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 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.
|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.