Friday, September 12, 2014

Mount Harpmore

Friday Blues Fix has explored the "Mount Rushmore" topic several times with various subjects over the past couple of years, including a Mount Rushmore of Slide GuitaristsChess Records,Swamp Blues, and one featuring the four greatest blues pioneers (in our opinion).  This week, we will look at the Mount Rushmore of harmonica players.  Since there have been so many greats over the years, FBF will focus on pioneers....the most influential players over the years.  It was pretty hard to narrow it down to four, but if it was easy, everybody would do it, right?  Anyway, look over our list and if you have a better foursome, we'd love to hear from you.

Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee Williamson):  The first Sonny Boy took what he learned from artists like Hammie Nixon and Noah Lewis and advanced blues harmonica to the point where it became a worthy lead instrument.  He was the first to use the classic call-and-response style, alternating vocals with his sharp harmonica blasting in response.  Never done before he did it, it became Standard Operating Procedure after he did it.  He influenced scores of harmonica players like Billy Boy Arnold (who actually took lessons from him), Junior Wells, Little Walter, Snooky Pryor and many others, as well as non-harmonica players like Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers (whose first recording featured him playing harp).  He was one of the most prolific recording artists of the pre-war era, recording over 120 sides for RCA, many of which have become blues standards ("Good Morning School Girl," "Sugar Mama Blues," "Shake The Boogie," "Bluebird Blues," "Stop Breaking Down," "Sloppy Drunk," "Early in the Morning").  Tragically, Williamson was murdered during a robbery in 1948, but his legacy continues to be heard today by Arnold and many who followed after his death.

Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller):  We discussed the whys and wherefores of the two Sonny Boy Williamsons in the early days of the blog.  Even though Rice Miller performed under the name of John Lee Williamson, he mostly worked in the south while his namesake was in Chicago.  Though he shared the same stage name with Williamson, Miller was a distinctively different harmonica player, and recorded for multiple labels, most notably with Trumpet and Chess Records.  Some of his hits are also standards today ("Don't Start Me To Talkin'," "Nine Below Zero," "Eyesight To The Blind," "Help Me," "One Way Out," "Fattenin' Frogs For Snakes"), and he was influential on many harp players like Junior Wells, Billy Branch, Paul Butterfield, Van Morrison, and many others.  His harmonica playing was as distinctive and clever as his songwriting.

Little Walter:  Little Walter Jacobs took what his predecessors developed to a new level, playing a harmonica with a small microphone cupped in his hands and plugging into a guitar amp or P.A., so he could be heard.  In his hands, the harmonica was transformed into an almost-saxophone instrument on hundreds of recordings he did as a solo artist and with Muddy Waters.  Some of his instrumentals have an almost jazz-like quality to them.  His work basically changed what blues fans could expect from the harmonica.  Before he came on the scene, nobody played like Little Walter.  Soon, it was hard to find a harmonica player who didn't play like him.  He influenced many of the great future stars of the instrument, like Junior Wells, James Cotton, Carey Bell, Charlie Musselwhite, Paul Butterfield and left a phenomenal footprint on blues music that's still felt today, over forty-five years after his death.

Big Walter Horton:  Horton is not as well-known as the other three artists previously mentioned.  He was extremely shy and quiet and didn't really have the personality type to lead a band or even a recording session.  He learned his craft from Will Shade of the Memphis Jug Band, and Hammie Nixon, backed legends like Robert Johnson, Johnny Shines, Homesick James, B.B. King, Eddie Taylor, and Honeyboy Edwards, and later played on numerous records by Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Otis Rush, and many others.  He also took the time to occasionally recorded a single or two of his own.  No less an authority than Willie Dixon called him "the best harmonica player I ever heard."  How good would that look on a resume'?!!  His instrumental single, "Easy," is considered one of the greatest harmonica instrumentals ever put to wax.  Later in his career, he was able to record as a solo artists on sets like Chicago/The Blues/Today! (on Volume 3 with Charlie Musselwhite), and on Alligator's second-ever album release with pupil Carey Bell.  He also appeared as part of Willie Dixon's Blues All Stars, which toured America and Europe during the 60's and 70's, later appeared on one of Muddy Waters' comeback albums in the late 70's (I'm Ready), and an excellent pair of solo albums for Blind Pig Records.  Newer fans who watched The Blues Brothers have seen Big Walter playing during the Maxwell Street scene (see extended outtake of the scene below), backing John Lee Hooker.  If Horton had possessed the right temperament and been able to overcome his shyness and excessive drinking, he could have been a big star, but it was not to be.  However, he's an easy choice for the fourth position on Mount Harpmore.

Two Sonny Boys and two Walters!!  So, who would be the four faces on your Mount Harpmore???


Betsie Brown said...

Modern day - Charlie Musselwhite, Bobby Rush, Billy Gibson and Grady Champion. Huge Slim Harpo fan.

Graham said...

Whew! Modern-Day would be tough, but those are some good choices.