Harmonica Blues


ARTISTSONGALBUM
Snooky Pryor & Moody JonesStockyard BluesGonna Pitch A Boogie Woogie
Snooky Pryor & Moody JonesKeep What You GotGonna Pitch A Boogie Woogie
Snooky Pryor & Moody JonesSnooky and Moody's BoogieGonna Pitch A Boogie Woogie
Johnny YoungMy Baby Walked OutDownhome Blues Classics: Chicago
Baby Face LeroyTake A Little Walk1948-1952
Snooky Pryor & Moody JonesTelephone BluesGonna Pitch A Boogie Woogie
Snooky Pryor Boogy FoolGonna Pitch A Boogie Woogie
Moody JonesRough TreatmentGonna Pitch A Boogie Woogie
Snooky PryorReal Fine BoogieGonna Pitch A Boogie Woogie
Snooky PryorGoing Back on the RoadGonna Pitch A Boogie Woogie
Sunnyland SlimBack To KoreaSunnyland Slim & His Pals
Sunnyland SlimGoing To MemphisSunnyland Slim & His Pals
Homesick James12 St. StationChicago Slide Guitar Legend
Willie NixAll By YourselfDownhome Blues Classics: Chicago
Willie NixNo More Love Downhome Blues Classics: Chicago
Snooky PryorCryin' ShameGonna Pitch a Boogie Woogie
Snooky PryorCrosstown BluesDownhome Blues Classics: Chicago
Willie NixNervous WreckDownhome Blues Classics: Chicago
Willie NixJust Can't Stay Downhome Blues Classics: Chicago
Floyd JonesSchooldays On My Mind1948-1953
Floyd JonesAin't Times Hard 1948-1953
Snooky Pryor Judgment DayVee Jay, The Chicago Black Music
Snooky Pryor Uncle Sam Don't Take My ManGonna Pitch A Boogie Woogie
Floyd JonesAny Old Lonesome Day1948-1953
Floyd JonesFloyd's Blues1948-1953
Snooky Pryor Dangerous WomanBig Bear Sessions
Snooky Pryor I Feel AlrightBig Bear Sessions
Snooky Pryor Mighty Long TimeAnd The Country Blues
Homesick JamesFayette County BluesAin't Sick No More

Show Notes:

In his obituary for the Guardian, Tony Russell wrote: "Snooky Pryor, who has died aged 85, was the last of the group of harmonica players who distinguished the Chicago blues scene of the 1940s and 50s. If not quite the equal of men like Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Walter "Shakey" Horton or Junior Wells, he was none the less a player with a distinctive sound, and his contributions to the early development of the Chicago blues-band idiom are held in high regard. In particular, the recordings he made in the late 40s, both in his own name and accompanying the singers Floyd Jones and Johnny Young, established him among blues enthusiasts of the 1960s as one of the defining figures of the primeval Chicago scene."

He was born in Lambert, Mississippi, spent parts of his early life in Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois, and had a spell of army service in the early 1940s before settling in Chicago. He had been playing the harmonica since he was 14, and gigged in the evenings and at weekends, in clubs like the Jamboree and the 708, with a circle of musicians that included Floyd and his cousin Moody Jones, pianist Sunnyland Slim and guitarists Eddie Taylor and Homesick James. His style on the harmonica was derived in roughly equal parts from John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson and Aleck Miller (aka Sonny Boy Williamson #2). He got the idea of amplifying his harmonica while serving in the military during World War II, and in 1945 began performing at the Maxwell Street market with portable PA system he purchased at a store at 504 South State. As the first to amplify a harmonica, Pryor should rightly be recognized as a blues pioneer. As he boasted to Living Blues, "I started the big noise around Chicago." In the late 40's he cut a batch of great sides for small Chicago labels such as Marvel, Swingmaster and JOB.

Between 1950 and 1954 Pryor recorded steadily, cutting fine sides for JOB, Parrot, Ve-Jay backed by Chicago legends like Homesick James, Floyd Jones and Eddie Taylor. During this period he also backing Floyd Jones, Moody Jones and Sunnyland Slim on their records. He cut a few final sides in 1956, several unissued, for Vee-Jay before retiring from music for a spell in 1962.

Frustrated with the rough, low paying life of a bluesman, he dropped out of the music scene in the mid-1960s to become a carpenter and by 1967 relocated to Ullin, Illinois, to raise his large family. A chance encounter with the editors of Living Blues magazine in 1971 prompted a brief comeback that included a European tour and recordings for Today, Big Bear, and BluesWay in 1973. Remaining fairly inactive for the next fifteen years, Pryor was coaxed out of retirement in 1987 and recorded for Blind Pig. Throughout the 1990s, he recorded albums for Antone’s, Electro-Fi, and Blind Pig, and played sporadically at clubs and festivals. He passed in 2006.

Snooky's early partner, Moody Jones, played guitar and bass. He was born in Earle, Arkansas on April 8, 1908. Jones got his grounding in blues guitar by learning Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson songs. He moved north to Wolf Island, Missouri, then to East St. Louis, and arrived in Chicago in 1939. He developed his musicianship further in the Maxwell Street market, playing with his first cousin, guitarist Floyd Jones, as well as Snooky Pryor, Johnny Shines, Robert Nighthawk and others. After recording with Pryor, Moody Jones never had another release under his name. He appeared on several sessions for JOB in 1951 and 1952. He sang three numbers on a session that took place on April 28, 1952, but were not issued. Moody Jones continued to record for JOB through January 1953; then he gave up the blues and joined a gospel group. He later became a minister. Jones died in Chicago on March 23, 1988.

Guitarist Floyd Jones, was Moody Jones's cousin, and specialized in dark, blues that often spoke to tough times like "Stockyard Blues," "Dark Road," "Hard Times." He was born on July 21, 1917, in Marianna, Arkansas, and after several years of dabbling with the guitar began playing it in earnest after Howlin’ Wolf gave him an instrument. Through much of the 1930s and early 1940s he worked the South as an itinerant musician and settled in Chicago in 1945. He began playing on Maxwell Street and in non-union venues with such artists as Little Walter, John Henry Barbee, and Sunnyland Slim. In the fall of 1946, Jones teamed up with Snooky Pryor, soon joined by Moody Jones. The three were playing in a club on Sedgwick, when Chester Scales happened by and offered to record the trio, having remembered seeing Snooky on playing on the street sometime earlier. However, on the day of the session, Floyd Jones missed out on recording "Telephone Blues" and "Boogie," because he could not be located. Scales made up for it by recording the trio with Floyd Jones as the leader on "Stockyard Blues" and "Keep What You Got," two classics of postwar Chicago blues written by Jones. Much to Jones’s everlasting distress, when the record was released, Scales put Snooky and Moody down on the label as the main artists, and listed Floyd as mere vocalist. He also claimed composition credit on both titles.

According to his union file Homesick James was born in 1924; according to himself it might have been 1914 or 1910 or even 1905; 1910 seems the most probable. In his professional life he tended to call himself Homesick James Williamson, but his surname seems likely to have been Henderson.He claimed to have played in the 1930s with blues notables such as Memphis Minnie, Sleepy John Estes and Sonny Boy Williamson I, which may well have been true, and to have recorded in 1939 with the diminutive Memphis street-singer, Little Buddy Doyle, which almost certainly was not. As the blues writer David Whiteis comments: "He was a bluesman of the old school, through and through – a trickster from his heart."

At some time during the late 1930's or 40's he moved to Chicago, where he had a day job in a steel mill. During the 1950's he played in the city's clubs, often with the harmonica player Snooky Pryor (obituary, November 10 2006) or with the pianist Lazy Bill Lucas, who accompanied him on his first recordings for the Chance label. During the late 1950's and early 60's he played bass guitar in Elmore's band, experience that prompted him to record some of the other man's material, such as "Set a Date" and "Crossroads." Issued in Britain, these singles – possibly his best work – helped to raise his profile among blues enthusiasts. Soon after Elmore's death, Homesick recorded his first album, Blues on the South Side (1964). The spread of blues enthusiasm throughout Europe in the 1970's provided Homesick with numerous bookings, and he made at least five visits during the decade, often working in a duet with Pryor. Several live cuts from their tour appear on the album Big Bear album American Blues Legends. They also appear together on Snooky's And The Country Blues (1973), Homesick James' Ain't Sick No More (1973) and a pair of albums in the 70's for the Big Bear label. All of the Big Bear sides plus bonus cuts were issued on the 2-CD set the Big Bear Sessions. Little was heard from him in the 1980's, but he greeted the 1990's with a salvo of albums for various labels. He passed in 2007.

Of his pal Snooky, Homesick told Chris Millar in 1994: "Me and Snooky been playing nearly fifty tears. I'd known Snooky for many years., from every time I used to go through his place, a plantation down there in Vance, Mississippi. We were just like brothers man, me and Snooky usedto finish playing in the clubs early in the morning and go off fishing."

John O. Young, known as "Man" because he played mandolin as well as guitar, was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on January 1, 1918. In the mid-1930s he played with a string band in Rolling Fork, Mississippi. He said he worked with Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon in Tennessee before moving to Chicago in 1940. In Chicago, he claimed to have performed with such notables as Memphis Minnie and Big Bill Broonzy, but one has to wonder how many of these were club dates, as Young was still essentially a street musician. By the late 1940s, he had become a regular in the Maxwell Street scene, playing with a cousin, guitarist Johnny Williams, along with Snooky Pryor, Floyd Jones, and Moody Jones. Pryor backs hom on one 78 for Swingmaster cut in 1948.

Born in Memphis, Willie Nix first entered performing as a tap dancer at age 12, and as a teenager during the late '30s, he toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels Shows as a dancing comedian. He appeared in various variety venues during the early '40s, and performed on streets and parks around Memphis. In 1947, Nix appeared with Robert Lockwood, Jr. on a Little Rock, AR radio station, and subsequently worked with Sonny Boy Williamson II, Willie Love and Joe Willie Wilkins as the Four Aces in Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi.Nix joined B.B. King and Joe Hill Louis for appearances on Memphis radio, and worked with The Beale Streeters during the late '40s. He made his first records in Memphis for RPM in 1951, and cut sides for Chess Records' Checker offshoot in 1952. Sam Philips signed him up as "the Memphis Blues Boy" for Sun in early 1953, as a singing drummer with a band, and he later cut sides for Art Sheridan's Chance label in Chicago which featured Snooky Pryor. He worked with Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson, Johnny Shines, and Memphis Slim during the mid '50s, but at the end of the decade was back in Memphis, and did a short stretch in prison late in the decade. Nix's health and abilities deteriorated during the '60s and '70s, and he hoboed around, performing occasionally, telling tall tales about his life and generally acting erratically.

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
George 'Harmonica' SmithTelephone Blues Harmonica Ace
George 'Harmonica' SmithSometimes You Win When You LoseBlowing The Blues
George 'Harmonica' SmithLove LifeHarmonica Ace
Champion Jack DupreeOverhead BluesMe And My Mule
Little Johnny TaylorSomewhere Down The LineThe Galaxy Years
George 'Harmonica' SmithThe Blues Is My Roots West Coast Down Home Harmonica
George 'Harmonica' Smith I Don't KnowBlowing The Blues
George 'Harmonica' SmithAstatic StompNow You Can Talk About Me
Sunnyland Slim Got To Get To My BabySlim's got His Thing Goin' On
Dave AlexanderHighway 59Oakland Blues
Long Gone Miles Gotta Find My Baby Juke Joint Blues
Long Gone Miles Hello JosephineJuke Joint Blues
George 'Harmonica' SmithBlues For Reverend King Of The Blues...
George 'Harmonica' SmithTimes Won't Be Hard AlwaysBlowing The Blues
George 'Harmonica' SmithBlues In The DarkHarmonica Ace
Muddy Waters You Can't Lose What You Ain't Never HadAuthorized Bootleg
Muddy Waters Just To Be With YouThe Lost Tapes
George 'Harmonica' Smith West Helena WomanTribute to Little Walter
George 'Harmonica' Smith Going Down SlowTribute to Little Walter
George 'Harmonica' Smith Too Late Tribute to Little Walter
Otis Spann Down On Sarah Street Down To Earth
Big Mama ThorntonOne Black RatThe Way It Is
Big Joe TurnerNight Time is the Right Time Turns On The Blues
George 'Harmonica' SmithEarly One Monday MorningHarmonica Ace
George 'Harmonica' SmithBlowing The BluesBlowing The Blues
George 'Harmonica' SmithMiss O'Malley's RallyBlowing The Blues
George 'Harmonica' SmithMississippi River BluesThe Complete Blue Horizon Sessions

Show Notes:

George 'Harmonica' Smith was one of the most gifted contemporaries of Little Walter and Big Walter yet has received a fraction of their recognition. He was a powerful, inventive and swinging harmonica player and a superb singer. Likely his recognition would be higher if he wasn't based in L.A. He cut his first records for modern in the mid-50's which achieved some success. For the rest of the 50's and 60's he cut a slew of fine singles for small West Coast labels that didn't do much to raise his profile. By the late 60's he had a cut a couple of LP's and was quite active on record in the early and late 70's, keeping relatively quiet in the middle part of that decade. Smith was fairly active as a session player and today we hear him backing his occasional employer Muddy Waters as well as Champion Jack Dupree, Little Johnny Taylor, Big Mama Thornton, Sunnyland Slim, Luke Miles, Otis Spann and others. Smith had a profound influence on the style of younger west coast harmonica players like Johnny Dyer, Kim Wilson, James Harmon and in particular, Rod Piazza and William Clarke.

Allen George Smith was born on April 22nd , 1924 in Helena, Arkansas to Jessie and George Senior. His guitar and harmonica playing mother was something of a role model in his musical upbringing, helping him master the finer points of the harmonica. Around the age of twelve he was hoboing throughout he delta. During this period he was a semi-professional musician playing picnics and fish fries. With the help of a local musician, Smith continued to work in and out of the music business whilst holding down a Job as a projectionist in the town of Itta Bena. He found a way to utilize the amplifier and speaker taken from, presumably, a disused projector and, to amplify the sound of his harmonica. This makes him one of the pioneers in the amplified harmonica.

At the age of twenty-five Smith moved to Chicago. He got a job working with David and Louis Myers and then hooked up with Otis Rush. Smith and Little Walter became really close during this period. Both played chromatic as their chosen and preferred instrument. Unlike Walter, it was proving difficult for Smith to make a break through. Following the departure of Little Walter from Muddy Waters' band, Smith was to fill the vacated harmonica chair when fill-in Henry Strong was stabbed to death by a jealous girlfriend. For whatever reason, his stint with Waters was short-lived and he never recorded with him. Before leaving Chicago, Smith was involved in a Otis Spann session recorded at the end of 1954 which resulted in "It Must Have Been The Devil b/w Five Spot." Smith plays on the former holding his own among heavyweights B.B. King, Jody Williams, Willie Dixon and Earl Phillips.

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 classics like "Telephone Blues" and "Blues in the Dark." The relative success of these first recordings, resulted in Smith touring with many of the leading Rhythm & Blues acts of the time. While on the tour, he recorded with Champion Jack Dupree in November of 1955 in Cincinnati, producing "Sharp Harp" and "Overhead Blues", the latter we spin on today's program. Smith's excellent Modern sides are collected on Harmonica Ace: The Modern Masters on the Ace label. This disc is aptly described by note-writer Ray Topping as "a lasting memorial to one of the last great harp players of the postwar blues scene."

After touring in support of his first records the tour closed out on the West Coast and the Bihari brothers took Smith into the studio again, this time to work with saxophonist and arranger Maxwell Davis. Smith settled in Los Angeles for the rest of his life. In the late '50s he recorded for J&M, Lapel, Melker, and Caddy under the names Harmonica King or Little Walter Junior. Smith also worked with Big Mama Thornton on many shows. In 1960, Smith met producer Nat McCoy who owned the Sotoplay and Carolyn labels, and with whom he recorded ten singles under the name of George Allen. The bulk of these sides have been collected on Blowin' The Blues which has been issued on P-Vine, Official and the El Segundo labels. There are some real gems on this collection unfortunately sound quality is not always the best and some of the personnel is unknown. When James Cotton left Muddy Water’s band in 1966 he asked Smith to join him and they worked together for a while, recording for Spivey Records under the title The Bluesmen of the Muddy Waters Chicago Blues Band. Several years back Geffen/Chess issued Authorized Bootleg featuring Smith with Muddy recorded November 4-6, 1966 at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. Smith was captured with the band again in 1971 live at Washington and Oregon University and posthumously issued as The Lost Tapes on Blind Pig. Smith moved to Chicago to play with Waters. As before, it didn’t last, and Smith went back to Los Angeles. But he stayed friends with Muddy, and when Little Walter died two years later, Muddy’s band backed Smith on his highly regarded Tribute to Little Walter album on World Pacific.

Smith also appeared on the World Pacific album by Sunnyland Slim, Slim's Got His Thing Goin' On and the compilation Oakland Blues backing David Alexander and L.C. Robinson. In 1969, Bob Thiele produced an album of Smith on Bluesway, ..Of the Blues, and later made use of Smith as a sideman for his Blues Times label, including sets with T-Bone Walker and Harmonica Slim. Smith also recorded on the two albums Otis Spann recorded for Bluesway. Smith met the young Rod Piazza in the late 60's, and they launched the Southside Blues Band, which toured with Big Mama Thorton . In 1970 British producer Mike Vernon met the band, signed them to a European tour, and changed their name to Bacon Fat. They recorded a couple of albums for Vernon. All this material has been reissued on the 2-CD set George Smith & Bacon Fat: The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions. In 1969 Luke “Long Gone” Miles and Smith recorded a batch of great songs for Kent, the bulk of which went unissued. The same year he backed Big Mama Thornton, Big Joe Turner and was involved in the Super Black Blues jam album with T-Bone Walker, Otis Spann and Big Joe Turner. In 1970 he cut the album No Time For Jive and the same year he backed Big Joe Turner on the Kent album Turns On The Blues. In 1971 Smith cut the album Arkansas Trap. In 1972 he appeared on Eddie Taylor's I Feel So Bad and backed Big Mama Thornton again in 1975 on the album Jail. Through the 70's and early 80's he remained active working on record with Jimmy Witherspoon, Phillip Walker and others.

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. Of Smith, Clarke said: "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 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-percent on-stage whether or not there were 1 or 1,000 people listening. This was his performing style, always." His last studio album was Boogie'n With George produced by protege Rod Piazza.

Read Liner Notes

Tom Townsley describes Smith's technique in the following manner: "He often approached his soIos by using his tongue-blocked octave technique to imitate hom section riffs (as opposed to copying the single notes of a soloist). This gave his playing incredible power. He also knew how to coax a variety of tonal shadings and subtle pitch variations out of a single note by combining bends and microphone manipulation. He built suspense by phrasing his attack just behind the beat. As a result, his tunes swung relentlessly."

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Show Notes:

Harmonica Blues

Although the harmonica was present in many pre-war recordings, it became a dominant force in the 1950's, when it was amplified by the likes of Big Walter Horton, Little Walter and Snooky Pryor. As such many players and fans seem to think that blues harmonica began with Little Walter and are unaware of the rich early tradition of harmonica recordings. In the early days harmonica soloists were common who played now forgotten pieces like train imitations and set pieces like Lost John, Fox Chase, Mama Blues and other call-and-response pieces that featured the harmonica over the voice, if the voice was used at all. We hear many of these players on today's program including DeFord Bailey, George "Bullet" Williams, William McCoy, Alfred Lewis and Sonny Terry. We also feature early harmonica/vocalists like Daddy Stovepipe, Jaybird Coleman and Jazz Gillum. In addition we hear some great accompanists like Rhythm Willie, Robert Cooksey and Blues Birdhead. There were also play tracks by several notable harmonica players who worked in jug bands like Noah Lewis, Jed Davenport and Eddie Mapp. It was John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson who defined the language of modern blues harmonica playing so it's fitting we end with a few of his numbers. Below is some brief background on some of today's performers.

Bobby Leecan (who sang, and played guitar and kazoo) performed in a duo with harmonica player Robert Cooksey. Leecan and Cooksey teamed up for the first time in 1926 to cut sides for Victor, their recording output inhabiting a borderland between blues, vaudeville, and jazz. They are believed to have been based out of Philadelphia. Cooksey first entered the studio in the spring of 1924, when he backed up blues singer Viola McCoy on sessions for Vocalion. That puts him within months of the very first recording of harmonica ever made, the Clara Smith recording "My Doggone Lazy Man," which featured harmonica player Herbert Leonard. The following year, he backed up Sara Martin on Okeh label. It was two years later when he finally teamed up with Leecan.

Johnny Watson, alias Daddy Stovepipe, was born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1867 and died in Chicago, in 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 1930's and spent his last years as a regular performer on Chicago's famous Maxwell Street, where he made his last recordings.

Deford Bailey
DeFord Bailey

DeFord Bailey cut several records in 1927-1928, all of them harmonica solos. Emblematic of the ambiguity of Bailey's position as a black recording artist is the fact his arguably greatest recording, "John Henry", was released separately in both RCA's 'race' and 'hillbilly' series. Bailey was a pioneer member of the WSM Grand Ole Opry, and one of its most popular performers, appearing on the program from 1927 to 1941. During this period he toured with many major country stars, including Uncle Dave Macon, Bill Monroe, and Roy Acuff. Bailey was fired by WSM in 1941 because of a licensing conflict with BMI-ASCAP which prevented him from playing his best known tunes on the radio. This effectively ended his performance career, and he spent the rest of his life shining shoes, cutting hair, and renting out rooms in his home to make a living. Though he continued to play the harp, he almost never performed publicly. One of his rare appearances occurred in 1974, when he agreed to make one more appearance on the Opry. This became the occasion for the Opry's first annual Old Timers' Show.

Singer and harpist Noah Lewis was a key figure on the Memphis jug band circuit of the 1920's. Upon moving to Memphis, he teamed with Gus Cannon, becoming an essential component of Cannon's Jug Stompers. On a series of sides cut in the first week of October 1929, Lewis made his debut as a name artist, cutting three great harmonica solos as well as "Going to Germany," which spotlighted his fine vocal style. He also cut a few sides under his own name between 1929-30. As the Depression wore on Lewis slipped into obscurity, living a life of extreme poverty; his death on February 7, 1961 was a result of gangrene brought on by frostbite.

As a child, Jaybird Coleman, taught himself how to play harmonica and would perform at parties, both for his family and friends. Coleman served in the Army during World War I and after his discharge moved to the Birmingham, AL area. While he lived in Birmingham, he would perform on street corners and occasionally play with the Birmingham Jug Band. Jaybird made his first recordings in 1927 for Gennett. For the next few years, he simply played on street corners. Coleman cut his final sessions in 1930 on the OKeh label. During the 1930's and 1940's, Coleman played on street corners throughout Alabama. By the end of the 1940's he had disappeared from the blues scene. In 1950 Coleman died of cancer.

Realizing his eyesight would keep him from pursuing a profession in farming, Sonny Terry decided instead to be a blues singer. He began traveling to nearby Raleigh and Durham, performing on street corners for tips. In 1934, he befriended the popular guitarist Blind Boy Fuller. Fuller convinced Terry to move to Durham, where the two immediately gained a strong local following. By 1937, they were offered an opportunity to go to New York and record for the Vocalion label. A year later, Terry would be back in New York taking part in John Hammond's legendary Spirituals to Swing concert. Upon returning to Durham, Terry continued playing regularly with Fuller and also met his future partner, guitarist Brownie McGhee, who would accompany Terry off and on for the next two decades.

Deford Bailey
Sonny Boy Williamson I

John Lee Williamson is regarded as "the first truly virtuosic blues harmonica player", "who brought the harmonica to prominence as a major blues instrument." Generally regarded as the original "Sonny Boy", John Lee Williamson was born in Jackson, Tennessee on March 30, 1914. He hoboed with Yank Rachell and John Estes through Tennessee and Arkansas in the late 1920's and early 1930's. He worked with Sunnyland Slim in Memphis in the early 1930's. John Lee Williamson moved to Chicago in 1934 where he worked Maxwell Street and as a sideman with numerous blues groups at the local clubs. His first recording, made in May of 1937 at the Leland Hotel in Aurora, Illinois for the Bluebird label, is also the first recording of "Good Morning Little School Girl", which has become a much recorded blues classic tune. Bluebird recorded him until 1945 when Victor recorded him into 1947. Williamson worked frequently with Muddy Waters from 1943 and toured with Lazy Bill Lucas through the 1940's. He recorded with Big Joe Williams for the Columbia label in Chicago in 1947. In 1948 upon leaving the Plantation Club in Chicago after playing a gig, he was mugged and beaten. He died of a fractured skull and other injuries on June 1, 1948 and is buried in Jackson, Tennessee.

Jazz Gillum is usually treated with indifference among blues critics, looked upon as a rather generic performer who typified the mainstream Chicago blues style of the 1930's and 40's. While there's some truth to this, Gillum's recordings were consistently entertaining throughout his sixteen year recording career punctuated with a fair number of exceptional sides. Gillum was by no means a harmonica virtuoso – he had a kind of wheezy high-pitched sound – he was certainly no Sonny Boy Williamson I and certainly no "Harmonica King" as he boasts in "Gillum's Windy Blues." Yet he was a very expressive, easygoing singer who penned a number of evocative songs backed by some of the era's best blues musicians. Gillum recorded 100 sides between 1934-49 as a leader in addition to session work with Big Bill Broonzy, Curtis Jones and the State Street Boys.

Throughout the show we also play a number of little recorded, shadowy figures such as George "Bullet" Williams, William McCoy, Alfred Lewis, Blues Birdhead, Ollis Martin and Eddie Mapp. George "Bullet" Williams was originally from Alabama. He cut one session for paramount in 1928. Ollis Martin cut one side in 1927 for Gennet. He was active around the Birmingham area in the latter part of that decade, also showing up on two gospel sides the same year by Jaybird Coleman. Blues Birdhead's real was James Simons who cut one 78 for Okeh in 1929. Alfred Lewis cut one issued 78 in 1930 for Okeh.

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Show Notes:

Today's feature is on two of the greatest post-war harmonica players: Big Walter Horton also known as Shakey Horton and Little Walter. By most accounts Little Walter was given pointers by Big Walter when he was a teenager in Helena, Arkansas. Little Walter went on to greater fame playing with Muddy Waters and soon after cutting his own celebrated records. Horton isn't as widely known as his fellow Chicago blues pioneers Little Walter or Sonny Boy Williamson II, due mostly to the fact that, as a rather shy, quiet individual, he never had much taste for leading his own bands or recording sessions.

EasyHorton was born in Horn Lake, Mississippi, in 1918. Horton got his first harmonica from his father when he five, and won a local talent contest with it. Shortly thereafter his mother moved to Memphis, then a hotbed of blues, and according to blues researcher Samuel Charters, Horton was playing with the Memphis Jug Band by the time he was nine or ten. He also may have recorded with them in 1927 as he himself claimed but many researchers doubt this assertion. During the thirties he played with Robert Johnson, Honeyboy Edwards, and others, and later gave pointers to both Little Walter and Rice Miller. His first verifiable sides were done in 1939 backing guitarist Charlie "Little Buddy" Doyle on sessions for Columbia. Around the same time (according to Horton himself), he began to experiment with amplifying his harmonica, which if accurate may have made him the first to do so. In the late forties he went to Chicago, but later returned to Memphis to record for Modern/RPM and Sun. Of these sessions, the 1953 instrumental "Easy", based on Ivory Joe Hunter's "I Almost Lost My Mind", became a hit. He also backed artists such as Joe Hill Louis, Willie Nix and others.

Following the success of "Easy," Horton went back to Chicago to play with Eddie Taylor. But when Junior Wells got drafted, Horton took his place in Muddy Waters' band. It didn't last long, though-Horton showed up drunk at a rehearsal and Muddy fired him. We play one of those tracks, "My Life Is Ruined", and then one track when he reunited with Muddy on the 1977 record "I'm Ready." Around the same time he cut a memorable session backing Tampa Red, delivering a tremendous solo on "Rambler's Blue."

Big Walter cut his best work as a sideman. Always described as shy and nervous, he preferred this role to that of a bandleader. His playing graces numerous records behind Johnny Shines, Johnny Young, Sunnyland Slim, Otis Rush, Koko Taylor, and others. He also taught a number of younger players, including Charlie Musselwhite and Carey Bell. In 1964, Horton recorded his first full-length album, The Soul of Blues Harmonica, for Chess subsidiary Argo; it was produced by Dixon and featured Buddy Guy aCan't Keep Lovin' Yous a sideman, though it didn't completely capture Horton at his best. Two years later, Horton contributed several cuts to Vanguard's classic compilation Chicago/The Blues/Today! Vol. 3, which did much to establish his name on a blues circuit that was thriving anew thanks to an interest from white audiences.

Horton became a regular on Willie Dixon's Blues All Stars package tours during the 70's, which made their way through America and Europe over the '60s and '70s. He also played the American Folk Blues Festival in 1965. In 1973 he cut an album with Carey Bell for Alligator. After that he became a mainstay on the festival circuit, and often played at the open-air market on Chicago's legendary Maxwell Street, along with many other bluesman. 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, which later found release as the albums Fine Cuts and Can't Keep Lovin' You. Horton appeared in the Maxwell Street scene in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers, accompanying John Lee Hooker. He died of heart failure on December 8, 1981, and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame the following year.

Marion "Little Walter" Jacobs is widely considered the greatest blues harmonica player ever. He was born in Marksville, Louisiana in 1930. He took up the harmonica as a child, at first playing polkas and waltzes, and by the time he was 12 he was on his own, working the sidewalks and bars of New Orleans with his instrument. He had also discovered the music of John Lee Williamson, and modeled his early blues style on that of Williamson's. When he was fourteen he drifted to Helena, Arkansas, and came under the influence of Rice Miller, who along with Walter Horton, gave him pointers on the harp. The following year, Little Walter's evolution beyond traditional folk-blues began when he started to listen to the records of jump saxophonist Louis Jordan and learn his solos note for note on harmonica.

Little WalterIn 1947 Little Walter arrived in Chicago with Honeyboy Edwards, and became a part of the fabled Maxwell Street scene that at one time or another included almost every postwar Chicago blues luminary. He first recorded that year behind singer Othum Brown on the Ora Nelle label, and also began playing in a trio with Jimmy Rogers and Muddy Waters, whom he had met on Maxwell Street. He debuted on wax that same year for the tiny Ora-Nelle logo ("I Just Keep Loving Her") in the company of Jimmy Rogers and guitarist Othum Brown. Along with Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers and Baby Face Leroy Foster, they became informally known as the Headhunters. They would stroll into South side clubs, mount the stage, and proceed to calmly "cut the heads" of whomever was booked there that evening. Little Walter began recording in 1950 with Muddy, first on the Parkway label, and then for Chess, the label he was to stay with for the rest of his short life. With Waters's "Long Distance Call," Walter became the first to record amplified harmonica.

On May 12, 1952, Little Walter recorded an instrumental under his own name that the Muddy Waters band had been using to close sets with. "Juke," with its fat, amplified tone and sax-like phrases, was released under Little Walter's own name and became a huge hit. Following its success, he left Waters' band to form his own group, but continued to record with Muddy.

From 1952 to 1958, Walter notched 14 Top Ten R&B hits, including "Sad Hours," "Mean Old World," "Tell Me Mama," "Off the Wall," "Blues with a Feeling," "You're So Fine," "You Better Watch Yourself," "Last Night," and "My Babe" among others.

In 1964 he toured Europe with the Rolling Stones, but substance abuse and his hot temper still plagued him. "Little Walter was dead ten years before he died," Muddy Waters said. At gigs, as well as offstage, he would sometimes wave a pistol or two around, and had trouble keeping a band together. Photos taken towards the end of his life show a scarred, haggard man looking closer to 55 than 35. On February 14th, 1968, Walter Jacobs died of injuries sustained in a Chicago street fight. He was only 37 years old

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William McCoy Ad William McCoy Ad

Mama Blues (MP3)

Out Of Doors Blues (MP3)

Train Imitations & The Fox Chase (MP3)

Central Tracks Blues (MP3)

In our ongoing series of reprinting old Chicago Defender blues ads we turn to an obscure but excellent early harmonica player by the name of William McCoy. His records were advertised in the Defender on May 12, 1928, February 23, 1929 and September 21, 1929. Virtually nothing is known about McCoy other than he was probably from Texas. He recorded six sides for Columbia at three sessions; on December 6, 1927 he cut the solos "Mama Blues" b/w "Train Imitations And The Fox Chase", cut "Just It" b/w "How Long Baby" possibly backed by guitarist Sam Harris on December 7, 1928 and "Out Of Doors Blues" b/w "Central Tracks Blues" backed possibly by Sam Harris and Jesse Harris on clarinet on December 8, 1928. All of these sides can be found on Texas Black Country Dance Music 1927-1935 on the Document label.

According to harmonica researcher Pat Missin, McCoy was the first blues player to record in fifth position when he cut "Central Tracks Blues" which is in the key of C#. He's transcribed this piece on this page. The song refers the predominantly black Deep Ellum section of Dallas which, because of the proximity of the Houston and Texas Central Railroad tracks, was also called Central Track. By the 1920's it was known for it's gambling joints, pawnshops, prostitution and nightclubs. Many blues musicians worked the area including Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly and Lightnin' Hopkins.

Although the harmonica was present in many pre-war recordings, it became a dominant force in the 1950's, when it was amplified by the likes of Big Walter Horton, Little Walter, and Snooky Pryor. As such many players and fans seem to think that blues harmonica began with Little Walter and are unaware of the rich early tradition of harmonica recordings. In the early days harmonica soloists were common who played now forgotten pieces like train imitations and set pieces like "Lost John", "Fox Chase", "Mama Blues" and other call-and-response pieces that featured the harmonica over the voice, if the voice was used at all. William McCoy falls into that category while others include DeFord Bailey, George "Bullet" Williams, Alfred Lewis and Sonny Terry. Other notable early harmonica players include Jaybird Coleman, Daddy Stovepipe, Robert Cooksey, Noah Lewis and Jed Davenport. My August 17th show will be devoted to early harmonica blues, mostly from the 1920's and 1930's, and will spotlight all of these artists.

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