It’s no wonder that harmonica maestro Mark Hummel packs a room wherever he appears. A road warrior with a 40-year pedigree, he’s truly one of a kind: A master showman who’s eager to tour – and often take a back seat on stage — in configurations that give other internationally acclaimed musicians plenty of space to shine.
Based out of the San Francisco Bay area, Hummel’s a juggler of sorts – a blues version of P.T. Barnum. Barnum lured audiences with the idea that “there’s a sucker born every minute.” But there are no suckers when Mark performs. And he does it in four distinctly different configurations!
In addition to fronting his own band, The Blues Survivors, since 1977 — piling up three million road miles in the process, he also plays ringmaster for two major operations: Mark Hummel’s Blues Harmonica Blowouts – orgasmic shows for harp lovers that feature multiple master reed benders at each stop – and the Golden State-Lone Star Revue – a delight for guitar freaks with a lineup that includes multiple world-class fret masters.
And then there’s his latest venture, the Deep Basement Shakers, a unit that breathes new life into hokum blues, a musical styling that began in minstrel shows of the 19th Century and reached the height of its popularity in the 1930s.
Blues Blast caught up with Hummel in February during the Legendary Rhythm And Blues Cruise when which he coordinated an even more formidable team: a Golden State-Lone Star lineup that included Texas-based powerhouse guitarists Anson Funderburgh and Mike Keller, but also took on a strong Chicago flavor with guest appearances by vocalists Oscar Wilson of the Cash Box Kings and Dietra Farr, a longtime Windy City favorite.
As you might expect, they held their own in the midst of the best blues talent on the planet, playing to huge crowds every time they appeared during the seven-day high seas bacchanal.
Like many of his peers, Hummel grew up both in the church and the hard way. Even though he was son of a Methodist minister, the family lived for several years in Aliso Village in Los Angeles, which was recognized as one of the most notorious slums in the country before being demolished. Later on, the Hummels moved to another impoverished area, East L.A.
Mark’s path to music began primarily because of the babysitters who cared for him while his folks were at work.
“The very first blues I heard was ‘Scratch My Back’ by Slim Harpo and ‘Honest I Do’ by Jimmy Reed,” he recalls. “They were in heavy rotation on soul radio stations, which the babysitters would be playing.”
To his ear at the time, their sounds were inseparable from the music of mid-‘60s superstars Wilson Pickett and Hank Ballard And The Midnighters.
“But what happened for me really took place in high school,” Mark says. “I started hearing all the rock blues stuff. I was listening to Cream and Hendrix. Janis Joplin was my big favorite with Big Brother. And Blue Cheer – some really bad psychedelic bands.
“I gravitated to that stuff because it was louder and drove my parents out of the room.”
At 12 or 13, Hummel attended his first rock concert. “It was at the Rose Bowl,” he says. “It was Big Brother, Albert King, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, the Mothers Of Invention, Country Joe And The Fish, Joan Baez, Buffy Sainte-Marie, the Byrds – all these people were on the bill for $3.
“I actually missed Janis and Albert because the show was so backed up that they didn’t come on until 1 or 2 in the morning. I had to leave early because my babysitter needed to sleep.
“She was the cool babysitter – and our ride.”
It wasn’t until years later, when he was in my early 20s, that he heard bands like the Fabulous Thunderbirds doing “Scratch My Back” and recognized that he remembered hearing the same true blues songs being played on the radio.
With a catalog of more than 30 albums under his own name today, Mark’s interest in the harmonica began after seeing Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, James Cotton and Charlie Musselwhite at a club called the Ash Grove within a six-month period at age 15. “My mother would drive me to the gigs, drop me off and pick me up,” he says. “She really made things happen for me.”
Shortly thereafter, he started taking lessons from a friend, Mark Dawson. If you’re a fan of country music, you might recognize his name because he spent the better part of 20 years playing harp and sharing songwriting credits with the legendary Hoyt Axton.
“He was a couple of years older than I was, and he was popular. He was playing Paul Butterfield stuff on the harmonica,” Hummel remembers.
“I wanted to separate myself from all the guys who were playing guitar. So I asked him: ‘How do you do that?’ He goes: ‘Just bring me over a six-pack and I’ll show you whatever you want to know!’
“He lent me the first Butterfield and second Cotton albums, and I just wore those out. I don’t remember if I ever gave them back. He showed me how to bend and do head shakes, vibrato – all the basics.”
Other early influences included Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Musselwhite and Sonny Boy Williamson. His jazz influences, which include Count Basie, Billie Holiday and others, didn’t hit until much later.
“By the time I was 16, I was playing in bands with a much of high school friends,” Mark recalls.
Some of those playing partners included the Delgado brothers – Bob, Joey and Steve – who finally rose to prominence nationally in 2016 when they captured top honors in the International Blues Challenge.
“Bobby Delgado, the bass player, had one of the first blues bands that I knew of that had a guy who could really play the harmonica,” he says. “This guy was good. He was like listening to Big Walter or Little Walter, and he could play all that stuff.
“So I was hanging out with him and trying to sit in with those guys. But I played with all of Bobby’s siblings.”
Known for his powerful, rich, single-note attack, Hummel relates most to the playing style of Cotton when it comes to harp players of the modern era. “He had such a slashing style,” Mark says. “He just tore into the notes. There was something about the way he’d bite off the notes and get to the meat of it that really knocks me out.”
He’s also drawn to Little Walter: “With him, he’d play something real soft with muted tone and then stab something.”
But their true appeal comes because of the way they played in support of Muddy Waters and others. “The way Walter played behind Muddy is really interesting to me,” he says. “And Cotton had a bit of that in the mid-‘60s, but eventually became more and more of a power player.
“He was pretty hard on his harmonica. The guys in his band told me they saw him spitting out reeds – something I’ve never done.”
After graduation, Hummel hitchhiked around the country with stops in New Orleans, the East Coast and Chicago. “When I stopped there, I was so intimidated by how big a city it was,” he says. “I called up Bob Riedy (a regional blues superstar keyboard player in the ‘70s and ‘80s), and he told me: ‘You can go here and here and here,’ and I wasn’t about to get on the El and try and find ‘em. I wasn’t about to go to the South or West Side by myself.
“I went to the Bay area and landed in Berkeley just by chance. I met some girl and kinda moved in with her for a little bit. I went back to L.A. for a while to save money so I could move up there. I saved up like $40 and drove my little VW bug back up a year later when I was 19.
“It was a great scene to be in back then. I remember the Berkeley Blues Festival that used to happen and seeing Big Mama Thornton. Bukka White and George ‘Harmonica’ Smith, who was also one of the first harp players I saw in L.A.”
Mark’s professional career kicked off when singer/songwriter Haskell “Cool Papa” Sadler – most famous for the song “747,” which was a major hit for Joe Louis Walker in 1988 – hired him for a gig. “The way I started was in ghetto clubs ‘cause it was the only place you could play the blues,” he says.
“They weren’t going to hire me at the Fillmore!” he jokes. “I met Cool Papa and played with him for about a month because his harp player was taking a sabbatical or something.”
Through Sadler, he met Matthew “Boogie Jake” Jacobs, who’d recorded with Slim Harpo in Louisiana before heading West. Hummel worked with him in a band that included future Radiators bass player Reggie Scanlan and guitarist Eddie Ray for a year. During that period, he ventured into the studio for the first time to record a 45 – “Automobile Blues/The Boogie Train” — on the Blues Connoisseur imprint, for which Jake worked regularly as a studio musician.
“It was a couple of white guys playing with an older black guy,” Mark says. “If you were into the blues and you were young and white, people in the clubs didn’t have any problem with it as long as you were sincere of the love of the music. I felt like they welcomed me with open arms.
“It was intimidating when I stepped into places like the Playboy Club in Richmond (Cal.) for the first time,” he laughs. “But people were really nice right out of the gate.”
Among Hummel’s other close friends during that period were J.J. Malone (best known for “It’s A Shame” and “Danger Zone”), Troyce Key (owner of the legendary Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland) and lap steel guitarist Sonny Rhodes.
Mark hooked up with guitarist J.J. Jones and Mississippi Johnny Waters – then Johnny Sandifer – in 1977 and formed what would become The Blues Survivors, creating the band that he continues to front today. The name was Waters’ idea.
“J.J. called me up, and I think only wanted for me to put a rhythm section together for him,” Hummel remembers. He goes: ‘We’re gonna start a band, man. Maybe you can find a bass player and drummer.’
“But me and Johnny hit it off immediately. We just clicked. I saw him at a jam session at Eli’s. He was singing and playing ‘Country Boy’ just like Muddy Waters. I said to myself: ‘This is who I want to play with!’
“J.J. almost didn’t fit because we were playing Chicago blues and he was more Albert or B.B. King. He left within the first three months after getting the house gig at Eli’s. So we found Sonny Lane, who was Johnny’s old friend, and he took over on guitar.”
As a result, The Blues Survivors proved to be quite a novelty even though two Windy City greats – guitarist Luther Tucker and Francis Clay, Muddy’s former drummer – were both living in the area but primarily playing elsewhere.
The Blues Survivors’ lineup changed in the early ‘80s, when Hummel decided it was time to take the band on the road. Both Waters and Lane dropped out as the band traveled to Salt Lake City and along the California coast.
They started touring internationally in 1985, and the roster has included a virtual who’s who of talent, including bassist Mike Judge (creator of Beavis And Butt-Head and King Of The Hill), Jimi Bott, Rusty Zinn, Ronnie James Weber, R.W. Grigsby, Randy Bermudes, Bob Welsh, Anthony Paule, Steve Freund, June Core, Marty Dodson, Wes Starr, Franck “Paris Slim” Goldwasser, Little Charlie Baty and Ron Thompson, among others too numerous to mention.
“The bottom line was that, in 1984, I realized that we had a good thing going in the Bay Area,” he says. “We were really popular. But I was scared that if we stayed around too long, we’d burn things out. That was one of my motivations – that and the fact that I’d just done my first record. I figured I could work more and more on the road and make a living doing it.
“A guy in Salt Lake who owned a club called the Zephyr turned me onto that idea in ’82, when I first started going there. He said: ‘You guys are a great band. I could turn you on to all kinds of gigs in the western U.S. — and he did.
“You could do anything between a two-nighter to a seven-nighter at that time. It was easy to book a tour. You could call four clubs and be on the road a month. But all that changed. It became all one-nighters eventually.”
Hummel has been conducting Blues Harmonica Blowout tours since 1991. “That came about because of a freak thing,” he says. “The idea really came about because of Tom Mazzolini, who did the San Francisco festivals. He also did a thing called the ‘Battle Of The Harmonicas,’ which was a regular event, but slowed down late in the ‘80s.
“In ’91, I did one at a club in Berkeley called Ashkenaz in Berkeley with three other harp players — Rick Estrin, Dave Earl and Doug Jay. By chance, it was a success—probably because it was on a Sunday night on a Martin Luther King holiday weekend.
“We got about 150 people in, and the owner goes: ‘Hey, we oughta do this every year.’ So we did. That was really the inspiration.”
After the club owner’s death, Hummel moved the show to Kimball’s in Emeryville and then to Yoshi’s in Oakland. But it quickly became a multi-venue event around California, featuring a revolving lineup that included William Clarke, Norton Buffalo, Paul DeLay, Rod Piazza, Kim Wilson, Estrin, James Harman, Billy Branch and others. Several shows of those shows exist today on compilation CDs released on Mountain Top Records.
Anyone who’s attended one of those performances recognizes how magical they truly are. Like the multi-star shows that toured on the chittlin’ circuit, they take on a life all of their own that’s greater than the contributions of the individuals involved.
“The structure is very similar,” Mark says. “You have one backup band and a bunch of front men. We’re all traveling together in my van pulling a trailer. And it’s a very compact, close-quarters situation.
“But putting it all together is not such an easy thing. And it really takes a certain chemistry of musicians to make it really fly in a great way.”
Participants have included everyone from Cotton and Carey Bell to Musselwhite, John Mayall and Lazy Lester to Billy Boy Arnold, Lee Oscar and Jerry Portnoy to Sugar Ray Norcia, Jason Ricci and Aki Kumar to Sugar Blue – and dozens more.
With backing guitarists who’ve included Duke Robillard, Billy Flynn, Jr. Watson, Zinn, Welsh, Little Charlie, Funderburgh and others, it’s no wonder that Hummel’s Blowouts are so successful.
Which tour was the best so far?
“The last one was pretty phenomenal,” Mark says. “It had Kenny Neal, Bobby Rush, James Harman and Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone. But the Little Walter tour (promoting Hummel’s Grammy nominated/Blues Music Award winning compilation CD honoring the harmonica great in 2014) was pretty sensation, too, with Curtis Salgado, Billy Boy and Sugar Ray, Little Charlie and Billy Flynn. So was 2002 with Sam Myers and Snooky Pryor. We had so much fun on that one just talking trash.”
The idea for the Golden State-Lone Star project began in 2011 when Mark started working with bassist R.W. Grigsby and drummer Wes Starr, who started out working together while attending high school in Georgia then joined forces in Texas, where they supported several major artists.
“The first thing I did with them was a tour with Mike Morgan (the Texas-based guitarist who achieved national fame with his band, The Crawl),” Hummel recalls. “We did some dates up in Canada. That’s where the idea came from.
“I thought it would be kinda cool to do something with Anson, whom I’ve known since the ‘80s. And I was already working locally with Little Charlie. I asked Anson about the idea of the four of us working together. It was a kind of experiment, and we did our first tour – a four- or five-week tour of Europe, and it came across pretty good.”
Even though none of the usual artists involved in the Golden State-Lone Star Revue have Chicago roots, the one thing that binds them together, Mark says, is that everyone involved has a deep, unwavering love and respect for Windy City blues – that and the fact that all of them have experience backing up harmonica.
Despite being busy juggling the Blues Survivors, the Blowouts and Golden State-Lone Star, Hummel still finds time for the Deep Basement Shakers, which delivers music from earlier eras, incorporating hokum, jug band and barrelhouse blues overtones.
“It’s a trio,” Mark explains. “We have a rubboard player, Dave Eagle, who plays this really wild contraption. He’s got a suitcase drum kit, a rubboard, cymbals, whoopee cushions and whatever else, and Aaron Hammerman, a piano player who’s awesome. He’s wa-a-ay off into the old cats like Blind John Davis, Big Maceo and Black Bob – all the pre-War guys.
“We do a lot of Jazz Gillum, Blind Blake, the first Sonny Boy, Big Bill Broonzy and some Brownie (McGhee) songs because he’s another guy I worked with. We throw all that stuff into the mix. I lo-o-ove that stuff, man!
“For me, the farther back I dig, the more I hear the connection between those guys and the Chicago guys of the ‘50s. A lot of the songs that people think are Muddy’s or Walter’s or Jimmy Rogers’ actually go back to the ‘30s and ‘40s.
“That’s why Billy Boy Arnold are so tight. He’s such a big fan of that era of Chicago blues. He’s so into Big Bill and early Sonny Boy.”
Considering his history, it’s no surprise that Hummel remains old school. “I try to follow the older black bluesmen’s example,” he says. “Just play the blues and everything else will usually come out all right in the long run.
“If it doesn’t, put it in a song! The blues is a long, hard road, and nobody said it would be easy, make you a lot of money, superstardom or anything else.”
One bonus that path has provided Hummel is plenty of material for one book – possibly another. His 2012 autobiography, Big Road Blues: 12 Bars on I-80, graphically details the pitfalls of being a traveling blues musician. It was illustrated profusely by Paris Slim, who was an art major in France before becoming a blues guitarist. The 46 brief chapters are chockful of humorous anecdotes.
He chuckles when he recounts the aural he received from Nick Gravenites, was lead singer in Big Brother before Joplin and the first true link between the San Francisco and Chicago blues scenes.
“I said: ‘What’d you think of the book?’” Mark recalls. “He goes: ‘I liked it. The chapters are short. Great bathroom read!’”
Still available online both as a Kindle download and hard copy, like Golden State-Lone Star, it came about by accident.
“I did a blog during a tour of Europe in ’07,” he recalls. “It was turning into one disaster after the next with this promoter who had his claws in us. So I just started writing it all down for myself because it was such crazy shit.
“I sent it to Charles Putris who owned Mountain Top, and he said: ‘Man, this could be a book! If you want to write it, I’ll publish it. And then we can take it to Hollywood. Brad Pitt can play you!’”
Hummel laughed, and said: “Right! Like that will ever happen!”
His work on that book ended in 2010, but he’s got enough material for another. “I probably should wait ‘til some people die,” he chuckles. “I had to change a lot of names in the first one.”
On a more serious note, Mark insists that it’s always important to remember the true heritage of the blues. “The way I look at it,” he says, “is that this is really African-American music that basically white people are getting a chance to borrow. And it’s so important to give back to where it comes from.
“My mission and my career are dedicated to promoting blues by paying back the originators and giving credit where credit’s due. All the guys who came before me still knock me out. I haven’t lost any of my passion.
“The other thing I feel fortunate about is that I learned about the business from the beginning,” Hummel says. “I learned how to deal with promoting, how to make records, how to book gigs – stuff that most musicians look for somebody else to do.
“I learned how to book national tours. There’s very few musicians that could do that. Even though I thought it was a curse at the time, in the long run, it’s a blessing. It served me well because, unfortunately, booking agents – like weeklong gigs — have gone by the wayside. It’s saved my ass so many times.
“It’s really easy to get resentful or frustrated or impatient. But it takes a calm head to go: ‘It’s all business…don’t take it personally!’”
Hummel’s latest CD, Harpbreaker, was just released on the Electro-Fi imprint, a sensational collection of instrumentals. Check out Mark’s discography and his tour dates by visiting his website: www.markhummel.com