Utley, when he was not chopping cotton, milking cows, or doing other farm chores, he was teaching himself to play the harmonica by listening to and playing along with records on an old wind-up record player. By the time he was sixteen, Williamson was jamming around Tennessee and Arkansas with guitarist “Sleepy John” Estes and mandolin demon James “Yank” Rachell.
By the time that he had reached his teens, he was already a master of the instrument. Using the name “Sonny Boy” Williamson, he traveled during the depression, performing with artists like Robert Nighthawk and Sleepy John Estes.
By the time that Williamson arrived in Chicago in 1934, he was a seasoned performer, already stretching the boundaries of harmonica playing.
“He played with all the rhythmic subtlety of the best country blues, slurring and wailing the harp notes, making the harmonica almost a single entity….But gradually the rural sound changed, as if the country boy was wising up to city ways,” wrote Giles Oakley, author of The Devil’s Music: A History of the blues.
His use of his hands and his imaginative fills fit well into the growing “urban” style of blues, increasing the level of expression the instrument could bring to a song. Williamson’s call-and-response method of alternating vocals with instrumental verses has become a blues standard. Of course call and response links back to the original cotton field hollers.
John Lee Williamson is regarded as a musician “who brought the harmonica to prominence as a major blues instrument”. He played a tremendous role in influencing the classic Chicago blues of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Among the artists he has influenced are Billy Boy Arnold, Shakey Jake Harris, Big Walter Horton, Little Walter, Dr. Ross, Junior Wells, and Johnny Young.
Pete Welding, on Blues Classic’s Album 21, described Williamson as “a forceful singer, popular recording artist, and the first truly virtuoso blues harmonica player, whose rich, imaginative solo flights resulted in completely re-shaping the playing approach and the role of his humble instrument in the blues.” Many of his songs are considered today as blues classics.
On June 1, 1948, John Lee Williamson was killed in a mugging on Chicago’s South Side, as he walked home from his final performance at The Plantation Club at 31st St. and Giles Ave., a tavern just a block and a half away from his home at 3226 S. Giles. Williamson’s final words are reported to have been ” Lord have mercy”.
His very first recording, “Good Morning, School Girl“, was a major hit on the ‘race records’ market in 1937. He was hugely popular among black audiences throughout the whole southern United States as well as in the midwestern industrial cities such as Detroit and his home base in Chicago, and his name was synonymous with the blues harmonica for the next decade.
Check out this documentary of the life of John Lee Curtis Williamson:
Some of the following text about some of the early blues harp players has been written by Pat Missin, who has a great ability for serious ethnomusicology and it is worth trawling his web site for all things to do with the history,present and future of the blues harp,harmonica and mouthorgan.
Johnny Watson, alias Daddy Stovepipe was born in Mobile, Alabama, on April 12th 1867 and died in Chicago, November 1st 1963. A veteran of the turn of the century medicine shows, he was in his late fifties when he became one of the first blues harp players to appear on record in 1924. He later recorded with his wife, Mississippi Sarah, in the 1930s and spent his last years as a regular performer on Chicago’s famous Maxwell Street, where he made his last recordings (issued on LP as Collector’s Issue C-5527, now out of print).Maxwell Street was the home of Bo Diddley, Junior Wells, Little Walter, Uncle Johnnie Williams, Big Bill Broonzy, Papa Charlie Jackson, Arthur Crudup, Hound Dog Taylor, One-Armed John Wrencher, One-legged Sam, Snooky Prior, Sonnyboy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and countless blues legends.
Take a look at some of the historical footage of the rise and fall of Maxwell Street Chicago:
About the same time as he made his first recordings, another singer was recorded under the name of Stovepipe No.1. These two musicians make an interesting contrast. Both singers accompanied themselves on harmonica and guitar, but Johnny Watson gained his nickname from the stovepipe hat he wore, whereas Stovepipe No.1 (Sam Jones from Cincinnati) actually played a stovepipe, in a manner similar to a jug.
Daddy Stovepipe played the blues almost exclusively on his early records, but used a straight harp style more associated with white folk music. Stovepipe No.1 on the other hand used a bluesy cross harp style, but his issued recordings featured primarily non-blues material.
By 1960, when he was recorded by Paul Oliver, Watson’s repertoire had broadened following many years of busking throughout the country and he was performing such songs as “Tennessee Waltz”, though with an exuberance rare for a man in his nineties.
STOVEPIPE NO. 1 (SAM JONES)
Little is really known about Stovepipe No. 1. His real name was Sam Jones, he was probably from Cincinnati and he made his first records as a “one-man-band” in 1924, as did Daddy Stovepipe. Sam Jones in many ways was the opposite of Johnny Watson (Daddy Stovepipe). His solo records featured old-time tunes with bluesy cross harp playing, unlike Watson’s blues pieces with old-time straight harp.
As you can see he really did play a stovepipe -getting a sound out of it like a jug.
Sam Jones also played with other people (unlike Watson who recorded solo, or in the company of his wife). His work with David Crockett and King David’s Jug Band (along with his solo sides) is available on Stovepipe No. 1: Complete Recorded Works (1924-1950) & The Jug Washboard Band (1928)1.
DeFord Bailey was born in Tennessee in 1899 to a musical family and at a very young age took up the harmonica. Crippled by a childhood attack of polio and unable to work on his parents’ farm, DeFord began to earn a living playing his harp on the streets of Nashville. Spotted by a talent scout at a harmonica contest in 1925 (DeFord came second to someone called J.T.Bland, playing a version of “Lost John”) he was invited to play on a radio show called “Barn Dance” later to be known as “The Grand Ole Opry”.
Until the early forties Bailey opened the Saturday night radio show with “Pan-American Blues”, a train imitation piece, but his departure from the show was in less than pleasant circumstances and he retired from music to become a shoe-shine boy.
He was persuaded to play the Opry again in the seventies, but never again recorded and died in July 1982.
Bailey was a very influential player, both through his records and his radio work, leaving an impression on such players as Sonny Terry (who recorded a version of Bailey’s “Alcoholic Blues”), the teenage blues harp virtuoso Eddie Mapp and white country harp player Red Parham. Of Bailey’s two recording sessions, eleven tracks have survived.
Eddie Mapp’s career is unfortunately rather typical of many blues players in the 1920s and 1930s – after making a few records, he was found dead in the street in Atlanta, Georgia, at the age of twenty. This means that he was just seventeen or eighteen years old at the time of his only recording session in 1929, in the company of guitarists Guy Lumpkin and Slim Barton and harp player James Moore. Mapp’s playing on these sides is very mature for such a young musician and covers a range of different styles.
Little is known for certain about the harp player who called himself Rhythm Willie. He recorded just two sessions under this name, in 1940 and 1950. He is also almost certainly the harp player on some records by the pianists Lee Brown and Peetie Wheatstraw. The harmonica on these pieces is often listed as by Lee McCoy. This could be Willie’s real name, or it could be due to confusion with singer/guitarist/harp player Robert Lee McCoy (who later became better known as Robert Nighthawk). Robert Lee McCoy did record some pieces with Peetie Wheatstraw, but his harp style is very different from Rhythm Willie.
Paul Oliver has suggested that Willie may have been a white musician, but I am not aware of any evidence to support this. Eddie Taylor, longtime friend and partner of Jimmy Reed said that he knew Rhythm Willie. Taylor claimed that Willie was alive in the 1970s and still living in Chicago, but was considered “crazy” and had retired from music, claiming that nobody understood how to play his songs.
Willie’s musical style is rather similar to harp players such as Blues Birdhead, but even more accomplished. Certainly there is a pronounced jazz flavour to his playing, showing a very definite Louis Armstrong influence in particular and this is underlined by his choice of material, particularly in his post-war recording of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”. Willie’s speciality is cleanly played first position harp. In all the recordings of him that I have located, there is nothing played in the cross harp style, but this appears to have been out of choice rather than any lack of skill with the harp.
Willie Hood, known as Rhythm Willie the Harmonica Wizard, was a popular entertainer in Chicago, up until his death in 1954. His repertoire consisted of jazz-tinged blues and, apparently, pop standards of the time. Here, I have transcribed the opening measures to three of the tunes he recorded at a 1940 session, issued under the name “Rhythm Willie and his Gang”. These tracks have been reissued on “Harps, Jugs, Washboards and Kazoos 1926-1940” (RST Records Jazz Perspectives JPCD-1505-21). “Boarding House Blues” is a typical example of Willie’s first position jazz style (everything he recorded, with the exception of “Breathtakin’ Blues” was played in first position, or straight harp), played here on a G harp. Upper octave first position is often referred to as “Jimmy Reed style”, but Willie was playing in this style in the 30s (or maybe even earlier) with a degree of sophistication that Jimmy Reed never achieved.
Lewis was born in Henning, Tennessee around 1890, and raised in the vicinity of Ripley. He was noted for being able to blow two harmonicas at once – through his mouth and his nose.
He played in local string bands and brass bands, and began playing in Ripley and Memphis areas with Gus Cannon. When jug bands became popular in the mid-1920s, he joined Cannon’s Jug Stompers and recorded for Victor Records areas with in January 1928.
The songs from that session included “Minglewood Blues”, “Springdale Blues”, and “Madison Rag”. Gus would spend his weekends in nearby Ripley, and it was here on a Sunday afternoon in that he met Noah Lewis.Noah introduced Gus to Ashley Thompson who played guitar and was only 13 at the time.
The Noah Lewis Jug Band included “Sleepy” John Estes on guitar and Yank Rachel on Mandolin. During the Nov 26 session they recorded New Minglewood Blues. It is this version that most resembles the verions performed by the Grateful Dead (see Roots of the Grateful Dead http://taco.com/roots/roots.html)
On a later recording with the Jug Stompers, “Viola Lee Blues”, he sang lead vocal and played a melancholy harmonica solo.
Viola Lee Blues (Take 1) by Noah Lewis
The judge he pleaded, clerk he wrote it
Clerk he wrote it down indeedy
The judge he pleaded, the clerk he wrote it down
If you miss jail fellas, you must be Nashville bound
Some got six months, some got one solid
Some got one solid year, indeedy
Some got six months, some got one solid year
But me and my buddy both got lifetime here
Fix my supper mama, let me go to her
Let me go to bed, indeed Lord
Fix my supper, let me go to bed
I’ve been drinkin’ white lightnin’
It’s gone to my head
Noah Lewis was also known as a heavy cocaine user (note cocaine was legal and endemic in Memphis pre-WWI)
Back in Memphis, Will Shade (born 2/5/89 in Memphis) had started the Memphis Jug Band. They became very popular in Memphis, often playing in Church Park. Shade was commonly called Son Brimmer, a nickname from his grandmother Annie Brimmer, because “son” is short for “grandson”. The name apparently stuck when other members of the band noticed that the “sun” bothered him and he used the “brim” of a hat to “shade” his eyes.
Shade himself played the guitar, the “bullfiddle” or washtub bass, and the harmonica, the instrument on which he was most influential. His pure country blues harmonica style served as the foundation for later renowned harmonicists like Big Walter Horton and both Sonny Boy Williamson I and II, and Charlie Musselwhite credits him as a mentor. He composed many of the band’s songs and sang lead vocal on a handful of their recordings.
The Memphis Jug Band was formed in the early 1920s to play parties, clubs, and dances. The band’s appeal was universal; they played for tips in Church’s Park (now W.C. Handy Park) on Beale Street, swanky affairs at the Chickasaw Country Club, and for conventions at the Peabody Hotel. The band played the park not only for tips but also to learn new songs from other jug bands, such as Jack Kelly’s Jug Busters (featuring Frank Stokes), the Three “J’s” (featuring Sleepy John Estes), Robert Wilkins’s four-piece outfit, and solo performers Gus Cannon (of Cannon’s Jug Stompers) and Jim Jackson. In testament to their virtuosity, the Memphis Jug Band obtained the most lucrative gigs, including political rallies and private parties for E.H. Crump, Memphis’ notorious mayor.
The Memphis Jug Band first recorded for Victor in February 1927 and over the next four years recorded 57 sides. By 1930 there were seven different jug bands active in Memphis. The Memphis Jug Band had become so popular, and large, that they would split into two versions and play two different gigs on the same night.
The Memphis Jug Band had a fluid membership during the nearly 40 years that it was active, recording under a number of names and in a variety of styles ranging from blues and rags to gospel. All the while, though, Will Shade was the backbone of the group, as he was the one responsible for finding new members to keep the jug band alive. The group’s best material came mainly from him; intelligently, Shade tried, whenever possible, to copyright his music under his name. Besides being the head of the band’s music, Shade was also in charge of the business affairs of the Memphis Jug Band, planning gigs and distributing money.
Various musicians recorded with the band from its first session in February 1927 to its final session in November 1934. These performers included Ben Ramey on kazoo, Will Weldon on guitar and mandolin, “Shakey Walter” Horton on harmonica, Charlie Polk on jug, Vol Stevens on banjo-mandolin (a banjo with a mandolin head), Jab Jones on jug, Hambone Lewis on jug, and vocalist Charlie Nickerson. In 1928, Charlie Burse joined the band as a permanent fixture on guitar and mandolin. The Memphis Jug Band frequently recorded with female singer Hattie Hart and with singer/guitarist Memphis Minnie on one occasion.
The Great Depression, coupled with a concerted police crackdown on gambling in 1930, caused hard times on previously wide-open Beale Street. The jug band craze also subsided in the 1930s, bringing fewer recording opportunities and smaller tips. The band tried to update to a jazzier sound for their final recording date, but commercial success had passed. The Memphis Jug Band’s best records epitomize the Roaring Twenties in Memphis.
Blues researcher Samuel Charters found Will Shade and his old cohorts in 1956 still playing together and released several field recordings under the Memphis Jug Band name. The band during this period usually included Shade’s long time friend Charlie Burse, whom Shade had picked up in 1928 as a vocalist and tenor guitarist, and sometimes included old rival Gus Cannon. Shade also appeared as an accompanist on Cannon’s “comeback” album, Walk Right In, recorded by Stax Records in 1963. Will Shade continued to put together jug bands in the 1940s, often with Charlie Burse. The two were rediscovered and recorded by. Will Shade died of pneumonia on September 18, 1966.
I was reminded by barbad of two other harmonica stars:
Burl C. ‘Jaybird’ Coleman (1896 -1950)
He was born, raised and worked on a farm, and picked up and learned the harmonica at 12 years of age. Coleman began performing the blues as an entertainer for American soldiers while serving in the United States Army. It was during this period that he was given the nickname “Jaybird” due to his independent manner. In the early 1920s, he teamed with fellow bluesman Big Joe Williams as a performer in the Birmingham Jug Band which toured through the American South.
Coleman made his first recordings as a solo artist in 1927. His career as a recording artist lasted only until 1930, after which he performed mostly on street corners throughout Alabama.
Harmonica player Hammie Nixon was born on January 22, 1908, in Brownsville, TN. An orphan at a young age, he was raised by foster parents. He began his career as a professional harmonical player in the 1920s, but also played the kazoo, guitar, and jug. He performed with Sleepy John Estes for more than 50 years, first recording withEstes in 1929 for the Victor label. He also recorded with Little Buddy Doyle, Lee Green, Charlie Pickett, and Son Bonds.
Nixon helped to pioneer the use of the harmonica as an accompaniment instrument with a band in the 1920s. Previous to that time, it had been mostly a solo instrument. He played with many jug bands. After Estes died, Nixon played with the Beale Street Jug Band (also called the Memphis Beale Street Jug Band) from 1979 onward. Hammie Nixon died August 17, 1984. (from all music)
Here Hammie Nixon is seen playing live with Sleepy John Estes – ‘I aint gonna sell it ‘-playing together in 1976
Again playing with his friend Sleepy John Estes and showing his skill on ‘wah wah’ -Someday Baby…
and a nice version of the classic Corrine Corrine..the great pair working together once again, Hammie with some good jug band sounds