It would be safe to say that most accomplished musicians seek to be recognized by their peers for doing something exceptional. There’s a certain competitiveness that goes along with being able to play an instrument as good, if not better than the next guy…or gal.
Currently there is a whole string of great Blues harmonica players who have brought the spotlight back to an instrument that until recently, has ridden shotgun to the Blues guitar. Oakland-based Mark Hummel is one of the leaders of this resurgence, having picked up the harp way back in his early teens.
Mark was born in Connecticut but was raised in Los Angeles. His interest in black music came from the Mexican babysitters his parents hired who often played R&B and soul music on the radio during the day when they cared for him.
“I got into Blues or rock Blues as a teenager,” Mark said. “I listened to Jimi (Hendrix), Cream, Big Brother (& The Holding company), Blue Cheer, all those Blues-based bands of the ‘60s. Those guys were riffing on the original songs only I didn’t realize it until I looked at the writer credits. That’s when I really got interested in the Blues.
“I really liked Willie Dixon and would go and check out his and other Blues albums at the library,” he said. “Once I got hold of the originals they made the rock versions seem a whole lot less to me. I think the originals just have more power. All of a sudden a whole new world opened up for me. I don’t mean to be disparaging to the rock Blues. The rock is just a whole different vibe, more of a jam. I still like Cream and Hendrix but it’s just a different thing.”
A couple of years playing clarinet as a youngster didn’t work out, Mark recalls.
“I played clarinet for my mom,” he said. “She wanted me to play a horn but it didn’t last. I tried guitar. I always liked the guitar but was never really very adept at it as I was the harmonica. I just never put the time into it. I had friends in high school who played guitar and they motivated me to play the harp. There was less competition.
“I got pretty good at it very quickly,” Mark said. “I put a lot of time into it. I started playing harp in bands in high school when I was about 14 or 15. Then in my junior year of high school I started playing with older guys. This was a big deal to me. We’d play high school dances or play in the park on the weekends. It was a big deal then. I met James Cotton when I was about 14 or 15 and he was so nice to me. I kind of gravitated toward the Blues lovers and hung out them. If you didn’t like the Blues then I didn’t have time for you.”
About this time, the cultural revolution was starting and things really were happening musically, socially and politically in San Francisco.
“I was in to hitchhiking in those days,” Mark said. “I’d take off and hitchhike up the coast (from LA). After I graduated from high school I hitchhiked across the country. I went to New Orleans and then up to Chicago then back to Berkley where I’d met this girl. After a while I ended up back in LA. I bought an old V.W bug for $40 and drove it back to San Francisco. This was in about 1972. It was a very exciting time. Lots of stuff going on all the time everywhere you looked.
“The thing that attracted me to the Bay Area was they actually knew all about Blues guys,” Mark said. “There were real Blues guys playing on street corners. In LA it’s all about making hit records. There is a commercial vibe in LA. It’s all about big money and selling records. To me that was a huge turnoff. There was and is a real feeling of independence in San Francisco. Blues there was not commercial music. Not that they didn’t try to sell records or be stars. It just wasn’t the driving force.
“In San Francisco they had the Fillmore (Auditorium), the Avalon Ballroom and later, Winterland,” Mark said. “They were playing the Blues in there. Albert King was a regular at the Fillmore. In fairness to the Blues, the difference between San Francisco and LA was the competitiveness. In San Francisco or Berkley you could meet people and they’d give a guy a chance to show his stuff.
“I was kind of a wild child in those days any way and the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll suited me just fine,” he said. “There was just a lot of Blues being played all over the Bay area. The only harp I’d really been exposed to was in bands like War, the J. Geils Band, Doobie Brothers. All good bands but not what I was looking for. In East LA there was lots of Mexican music and Blues being played but I still wanted to experience the real deal.”
Eventually Mark was able to meet and befriend some of the legends of the Bay Area music scene.
“I met Nick Gravenites, who was pretty much a rebel in those days,” Mark said. “I met Charlie Musselwhite who became a mentor. These guys were already legends and firmly enmeshed in the Blues underground. They were pretty much involved in the Fillmore scene. I was drawn to the ghetto clubs where the original Blues was being played.
“I met a guy named Ron Thompson, another Bay Area legend, who asked me if I was interested playing at the Playboy Club in San Francisco,” Mark recalls. “Only it was called Thee Playboy Club. I played a three-week gig. Once I was in I got and to see and play with guys like Sonny Rhodes, Boogie Jake, Sonny Lane, Cool Papa, and Mississippi Johnny Waters. These guys were just interested in the music. They didn’t care what color I was. They gave me the benefit of the doubt and accepted me right off the bat.”
From those first days establishing himself in the Bay Area, Mark Hummel has managed to work himself into a pretty elite fraternity of Blues harmonica players. For the past 23 years he has staged a huge Harmonica Blowout that has featured a Who’s Who of harp players. Guys like Snooky Pryor, James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite, Kim Wilson, Jerry Portnoy, Magic Dick, Rod Piazza, Paul DeLay, James Harman, Mitch Kashmar, Huey Lewis and many others have shared the stage with Mark and his band Blues Survivors which he established in 1980 and still tours with today.
The Survivors have featured a slew of notable names through the years including King of the Hill creator and Blues bassist Mike Judge, Jimmy Bott, June Core, Rusty Zinn, Ronnie James, Chris Masterson, Charles Wheal and Joel Foy.
“Harmonica players are an intensely competitive bunch,” Mark says. “When you’re around the guys on the Blowout it motivates you to play better. I met a lot of them when I was pretty young and they mentored me. I still think they consider me the kid of the bunch. Nobody ever says it but I can tell. But they do know I can play.
“There are a lot of good, young guys out there today who are coming up and could use some help,” Mark said. “I try to include them in the Blowout as much as possible because I remember where I came from and who helped me. Sometimes I might have to leave them off the bill in favor of a bigger draw in order to pay the bills. I hate to say that but I have to try and fill the house. It’s economic necessity.”
Mark cites legendary harpmaster Kim Wilson as being a huge influence.
“First time I saw Kim and the T-birds they knocked me out,” he said. “The Thunderbirds really affected the whole scene. They played the Blues their own way. They were louder, raw, and didn’t play the old songs note for note. They had more of an improv style. I met them way back then and it was an honor. I’ve done a ton of shows with Kim since then.”As with most seasoned Blues players, Hummel has some definite opinions about the state of the Blues scene today.
“It is in dire need of a youth transfusion,” he said. “So many of the elderly legends have passed away with no one stepping forward to fill in the gaps. You go to the Blues shows and the audience is full of gray hair. We went to the CzechRepublic and Poland for the first time in 2005 and for the first time we saw a lot of young people coming to the shows. That’s encouraging.”
He has played festivals all across the country, including the San Francisco Blues Festival, Chicago Blues Festival, King Biscuit Blues Festival, Waterfront Blues Festival, and the Monterey Jazz Festival. Some of these outdoor Blues festivals popping up all over the country could use some help as well, Hummel says.
“We’ve gone to festivals before where we feel we are the only true Blues band on the bill,” he said. “They call it a Blues festival but only feature these ’60 Blues rock bands. They need to move on. There’s an old guy in New York who is widely unrecognized named Joe Beard. He plays the real Blues and is just a fantastic guy. There needs to be more friggin’ real Blues on the bill.”
Currently Hummel is involved in an increasingly popular project called the Golden State-Lone Star Revue, an All Star Blues group that features Anson Funderburgh and Little Charlie Baty on guitars plus RW Grigsby on bass, Wes Starr on drums. GoldenState – Lone Star has been touring and playing major festivals since 2012 and has two national and two European tours to its credit, with more on the way.
“It’s really taken off,” Mark says of the Golden State-Lone Star gig. “Everybody thinks Little Charlie retired and I guess he did for about three years. But you can unretire, too. Anson Funderburg is just one of the nicest guys I know. He’s so laid back and unassuming until it’s his turn. I love working with him and Little Charlie. These guys are total pros.”
Mark’s next CD is entitled The Hustle Is Really On, due out in March. The disc features an All Star Cast including Wes Starr, Anson Funderburgh, Little Charlie Baty, RW Grigsby from Hummel’s Golden State – Lone Star Revue, “Kid” Anderson, from Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, June Core, Doug James (Roomful of Blues & Jimmy Vaughn) and Sid Morris.”
To talk to Mark Hummel one gets the impression he is definitely passionate about his music and knows his place in the continuing legacy of the Blues. If nothing else he is upbeat and rooted in tradition.
“To me it’s all about maintaining the true essence of the Blues,” Mark says. “You take a guy like Paul DeLay. He can take an original song and make it his own but he still maintains the true essence. I love the classic stuff but certain things get lost when you stray too far. There’s a ton of retread stuff being played. How many ways can you play “Stormy Monday?
“Blues is Blues. Period.”.
If you want to see Mark in action, check out these videos.
Mark doing a couple tunes in tribute to Little Walter Jacobs. (2013)
Mark with Little Charlie Baty and Anson Funderburgh doing the Sonny Boy Williamson tune “Have You Ever Been in Love”. (2012) http://youtu.be/2sxLvK-e-kE
One of Mark’s Harp Blowouts featuring Stew James and the Juke Joint Allstars, Mark Hummel, Kim Wilson and Charlie Musselwhite at the Iron Horse Saloon in Northampton Massachusetts (2007)
This an entire hour set so you can fast forward or rewind to desired chapter – Table of Contents
:00-08:45- Stew James and the Juke Joint Allstars
8:45-17:32- Mark Hummel
17:34-28:50- Kim Wilson
29:15-44:15- Charlie Musselwhite
44:15-till end- All 4 Harp Blowout
Visit Mark’s website at: http://www.markhummel.com/
Photos by Marilyn Stringer © 2013
Interviewer Jim Crawford is a transplanted Texan and the current president of the Phoenix Blues Society. He’s a fan of lots of different types of music but keeps his head mostly planted in the Blues today. He received his first 45 rpm record, Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man,” at about age 8 and it stuck. He hosted the “Blues Cruise” on KACV-FM 90 in Amarillo for many years and can be found on many nights catching a good show at the Rhythm Room, Phoenix’s Blues Mecca.
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