Cadascú té el seu Olýmpos, per mí, dins l’harmònica, m’atreuen especialment l’atenció els grans mestres que a continuació ressenyo. Són, tret de Larry Adler i George Smith, especialistes de l’harmònica diatònica moderna, concebuda com instrument solista leader de la banda. Generalment amplifiquen l’instrument per emular una guitarra elèctrica, i tenen en comú, tret de Larry Adler i Phil Wiggins, el fet de que han configurat l’estil Chicago. Considero que són el gran referent pel que fa a só, fraseig, swing, drive i atac.
Vagi doncs per ells aquest petit homenatge. La seva forma de tocar l’harmònica es pot transferir a la cromàtica acústica, i si a més a més se li suma algun mestissatge amb coses que han fet altres grans instrumentistes de jazz (trompetistes, saxofonistes, etc.), recuperar novament el só acústic sense distorsions, tocar simplement sobre una llengüeta cercant el só net i personal, utilitzar tots els seus registres, en fi que amb les noves harmòniques es pot engrandir aquest injustament marginat instrument, inspirant-nos en aquests mestres però sense imitar-los. Cada cosa al seu temps.
A continuació en seqüència cronològica hi trobaràs una ressenya de cada un d’aquests grans mestres.
Sonny Boy Williamson II (Aleck “Rice” Miller) (1908 -1965)
Aleck “Rice” Miller (date unconfirmed – May 25, 1965), a.k.a. Aleck Ford, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Willie Williamson, Willie Miller, “Little Boy Blue”, “The Goat” and “Footsie,” was an American blues harmonica player, singer and songwriter.
Aleck Ford was born on the Sara Jones Plantation near Glendora, Mississippi in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. The date and year of his birth are a matter of some uncertainty. He claimed to have been born on December 5, 1899, but one researcher, David Evans, claims to have found census record evidence that he was born around 1912. His gravestone has his birthdate as March 11, 1908.
He lived and worked with his sharecropper stepfather, Jim Miller, whose last name he soon adopted, and mother, Millie Ford, until the early 1930s. Beginning in the 1930s, he traveled around Mississippi and Arkansas and encountered Big Joe Williams, Elmore James and Robert Lockwood, Jr., also known as Robert Junior Lockwood, who would play guitar on his later Checker Records sides. He was also associated with Robert Johnson during this period.
Miller developed his style and raffish stage persona during these years. Willie Dixon recalled seeing Lockwood and Miller playing for tips in Greenville, Mississippi in the 1930s. He entertained audiences with novelties such inserting one end of the harmonica into his mouth and playing with no hands.
In 1941 Miller was hired to play the King Biscuit Time show, advertising the King Biscuit brand of baking flour on radio station KFFA in Helena, Arkansas with Lockwood.
It was at this point that the radio program’s sponsor, Max Moore, began billing Miller as Sonny Boy Williamson, apparently in an attempt to capitalize on the fame of the well known Chicago-based harmonica player and singer John Lee Williamson (see Sonny Boy Williamson I). Although John Lee Williamson was a major blues star who had already released dozens of successful and widely influential records under the name “Sonny Boy Williamson” from 1937 onward, Aleck Miller would later claim to have been the first to use the name, and some blues scholars believe that Miller’s assertion he was born in 1899 was a ruse to convince audiences he was old enough to have used the name before John Lee Williamson, who was born in 1914. Whatever the methodology, Miller became commonly known as “Sonny Boy Williamson,” (universally distinguished by blues fans and musicians as “Sonny Boy Williamson number two” or “Sonny Boy Williamson the second”) and Lockwood and the rest of his band were billed as the King Biscuit Boys.
In 1949 Sonny Boy relocated to West Memphis, AR, and lived with his sister and her husband, Howlin’ Wolf. (Later, for Checker Records, he did a parody of Howlin’ Wolf entitled “Like Wolf.”) Sonny Boy started his own KWEM radio show from 1948 to 1950 selling the elixir Hadacol.
Sonny Boy also brought his King Biscuit musician friends to West Memphis, Elmore James, Houston Stackhouse, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Robert Nighthawk and others to perform on KWEM Radio.
In the 1940s Williamson married Mattie Gordon, who remained his wife until his death.
Williamson’s first recording session took place in 1951 for Lillian McMurry of Jackson, Mississippi’s Trumpet Records (three years after the death of John Lee Williamson, which for the first time allowed some legitimacy to Miller’s carefully worded claim to being “the one and only Sonny Boy Williamson”.) McMurry later erected Williamson’s headstone, near Tutwiler, Mississippi, in 1977.
When Trumpet went bankrupt in 1955, Sonny Boy’s recording contract was yielded to its creditors, who sold it to Chess Records in Chicago, Illinois. Sonny Boy had begun developing a following in Chicago beginning in 1953, when he appeared there as a member of Elmore James’s band. It was during his Chess years that he enjoyed his greatest success and acclaim, recording about 70 songs for Chess subsidiary Checker Records from 1955 to 1964. In the early 1960s he toured Europe several times during the height of the British blues craze, recording with The Yardbirds and The Animals, and appearing on several TV broadcasts throughout Europe. According to the Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods, while in England Sonny Boy set his hotel room on fire while trying to cook a rabbit in a coffee percolator. During this tour he allegedly stabbed a man during a street fight and left the country abruptly.(Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues)
Sonny Boy took a liking to the European fans, and while there had a custom-made, two-tone suit tailored personally for him, along with a bowler hat, matching umbrella, and an attaché case for his harmonicas. He appears credited as “Big Skol” on Roland Kirk’s live album Kirk in Copenhagen (1963). One of his final recordings from England, in 1964, featured him singing “I’m Trying To Make London My Home” with Hubert Sumlin providing the guitar. Due to his many years of relating convoluted, highly fictionalized accounts of his life to friends and family, upon his return to the Delta, some expressed disbelief upon hearing of Sonny Boy’s touring across the Atlantic, visiting Europe, seeing the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, and other landmarks, and recording there.
Upon his return to the U.S., he resumed playing the King Biscuit Time show on KFFA, and performanced around Helena, Arkansas. As fellow musicians Houston Stackhouse and Peck Curtis waited at the KFFA studios for Williamson on May 25, 1965, the 12:15 broadcast time was closing in and Sonny Boy was nowhere in sight. Peck left the radio station and headed out to locate Williamson, and discovered his body in bed at the rooming house where he’d been staying, dead of an apparent heart attack suffered in his sleep the night before.
Williamson is buried on New Africa Rd. just outside Tutwiler, Mississippi at the site of the former Whitman Chapel cemetery. His headstone was provided by Mrs. Lillian McMurry, owner of Trumpet Records.
Some of his better known songs include “Don’t Start Me To Talkin’” (his only major hit, it reached the #3 position on the national Billboard R&B charts in 1955),”Fattenin’ Frogs for Snakes”, “Keep It To Yourself”, “Your Funeral and My Trial”, “Bye Bye Bird”, “Nine Below Zero”, “Help Me”, and the infamous “Little Village”, with dialogue ‘unsuitable for airplay’ with Leonard Chess. His song “Eyesight to the Blind” was performed by The Who as a key song in their rock opera Tommy (the only song in that opus not written by a band member) and it was later covered on the Aerosmith album Honkin’ on Bobo. His “One Way Out”, reworked from Elmore James and recorded twice in the early 1960s, became popularized by The Allman Brothers Band in the early 1970s.
In interviews in The Last Waltz, roots-rockers The Band recount jamming with Miller prior to their initial fame as Bob Dylan’s electric backing band, and making never-realized plans to become his backing band.
While tall tales, unlikely fables and outright lies make up much of what Sonny Boy Williamson II had to say about his own life, his most important contributions have been documented well through countless recordings on myriad labels. His output of recordings, both issued and unissued, for Lillian McMurray’s Trumpet label, can be found on Arhoolie, Alligator, Purple Pyramid, Collectables, plus a handful of other domestic and import imprints, while his years as a resident of the Chess/Checker house appear on various compilations on MCA/Chess. His European recordings reside on Alligator, Analogue Productions, Storyville, and others.
(Font: Cub Koda, http://www.bluesharp.ca/legends/sboy2.html)
Larry Adler (1914-2001)
Lawrence “Larry” Cecil Adler (February 10, 1914 – August 7, 2001) was an American musician, widely acknowledged as one of the world’s most skilled harmonica players. Composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Malcolm Arnold, Darius Milhaud and Arthur Benjamin composed works for him. During the later stage of his career he was known for his collaborations with popular musicians Sting, Elton John, Kate Bush, and Cerys Matthews.
Larry Adler was born in Baltimore, Maryland, into a Jewish family and graduated from the Baltimore City College high school. Adler taught himself harmonica (which he preferred to call a mouth-organ) and began playing professionally at the age of 14. In 1927, the harmonica was popular enough that the Baltimore Sun newspaper sponsored a contest. His rendition of a Beethoven minuet won him the award, and a year later, he ran away from home to New York. After being referred by Rudy Vallée, Adler got his first theatre work, and caught the attention of orchestra leader Paul Ash, who placed Adler in a vaudeville act as “a ragged urchin, playing for pennies”. From there, he was hired by Florenz Ziegfeld and then by Lew Leslie (again as an urchin). Adler finally broke the typecasting and appeared in a dinner jacket in the 1934 Paramount film Many Happy Returns, and was hired by British theatrical producer C. B. Cochran to perform in a London revue. Adler found stardom in the United Kingdom and the British Empire; where, it has been written, harmonica sales increased twenty-fold and 300,000 people joined fan clubs.
Adler was one of the first harmonica players to perform major works written for the instrument, often written expressly for him: these include Jean Berger’s Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra “Caribbean” (1941), Cyril Scott’s Serenade (harmonica and piano), Vaughan Williams’ Romance in D (harmonica and string orchestra; premiered New York, 1952), Milhaud’s Suite Anglais (Paris, May 28, 1947), Arthur Benjamin’s Harmonica Concerto (1953), and Malcolm Arnold’s Harmonica Concerto, Op. 46 (1954, written for The Proms). He recorded all these pieces, some more than once. Earlier, Adler had performed transcriptions of pieces written for other instruments, such as violin concertos by Bach and Vivaldi – he played his arrangement of Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in A minor with the Sydney Symphony. Other works he played in harmonica arrangements were by Bartók, Beethoven (Minuet in G), Debussy, Falla, Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue), Mozart (slow movement from the Oboe Quartet, K. 470), Poulenc, Ravel (Boléro), Stravinsky and Walton.
During the 1940s, Adler and the American virtuoso dancer, Paul Draper, formed a very popular act, touring nationally and internationally. Forced to leave the United States by false accusations of communist sympathies during the era of McCarthyism (which made it impossible for Adler to find work), he moved to the United Kingdom in 1949, and settled in London, where he remained for the remainder of his life. The accusations, although without foundation, led to a general sentiment of disregard towards him in the USA during the 1950s and early 1960s.
The 1953 film Genevieve brought him an Oscar nomination for his work on the soundtrack (though his name was originally kept off the credits in the United States due to blacklisting). He scored a huge hit with the theme song of the French Jacques Becker movie Touchez pas au grisbi with Jean Gabin, written by Jean Wiener.
In 1994 for his 80th birthday Adler, along with George Martin, produced an album of George Gershwin songs, The Glory of Gershwin, on which Adler and Martin performed Rhapsody in Blue. Adler was an entertaining performer and showman—the concerts in support of The Glory of Gershwin also revealed that he was a competent pianist, when he opened each performance with Gershwin’s Summertime, playing piano and harmonica simultaneously.
He died peacefully in St Thomas’ Hospital, London, at the age of 87, on August 7, 2001. He was cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium, where his ashes remain.
Apart from his career as a renowned musician, Adler also made appearances in several movies, including Sidewalks of London (1938), in which he played a busker. He was also known as a prolific letter writer, with his correspondence with the satirical magazine Private Eye becoming very popular in the United Kingdom. Larry wrote an autobiography — entitled It Ain’t Necessarily So — in 1985, and worked as a food critic for Harpers & Queen for some time. Larry also appeared on the Jack Benny radio program several times, entertaining disabled soldiers stateside during World War II.
Adler had four children, two grandchildren and two great grandchildren, one of whom was Peter Adler who fronted a band called The Action in Dublin, Ireland in the late 1960s. Adler was an atheist.
Big Walter Horton(1917-1981)
Walter Horton, better known as Big Walter Horton or Walter “Shakey” Horton, (April 6, 1917 – December 8, 1981) was an American blues harmonica player. A quiet, unassuming and essentially shy man, Horton is remembered as one of the most influential harmonica players in the history of blues music. Willie Dixon once called Horton “the best harmonica player I ever heard.”
Born Walter Horton in Horn Lake, Mississippi, he was playing a harmonica by the time he was five years old. In his early teens, he lived in Memphis, Tennessee and claimed that his earliest recordings were done there in the late 1920s with the Memphis Jug Band.
As with many of his peers, he spent much of his career existing on a meager income and living with constant discrimination in a segregated America. In the 1930s he played with various blues performers across the Mississippi delta region. It is generally accepted that his first recordings were made in Memphis, with backing guitarist Little Buddy Doyle on recordings for the Okeh and Vocalion labels, in 1939. These recordings were in the acoustic duo format popularized by Sleepy John Estes with his harmonicist Hammie Nixon, among others. On these recordings, Horton’s style is not yet fully realized, but there are clear hints of what is to come. He eventually stopped playing the harp for a living due to poor health, and worked mainly outside of the music industry in the 1940s. By the early 1950s, he was playing music again, and was among the first to record for Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis.The early Big Walter recordings from Sun include performances from a young Phineas Newborn, Jr. on piano, who later gained fame as a jazz pianist.
During the early 1950s he first appeared on the Chicago blues scene, where he frequently played with fellow Memphis and Delta musicians who had also moved north, including guitarists Eddie Taylor and Johnny Shines. His instrumental track, “Easy” was based on Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Almost Lost My Mind”. When Junior Wells left the Muddy Waters band at the end of 1952, Horton replaced him for long enough to play on one session with Waters in January 1953. Horton’s style had by then fully matured, and he was playing in the heavily amplified style that became one of the trademarks of the Chicago blues sound. He also made great use of techniques such as tongue-blocking. He made an outstanding single as a leader for States in 1954. Horton’s solo on Jimmy Rogers’ 1956 Chess recording “Walking By Myself” has been much copied.
Also known as “Mumbles”, and “Shakey” because of his head motion while playing the harmonica, Horton was active on the Chicago blues scene during the 1960s as blues music gained popularity with white audiences. From the early 1960s onward, he recorded and appeared frequently as a sideman with Eddie Taylor, Johnny Shines, Johnny Young, Sunnyland Slim, Willie Dixon and many others. He toured extensively, usually as a backing musician, and in the 1970s he performed at blues and folk festivals in the U.S. and Europe, frequently with Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues All-Stars. He has also appeared as a guest on recordings by blues and rock stars such as Fleetwood Mac and Johnny Winter.
His musical output, sometimes affected by his often heavy drinking, was somewhat inconsistent over the course of his career, unpredictably wavering between brilliant and workmanlike, and much of his best work was done as a sideman. Two of the best compilation albums of his own work are Mouth-Harp Maestro and Fine Cuts. Also notable is the Big Walter Horton and Carey Bell album, released by Alligator Records in 1972.
He then became a mainstay on the festival circuit, and often played at the open-air market on Chicago’s Maxwell Street. In 1977, he joined Johnny Winter and Muddy Waters on Winter’s album I’m Ready, and during the same period recorded some material for Blind Pig Records. Horton appeared in the Maxwell Street scene in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers, accompanying John Lee Hooker.
Horton died from heart failure in Chicago in 1981 at the age of 64, and was buried in the Restvale Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.
George Harmonica Smith (1924-1983)
BORN: April 22, 1924, Helena, AR
DIED: October 2, 1983, Los Angeles, CA
George Smith was born on April 22, 1924 in Helena, AR, but was raised in Cairo, IL. At age four, Smith was already taking harp lessons from his mother, a guitar player and a somewhat stern taskmaster. It was a case of get-it-right-or-else. In his early teens, he started hoboing around the towns in the South and later joined Early Woods, a country band with Early Woods on fiddle and Curtis Gould on spoons. He also worked with a gospel group in Mississippi called the Jackson Jubilee Singers.
Smith moved to Rock Island, IL, in 1941 and played with a group that included Francis Clay on drums. There is evidence that he was one of the first to amplify his harp. While working at the Dixie Theater, he took an old 16mm cinema projector, extracted the amplifier/speaker, and began using this on the streets.
His influences include Larry Adler and later Little Walter. Smith would sometimes bill himself as Little Walter Jr. or Big Walter. He played in a number of bands including one with a young guitarist named Otis Rush and later went on the road with the Muddy Waters Band, after replacing Henry Strong.
In 1954, he was offered a permanent job at the Orchid Room in Kansas City where, early in 1955, Joe Bihari of Modern Records (on a scouting trip), heard Smith, and signed him to Modern. These recording sessions were released under the name Little George Smith, and included “Telephone Blues” and “Blues in the Dark.” The records were a success.
Smith traveled with Little Willie John and Champion Jack Dupree on one of the Universal Attractions tours. While on the tour, he recorded with Champion Jack Dupree in November of 1955 in Cincinnati, producing “Sharp Harp” and “Overhead Blues.” The tour ended in Los Angeles and Smith settled down, spending the rest of his life in that city.
In the late ’50s he recorded for J&M, Lapel, Melker, and Caddy under the names Harmonica King or Little Walter Junior. He also worked with Big Mama Thornton on many shows.
In 1960, Smith met producer Nat McCoy who owned Soloplay and Carolyn labels, with whom he recorded ten singles under the name of George Allen. In 1966, while Muddy Waters was on West Coast, he asked Smith to join him and they worked together for a while, recording for Spivey Records.
Smith’s first album on World Pacific A Tribute to Little Walter was released in 1968. In 1969 Bob Thiele produced an excellent solo album of Smith on Bluesway, and later made use of Smith as a sideman for his Blues Times label, including sets with T-Bone Walker, and Harmonica Slim. Smith met Rod Piazza, a young White harp player and they formed the Southside Blues Band, later known as Bacon Fat.
In 1969, Smith signed with U.K. producer Mike Vernon and did the No Time for Jive album. Smith was less active in the 1970s appearing with Eddie Taylor and Big Mama Thornton. Around 1977, Smith became friends with William Clarke and they began working together. Their working relationship and friendship continued until Smith died on October 2, 1983.
William Clarke, Smith’s protègè, writes “He had a technique on the chromatic harp where he would play two notes at once, but one octave apart. He would get an organ-type sound by doing this. George really knew how to make his notes count by not playing too much and taking his time by letting the music unfold easily. He could also swing like crazy and was a first-class entertainer. I have heard from a friend that they had seen George Smith in the 1950s playing a club in Chicago, tap dancing around everybody’s drinks on top of the bar while playing his harp.”
“I have been with him in church and seen him play amplified harmonica by himself. This was very soulful. I have never heard George play a song the same way twice. He was very creative and played directly from his heart. He admired all great musicians but had his own sound and style. He was a true original. Mr. Smith would always give 100% on stage whether or not there were 1 or 1,000 people listening. This was his performing style, always.”
“George Smith greatly admired harmonica player Larry Adler, and although Adler used the octave technique on the harp also, George really was the one that developed this to its full potential. Before Mr. Smith, nobody in blues had used this octave technique.” “An extremely kind and gentle man, George always went all out to help other harmonica players. Everybody liked George Smith. He played a huge role in advancing blues harmonica and should never be forgotten. You can hear the influence of George Smith in most everyone playing blues harmonica today, whether directly or indirectly. He also was a great blues singer. He had a huge baritone voice that conveyed great emotion and soulfulness.”
(Resenya de Michael Erlewine, http://www.bluesharp.ca/legends/ghsmith.html)
Jacobs is generally included among blues music greats—his revolutionary harmonica technique has earned comparisons to Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix for its innovation and impact on succeeding generations of harmonica players. His virtuosity and musical innovations 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.
Jacobs was born in Marksville, Louisiana, and raised in Alexandria, Louisiana. After quitting school by the age of 12, Jacobs left rural Louisiana and travelled around working odd jobs and busking on the streets of New Orleans; Memphis, Tennessee; Helena, Arkansas; and St. Louis, Missouri. He honed his musical skills with Sonny Boy Williamson II, Sunnyland Slim, and Honeyboy Edwards, among others.
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 recorded soon after he arrived in Chicago 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 public address or guitar 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 purposely pushed his amplifiers beyond their intended technical limitations, using the amplification to explore and develop radical new timbres and sonic effects previously unheard from a harmonica, or any other instrument. 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.”
Jacobs made his first released recordings in 1947 for Bernard Abram’s tiny Ora-Nelle label, which operated out of the back room of Abrams’ Maxwell Radio and Records store in the heart of the Maxwell Street market area in Chicago. These and several other 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. As a guitarist, Little Walter recorded for the small Parkway label with Muddy Waters and Baby Face Leroy Foster (reissued on CD as “The Blues World of Little Walter” from Delmark Records in 1993), as well as on a session for Chess backing pianist Eddie Ware; his guitar work was also featured occasionally on early Chess sessions with Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers.
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 hit, spending eight weeks in the #1 position on the Billboard magazine R&B charts – the song was “Juke”, and it is still 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 one of the biggest national R&B hits of 1952, securing 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.
Jacobs frequently appeared on records as a harmonica sideman behind others in the Chess stable of artists, including Jimmy Rogers, John Brim, Rocky Fuller, Memphis Minnie, The Coronets, Johnny Shines, Floyd Jones, Bo Diddley, and Shel Silverstein, and on other record labels backing Otis Rush, Johnny Young, and Robert Nighthawk.
Jacobs suffered from alcoholism, and had a notoriously short temper, which led to a decline in his fame and fortunes beginning in the late 1950s, although he did tour Europe twice, in 1964 and 1967. The 1967 European tour, as part of the American Folk Blues Festival, resulted in the only film/video footage of Little Walter performing to be released. Footage of Little Walter backing Hound Dog Taylor and Koko Taylor on a television program in Copenhagen, Denmark on 11 October 1967 was released on DVD in 2004. Video of a recently discovered TV appearance in Germany during this tour, showing Little Walter performing his songs “My Babe”, “Mean Old World”, and others was released on DVD in Europe in January 2009, and is the only known footage of Little Walter singing; other TV appearances in the UK and the Netherlands have been documented, but no footage of these has been found.
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 minimal 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.
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.
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”.
Junior Wells (December 9, 1932 – January 15, 1998), born Amos Wells Blakemore Jr., was a blues vocalist and harmonica player based in Chicago, who was famous for playing with Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, The Rolling Stones and Van Morrison.
He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and raised in Arkansas. Initially influenced by fellow Memphian Junior Parker, and both Sonny Boy Williamsons, Wells moved to Chicago in 1948 and began sitting in with local musicians at house parties and taverns. He began performing with The Aces (guitarist brothers Dave and Louis Myers and drummer Fred Below) and developed a more modern amplified harmonica style influenced by Little Walter. He made his first recordings at age 19, when he replaced Little Walter in Muddy Waters’ band and appeared on one of Waters’ sessions for Chess Records in 1952. His first recordings as a band leader were made in the following year for States Records; in the later 1950s and early 1960s he also recorded singles for other local Chicago record labels. He worked with Buddy Guy in the 1960s and recorded his first album, Hoodoo Man Blues for Delmark Records. His most memorable songs are “Messin’ With The Kid” and “Little by Little,” which were written and composed by Chicago blues record producer Mel London. His best-known album is 1965′s Hoodoo Man Blues on Delmark Records, which featured Buddy Guy on guitar.
Wells and Guy supported the Rolling Stones on numerous occasions in the 1970s. Although his albums South Side Blues Jam (1971) and On Tap (1975) proved he had not lost his aptitude for Chicago band blues, his 1980s and 1990s discs were inconsistent. However, 1996′s Come On in This House was an intriguing set of classic blues songs with a rotating cast of slide guitarists, among them Alvin Youngblood Hart, Corey Harris and Sonny Landreth.
Wells made an appearance in the 1998 movie, Blues Brothers 2000, the sequel to The Blues Brothers. The film was released less than a month after his death. He had continued performing until he was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 1997. That fall, he suffered a heart attack while undergoing treatment, sending him into a coma.
Wells was interred in the Oak Woods Cemetery, Chicago after succumbing to lymphoma on January 15, 1998.
James Cotton (1935- )
James Cotton (born July 1, 1935, Tunica, Mississippi), is an American blues harmonica player, singer, and songwriter who is the bandleader for the James Cotton Blues Band. He also writes songs alone, and his solo career continues to this day.
Cotton became interested in music when he first heard Sonny Boy Williamson II on the radio. He left home to find Williamson in West Helena, Arkansas. For many years Cotton claimed that he told Williamson that he was an orphan, and that Williamson took him in and raised him; a story he admitted in recent years is not true. Williamson did however mentor Cotton during his early years. When Williamson left the south to live with his estranged wife in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he left his band in Cotton’s hands. Cotton was quoted as saying, “He just gave it to me. But I couldn’t hold it together ’cause I was too young and crazy in those days an’ everybody in the band was grown men, so much older than me.”
Whilst he played a few instruments, Cotton is famous for his work on the harmonica.
Cotton began his professional career playing the blues harp in Howling Wolf’s band in the early 1950s. He made his first recordings as a solo artist for the Sun Records label in Memphis, Tennessee in 1953. Cotton began to work with the Muddy Waters Band around 1955. He performed songs such as “Got My Mojo Working” and “She’s Nineteen Years Old”, although he did not appear on the original recordings; long-time Muddy Waters harmonica player Little Walter was utilized on most of Muddy’s recording sessions in the 1950s. Cotton’s first recording session with Waters took place in June 1957, and he would alternate with Little Walter on Muddy’s recording sessions until the end of the decade, and thereafter until he left to form his own band. In 1965 he formed the Jimmy Cotton Blues Quartet, utilizing Otis Spann on piano to record between gigs with Waters’ band. Their performances were captured by producer Samuel Charters on volume two of the Vanguard recording Chicago/The Blues/Today!. After leaving Muddy’s band in 1966, Cotton toured with Janis Joplin while pursuing a solo career. He formed the James Cotton Blues Band in 1967. They mainly performed their own arrangements of popular blues and R&B material from the 1950s and 1960s. Two albums were recorded live in Montreal that year.
James Cotton at Jeff Healey’s blues nightclub in Toronto
In the 1960s, Cotton formed a blues band in the tradition of Bobby “Blue” Bland. Four tracks that featured the big band horn sound and traditional songs were captured on the album Two Sides of the Blue.
In the 1970s, Cotton recorded several albums with Buddah Records. Cotton played harmonica on Muddy Water’s Grammy Award winning 1977 album Hard Again, produced by Johnny Winter. The James Cotton Blues Band received a Grammy nomination in 1984 for Live From Chicago: Mr. Superharp Himself!, and a second for his 1987 release, Take Me Back. He finally was awarded a Grammy for Deep in the Blues in 1996 for Best Traditional Blues Album.
A throat problem left Cotton unable to sing from the mid 1990s onwards, but he continued to tour, utilizing singers or his backing band members as vocalists. Cotton’s latest album, Baby Don’t You Tear My Clothes, was released in 2004.
On March 10, 2008, Cotton and Ben Harper inducted Little Walter into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They performed “Juke” and “My Babe” together at the induction ceremony, which was broadcast nationwide on VH1 Classic.
Carey Bell (1936-2007)
Carey Bell (November 14, 1936 – May 6, 2007) was an American musician who played the harmonica in the musical style of Chicago blues. Bell played harp and bass for other blues icons for decades, including Earl Hooker, Robert Nighthawk, Lowell Fulson, Eddie Taylor, Louisiana Red and Jimmy Dawkins.
Bell was born Carey Bell Harrington in Macon, Mississippi. As a child, Bell was intrigued by the music of Louis Jordan. Bell wanted a saxophone in order to be like his hero Jordan; however, Bell’s family could not afford a saxophone he had to settle for the harmonica, colloquially known as a “Mississippi saxophone.” Soon Bell was attracted by the blues harmonica greats: DeFord Bailey, Big Walter Horton, Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs, and Sonny Boy Williamson (I and II). Bell taught himself to play. By the time he was eight, he was quite proficient on the instrument. When he was thirteen, Bell joined his godfather Lovie Lee’s blues band.
In 1956, Lovie Lee convinced Bell to go with him to Chicago, a city then electrified by its own blues scene and sound. Lee and Bell arrived in Chicago in September of that year. Not long after arriving, Bell went to the Club Zanzibar, where Little Walter was appearing. Bell met Walter and soon became his student, learning from the master his tricks of the blues harp. To help further his chances of employment as a musician, Bell learned how to play the electric bass (from Hound Dog Taylor). Bell was then fortunate to meet and learn directly from Sonny Boy Williamson II and Big Walter Horton. Horton eventually hired Bell to work with him. Bell learned the inner workings of great blues musicianship and was about to embark upon an often unrecognized and under-appreciated musical career.
Despite Bell’s mentorships with some of the greatest blues harp players of the genre, he arrived in Chicago at an unfortunate time. The demand for harp players was decreasing there as bands were more on the lookout for electric guitarists. To pay the bills, Bell continued to play bass and joined several bands as a bassist. He joined Big Walter’s band as a bassist and furthered his passionate study of the Mississippi saxophone with Big Walter himself. Soon after, Bell cased up his bass and polished his harp, returning to the scene with his beloved instrument. On 3 October, 1969 Carey Bell played at the Royal Albert Hall in London, appearing on a live recording of the event.
In 1969, Delmark Records in Chicago released Bell’s debut LP, Carey Bell’s Blues Harp. Bell later played with Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues All-Stars. In 1972, Bell teamed up with Big Walter and released Big Walter Horton with Carey Bell for Alligator Records. A year later Bell released a solo project for ABC Bluesway. Bell continued to play with Dixon, and in 1978, Bell was featured on the Grammy-nominated album Living Chicago Blues on Alligator.
In the late 1970s, Bell also appeared on several Bob Riedy Blues Band recordings.
During the 1980s Bell continued to record, but he was mostly preoccupied with live performances. In 1990, Bell teamed up with fellow harpists Junior Wells, James Cotton and Billy Branch to record Harp Attack!. A modern Blues classic, Harp Attack! became one of Alligator Records’s best selling albums.
Despite years in the business and work with Alligator, Bell’s first full-length solo album for the label was not until Deep Down, released in 1995. On the album, Bell’s signature harp style is on prominent display. A seminal piece of modern blues, Deep Down gave Bell much deserved recognition outside of the blues circles in which he was already legendary.
In 1997, Bell released the second album on the label Good Luck Man, which was less raw than its predecessor but nonetheless highly listenable. Second Nature followed in 2004, a duet album with his guitarist son, Lurrie Bell (who shared the guitar duties with Carl Weathersby on Deep Down). The overall appeal of Second Nature is that the entire album is a single take with no overdubs.
In 1998, Bell was awarded the Blues Music Award for Traditional Male Artist Of The Year.
In 2007 Delmark records released a live set by Bell accompanied by a band which included son Lurrie, guitarist Scott Cable, Kenny Smith, Bob Stroger and Joe Thomas.
Carey Bell died of heart failure on May 6, 2007 in Chicago.
Billy Branch(1951- )
Billy Branch (born William Earl Branch, October 3, 1951, Great Lakes, Illinois) is an American blues harp player and singer of Chicago blues and harmonica blues.
Billy Branch at the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise in January of 2008.
Born in Great Lakes, Branch was raised in Los Angeles, California, but in 1969 he moved to Chicago where he attended the University of Illinois. He soon took the place of the harmonica player Carey Bell in a band led by Willie Dixon called the Chicago Blues All-Stars.
In the 1970s he founded his own group, The Sons of the Blues, along with Lurrie Bell on guitar and Freddie Dixon on bass guitar. They are the sons of Carey Bell and Willie Dixon respectively, and they recorded for Alligator Records and with a change in personnel for Red Beans Records. The new band consisted of Carlos Johnson on guitar and J.W. Williams on vocals and bass guitar. He has also recorded for Verve Records and Evidence Records.
Other than co-headlining Alligator’s 1990 summit meeting Harp Attack! with fellow harp masters Junior Wells, Carey Bell, and James Cotton, Branch largely busied himself with extensive sideman work (he’s first-call session harpist around the Windy City) and teaching an innovative “Blues in the Schools” program until 1995.
Branch has appeared at numerous major festivals including the Long Beach Blues Festival, Chicago Blues Festival, San Francisco Blues Festival and the North Sea Jazz Festival.
Phil Wiggins (1954- )
Born in Washington, D.C. in 1954, Phil Wiggins began his musical career with some of Washington’s leading blues artists, including the locally noted slide guitarist and gospel singer Flora Molton. He also apprenticed with Mother Scott (a contemporary of Bessie Smith). He met John in 1976 and, along with pianist Wilbert “Big Chief” Ellis and bassist James Bellamy, they formed the Barrelhouse Rockers. After Ellis’ death in 1977, the duo of Cephas & Wiggins was born. Besides being a renowned harmonica player, Wiggins is also a gifted songwriter whose material has helped define the duo’s sound. Often called the Ambassadors of The Blues, Cephas & Wiggins continue to bring Piedmont blues to audiences all over the world.
As a duo, Cephas & Wiggins were recognized as the leading exponents of traditional Piedmont blues. They recorded their first domestic album in 1987, Dog Days of August, and it quickly won a W.C. Handy Award (the Grammy of the blues community) for “Best Traditional Blues Album Of The Year” They also took home the Handy Award for “Blues Entertainers of the Year,” an Award that usually goes to electric blues artists. In 1989, John Cephas received a National Heritage Fellowship Award. Often called the “Living Treasure” Award, this is the highest honor the United States government offers a traditional artist.
Aside from his busy schedule performing, Wiggins has also done his share of acting. Phil was in the cast of Matewon, a prize-winning Hollywood film. Cephas & Wiggins together have appeared in the stage production of Chewing The Blues and in the documentary films Blues Country and Houseparty. They’ve also been featured in four nationally touring productions: Masters of the Steel String Guitar, Juke Joints and Jubilee, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Echoes of Africa. Two albums in the early 1990s brought them even more recognition and earned them additional critical acclaim and praise. Phil is a true master of the acoustic blues harp. We look forward to his workshop on tone, technique, and the cupping effects that make him the award winning acoustic harmonica player that he is.