Featured Interview – Terry “Harmonica” Bean

You can call him old-fashioned.

You can tell him that he’s stuck in his ways or that he’s living in the past.

That doesn’t bother bluesman Terry ‘Harmonica’ Bean one little bit.

Instead of taking such talk as a slight or as a putdown, Bean prefers to embrace it, wearing it almost like a badge of honor.

“People always say, ‘Man, you think a lot of your grandparents, don’t you?’ And I do. I live off a lot of the stuff that they told me. People want to call it old-fashioned or something and I say, ‘Look, you can call it what you want, but I still use a lot of the mentality that they taught to me,’” he said. “That’s what works for me and it always has. We (people today) really don’t know how good we’ve got it and what all our parents had to go through to make sure we do have it good these days.”

The pride of Pontotoc, Mississippi, Bean certainly does seem to have it good these days as he hops around the globe playing the blues that he’s loved ever since he was a young child growing up in the magical hill country region.

“I’ve had a great year. When the good Lord let’s you do what you’re doing and be here on top of the ground, you’re having a great year,” he said. “I had to go to play the blues for a lot of people. I was in Spain, Germany, France, Belgium, Scotland, Denmark … I was just tickled to death with the way things went for me this year.”

Seems like every few years or so, the blues attempts something of an uprising and gathers itself for a shot at a huge commercial breakthrough to a more mainstream audience. Usually, this coup is powered by mixing a more contemporary form of music – like hip-hop or guitar rock – with the blues. While Bean has mulled over the possibility of meshing some of that with the blues that he favors to play in order to join in on that commercial push, he just hasn’t been able to bring himself to do it.

“Yes, I’ve been tempted to try some of that stuff, but the reason I won’t do it is because keeping the blues alive is my thing … the delta blues and the hill country blues … that’s my thing. That’s the stuff that carries me all around the world,” he said. “All that other stuff is alright, but it ain’t the real deal, you know what I’m saying? And let me tell you, the real deal works for me. A lot of people don’t realize this, but all that rap, hip-hop and rock stuff, that’s all music that is off the branches of the blues’ tree. The real-deal blues are like Johnson grass or maybe Kudzu, it may die out over here, but it’ll pop up over yonder. It ain’t ever going to die out. That’s kinda’ the case with me. It looked like there wasn’t a lot of young black guys playing the blues and then I popped up.”

And ever since he ‘popped up’ and began playing the blues on a full-time basis after seeing Robert Junior Lockwood playing at the 1988 Greenville Blues Festival, Bean has considered it his duty to try and keep the youth of today informed of the positive power of playing the blues.

“I try to encourage a lot of young people – black and white – to carry on the tradition of the blues. It seems like a lot of blacks are really not into the blues these days because they don’t really understand it. They think it’s depressing, but it’s not, man. They just need to try to understand it. I talk to a lot of young blacks about the stuff they do, like getting into all kinds of trouble because they want attention. And I understand that. I used to be a young fella’ myself. But I chose music to get my attention and you also get paid for it, too. That way, you ain’t got to go out and kill nobody to get attention.”

There’s a good reason that ‘Harmonica’ is sandwiched between Terry and Bean; the dude is one seriously good harp player. Bean is also an accomplished guitarist and has penned some provocative songs, as well. Bean has also earned a well-deserved reputation as a top-flight showman and has no trouble having an audience – whether in Clarksdale, Helena, Chicago or Paris – eating out of the palm of his hand.

“It’s like my granddaddy always said, ‘There’s a lot of people that play the blues and some people got it and some people don’t.’ And I tell you, for me, my grandfather always told me, ‘You got the whole package.’ That means I play – I blow (the harp) well and I got stage presence and can interact with people, too,” Bean said. “A lot of musicians just don’t have that in them, you know? But I feed off people. It don’t have to be no hundred people or no thousand people, I like to make contact with one person (in the crowd) and I play to that one person. That helps me to get my message out where everybody will be happy.”

Bean was part of a large family and had 18 brothers and six sisters, all who picked cotton around Pontotoc for their dad, Eddie Bean, who was a sharecropper. But Eddie Bean was also a musician and that was soon to rub off on young Terry Bean.

“My daddy played the blues. He played with B.B. King, but he never did travel. My grandfather knew Robert Johnson well. And when you’re from Mississippi, you just grow up around people playing the blues,” he said. “Up where I live – in the hill country – that meant people like Big Joe Williams, Bukka White, R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and people like that. Now, my daddy and granddaddy knew all those people. They used to come to the house and play house parties and at that time, everybody carried their kids with them (to the parties). Kids went wherever the parents went. I saw them gambling and my granddaddy making moonshine … I was out there amongst all that stuff, man. And they played music, too.”

His dad never really sat him down and showed him how to play guitar, but it was obvious by the way that he just soaked things up – almost through osmosis – that Terry Bean was a naturally-gifted musician, who could immediately pick things up by just hearing them once.

“No, they didn’t teach me how to play music, it’s just that I grew up in that environment and it just caught me,” he said. “When I first heard the blues, I saw what it done to people. I said ‘That’s what I want to do.’ Them blues will make you get up and shake your money-maker. And another thing – the blues brings people together. And in these days and times that’s very important. I mean, we have our troubles, but if there wasn’t no music, there sho nuff would be some troubles goin’ on, man.”

Blues wasn’t the only prevalent form of music that permeated Bean’s days as a youth in the Magnolia State.

“They play the blues down here and they also play gospel down here, too. And a lot of the church folks told me, ‘You know, Terry, the blues came from the church.’ And I say, ‘No, man.’ My grandmother died at 105 years old and I used to talk to her about that. She said, ‘Son, the blues came from the fields and then went to the church.’ She always told me that when she was a little-bitty girl, people were playing the blues in the fields and the folks in the church did not have no music. The people that were out playing those juke joints all night long had the fear put into them, so they started going to church and they started playing music in the church. They were all blues players and now they’re playing the blues in church. A lot of Christian people don’t want to admit that’s how it is, but the blues came from the fields and went to the church. But I always tell people, if you’re playing music and it ain’t got no blues in it, you’re really not playing no music.”

Bean has gained a lot of notoriety for his one-man band show and according to the man himself, once again, that goes right back to his family tree.

“Well, my daddy played with a band, but my granddaddy played by himself. And my granddaddy would draw just as big a crowd playing by himself as my daddy’s band would,” Bean said. “And it was amazing. But my granddaddy … now he had that whole package, too, you know what I’m saying? And he always told me, ‘Son, if you do like this right here, you don’t have to worry about no band.’ He also always said, ‘You don’t have to be good, but you damn sure have to be on time.’”

Even though he’s more than proven that he can pull off an entire show just by his lonesome, carrying on in the tradition of other one-man bands like Dr. Isaiah Ross, Adolphus Bell or his old buddy John Weston, Bean also has a full-fledged blues band at his disposal when needed and can switch back-and-forth between the two with ease.

“I do still play with my band. Matter of fact, I’m getting’ ready to do some shows with them coming up soon. I can go either way – solo or band – it doesn’t matter with me. I’ve got it both covered,” Bean said. “But my grandfather also told me, ‘You play with a band and you can have troubles.’ And he was right. Band members can be something else, now. Sometimes those band members can put you out of business with the way they take care of their business, you know? A lot people may think I’m hard to get along with, but I’m not. I’ve got my thing together. And if I let you work with me, you better have your thing together too.”

It looked for a while back in the late 70s that Bean might be headed for a bright career on the baseball diamond instead of the bandstand. Bean had caught the eye of a whole host of baseball scouts, thanks to throwing five no-hitters (he could pitch with either hand) and leading his high school team to the state championship in 1980.

“Yeah, I got to be pretty good playing baseball. I was an even-handed pitcher and I could hit, I could run, I could field … I could do it all on the baseball diamond,” he said.

But a subsequent motorcycle accident, followed later by an automobile mishap, ended Bean’s baseball playing days and set him on a path to playing the kind of blues that he grew up with, blues that started out ingenious to his native Mississippi before rocketing skyward.

“When they brought the slaves into this country from Africa, they brought the blues over, too. When the slaves were freed and they went their separate ways, the blues went with them and spread all over these United States … it was the black man’s music,” he said. “But here in Mississippi, something different was happening. The delta guys, cats like Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and them, played with a slide guitar and they played in what they call now Open G (tuning), but then they didn’t know what key they were playing in. They tuned to what they wanted to hear and they played it like that … a lot of them just tuned their guitar to their voice. And they had good ears and took bits and pieces from the stuff they heard and put it with their stuff to make their own style. Then, the hill country guys, they played in standard tuning and they put that rhythm thing with it, you see what I’m saying? It was like a driving kind of music. And when you add the delta guys and their slide thing with the hill country guys and their rhythm thing, it exploded. Those two different style of blues started working together and the music just exploded. But Muddy Waters was really the one that discovered that and he put the two together, went to Chicago and then the rest of the world was turned on to the power of the blues. That’s how it happened.”

Bean has played the blues with a whole boatload of wonderful musicians since he first picked up a harp, including a trio of now-departed characters like Lonnie Pitchford, Asie Payton and James ‘T-Model’ Ford.

And according to Bean, you had to have your wits about you on and off the bandstand while playing with T-Model.

“I played with T-Model about four years. That was my partner,” Bean said. “He knew a lot about a lot of things and he did a lot of stuff, you know what I’m saying?… a lot of stuff. And man, he’d get into these fights and I’d be in there trying to break it up and a lot of the licks that he was supposed to be getting, I wound up getting because I was in the middle.”

If you want to see Terry in action, check out these videos for a sample of his musical talent:

http://youtu.be/dZVr4YLX8E0   http://youtu.be/lu9WvJSpJL4   http://youtu.be/Ei-ipd7d-lc

Photos by Bob Kieser © 2013 Blues Blast Magazine.

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