He heard what they were saying about him, but try as he might, he just couldn’t seem to get out of his own way.
Those were the words that followed Deak Harp and nipped at his heels like the proverbial Hellhound some two decades ago.
“That was me … I was all of that and I was blacklisted back in the ‘90s. In New York City, I played Manny’s (Car Wash) and Terra Blues and Chicago B.L.U.E.S and they all had enough of me when I was drinking. I had a bad reputation for being a drunk back then,” Deak recently said.
Then, one day after failed rehab attempt after failed rehab attempt (five tries in all), Deak Harp finally found the conviction to said enough is enough.
“One day I got so sick and said, ‘That’s it. I’m tired of throwing up all the time.’ I had to clean up my act and I did. I was tired of letting alcohol control my life. I’ve been sober since 2001and that’s helped me out a lot. I mean, nobody wants to go see a drunken bluesman anymore,” he said. “That’s old stuff … back in the fish fry days when they would go out to the juke joint after picking cotton all week. These days, people don’t want to pay good money to go see a drunken performer.”
With all that Deak has on his plate these days, even if he were still tempted to climb back inside a bottle (which he’s not), it’s highly unlikely that he’d have the time needed to get smashed on a regular basis. He’s one of the premier harmonica players currently playing the blues, as his latest album – Clarksdale Breakdown – so purposefully proves. He’s also a highly in-demand harmonica instructor, and since 2007, he’s also been a staff writer for Big City Rhythm & Blues magazine. But the thing that gets Deak the most excited – and rightfully so – is when he talks about a little piece of real estate located at 13 Third Street in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
That’s the location of the one-of-a-kind Deak’s Mississippi Saxophones and Blues Emporium.
“I have the only – the only – brick-and-mortar harmonica store, where you can walk in and say, ‘Deak, I blew out my 5-draw (reed), could you put one in for me?’ I’ll pull out this $500 tool I’ve got that looks like the keyboard of a Hammond organ and I’ll pull out one of the draw-bars for that one note and I’ll replace the note and put a new ribbon in it – and some screws if needed – and they can walk out with their harmonica fixed,” he said. “This is the only store in the world where you can do that. You can buy a regular harmonica, you can buy a custom harmonica, you can get one fixed, or you can take a lesson from me, or hey, maybe you just want to hang out in here. When Charlie Musselwhite’s in town, he’ll spend two or three hours in here just hangin’ out and tellin’ stories. This (Deak’s store) is the best idea I’ve ever come up with.”
It also bears mentioning that Deak possesses laser-sharp focus and seems to be a natural born multi-tasker. He can carry on a meaningful conversation on the telephone, while at the same time he’s using a drill press to work on the restoration of a harmonica (a Hohner, circa 1985-90, in this case) that would later that afternoon be slipped into a mailing sleeve and sent out to another one of his many satisfied customers – this one in Australia.
“I kind of do what Hohner doesn’t want to do to their harps. It’s not that they’re bad harps, because they’re not. I mean the best harp you can get is the (Hohner) Marine Band harmonica. Almost all the blues players use those,” he said. “But they have little problems. Years ago, the wood used to swell up and cut your mouth when you got them pretty wet.”
No one wants their mouth to start bleeding from both corners when they break into a version of “Juke,” so Deak put on his thinking cap, rolled up his sleeves and came up with a solution to rectify that problem.
“What I did was to figure out a way to re-seal the cone by taking the harmonica completely apart and eliminating that problem. And I also fine-tune the harmonicas so they are exactly in tune,” he said. “A lot of professional players that use octaves when they tongue-block – which is an advanced way to play harmonica – those imperfections stick out like a sore thumb, because if you’re trying to play two of the same notes and they don’t ring perfectly together, that drives the artist nuts. So basically they (Hohner) don’t spend as much time on the last phase of production – the tuning – before they send their harps out, as I would. When I get done with them, they’re tuned perfect on a strobe tuner. My harmonicas have sold all over the world. I mean, who wouldn’t want a Mississippi-made blues whistle?”
Not only do the harps sound like a million bucks when they leave Deak’s Mississippi Saxophones and Blues Emporium, they also look like they should be hanging on the wall of an upscale gallery, to boot.
“What I kind of do is make them into a work of art … like on the outside of them … so they all look really neat, too. Each one of them has a mind of its own,” he said. “And they play like butter and they bend so easy.”
As one might expect, Deak’s workshop space is knee-deep in harmonicas in various stages of life – including bits over here and pieces over there.
“Yeah, people send me boxes of broken harmonicas with something wrong with them. And I completely take them all apart, go through them outside and inside and completely restore them and get them back into service and they’re better harmonicas than what come out of the factory,” he said. “And they’re something that you can’t get anywhere else … period. I also have Harp Gear amplifiers in here and am soon to have the brand-new Lone Wolf harmonica amps, which are 25-watt amplifiers.”
That same spirit and willingness to roll the bones and do things his own way certainly spilled over to Deak’s latest album, as well. In a nod to the grass-roots promotion methods of days gone by, Deak has pretty much taken care of most of the marketing for Clarksdale Breakdown all by his lonesome.
“I gave the Blues Foundation some copies and then I sent 160 of them out through Todd Glazer (blues/roots music radio promoter) and that’s really all that I could afford to do to promote it,” he said. “It did debut at number 18 on the blues charts, but it took a couple of months to do that, but I guess that’s normal.”
As impressive as his harmonica restoration skills are – along with his ability to flat-out peel paint off the walls when he puts a harp up to his mouth –equally impressive is the way that Deak has managed to morph himself into a one-man band over the years. He sings, blows harp, plays a guitar – or diddley-bow – and keeps beat on the drums, all at the same time up on the bandstand. That requires a certain level of dexterity, along with a brain that can focus on several things at once. But once again, for a multi-tasker like Deak, that’s really no issue at all.
“Well, I leave about two of them (brain wavelengths) on auto-pilot,” he laughed. “The guitar playing and drumming go on auto-pilot. Then I think about the rest. Mainly, what I’m doing is matching notes with the guitar, so I don’t fall off track if I stay in one groove. To be honest, I never really knew anything about Hill Country blues until I started coming to the (King) Biscuit (Blues Festival, in Helena, Arkansas) in like ’04 and ’05, when I started seeing cats like Terry ‘Harmonica’ Bean and Bill Abel (who guests on Clarksdale Breakdown). They hipped me to listening to R.L. Burnside and guys like that. My style is kind of in the Hill Country blues, but it’s like the Hill Country blues on steroids.”
Lately, Deak has kind of stepped away from playing the drums himself during his live shows and went back to more of a standup, in-your-face, wild and energetic stage show that’s kind of difficult to pull off when you have to remain seated with your foot tethered to a drum petal up on stage.
“I hire drummers now; I’ve got four or five different ones that I work with. I use Ardie Dean from the Music Maker Foundation – he travels the world playing drums and he plays a 1930’s Ludwig set. My number-one drummer here in Clarksdale is Andrew Lee Williams and I just worked with Joe Eagle for a gig at Red’s Lounge recently and it was like walkin’ in the park, man,” he said. “I just set the groove and they follow me and it’s like a juke party, man. I mean, I could cause a riot with this show.”
Deak and the legendary Charlie Musselwhite – who labels Clarksdale as his home-away-from-home – have become fast friends and they also share the love of the tone of a certain amplifier that Deak has in his store.
“It’s an old Ampeg from the ‘60s and Charlie wanted to buy it, but I said, ‘No, Charlie, I don’t want to sell it, but whenever you’re in Clarksdale, you can come get it and use it.’ And he just recorded his latest album (I Ain’t Lyin’) on it,” he said. “Charlie also invited me to be on his newest DVD to play backup harmonica while he’s running through five different positions on the harmonica. I play in the other key that doesn’t interfere with what he’s doing (in the DVD). It’s coming out in three or four months.”
With all that he’s got going on in and around his store, it’s understandable that Deak channels most of his energies and efforts –as well as his time – into running that, instead of traveling all over the place, playing gigs here and there. However, that doesn’t mean that he won’t travel at all.
“I don’t leave the shop unless it’s a really cool experience. I get paid for what I do and I don’t work for free and I don’t need no exposure,” he said. “I’m playing at the Bean Blossom Blues Fest (in Nashville, Indiana) on August 29 and I’m going to Switzerland and Germany in 2016 for a seven-night tour and I’m going to Norway in April of 2016 with a band I recorded with at the Shack-Up Inn, called the J.B. Blues Express. They’re out of Norway.”
Deak initially hooked up with the J.B. Blues Express when they were in Clarksdale and were in need of an amp. Instead of charging the Norwegians – who probably would have paid a pretty penny – for the use of an amp, he simply lent them one.
“That’s just the way I am. When people come into town, I’m not trying to make a quick buck off them, because I don’t need to,” he said. “You get more bees with honey than you would with a bag of dirt, you know? Money doesn’t come from that, money comes after doing things like that … and I sure don’t have any ulterior motives. I just want to help anyone that I can.”
Back in his younger days, Deak spent a good five years following the great James ‘Superharp’ Cotton up and down the left coast. That led directly to a spot driving Cotton and his band around for several years, which in turn resulted in Deak opening up shows for Cotton and ultimately ended up with Deak playing with, living with and becoming a lifelong friend of the great Cotton.
“That was really a dream come true,” he said.
The warm, rich and deep tone – readily acknowledged to be among the best of the best – that Deak coaxes out of his harmonica didn’t happen by accident. It happened because Cotton instructed him on how to summon up that sound.
“He told me to stop playing harmonica with my lips … that’s what it is. When I worked for him, I’d have to do the soundchecks and he would be there standing by the soundboard in the middle of the venue and he’d be going, ‘Come, on … dig a little deeper. Come on!’ He would be working me to get that tone that I needed,” he said. “That’s how I learned to emulate James Cotton’s tone. He forced me … beat it into me, to get that tone. He called me more names – in a good way – to get me where he thought I needed to be. You know, I learned from James and he learned from Sonny Boy (Williamson), so I’m third generation, man.”
Just because he learned to blow like Cotton doesn’t mean that Deak sounds like James Cotton, even though he most definitely could. It’s by choice that Deak sounds like … well, like Deak.
“Cotton and William Clarke – who was another great mentor to me back in the ‘90s, would always say, ‘Deak, I’ll show you anything you want to learn about the blues and the business, but you’ve got to make your own name, your own music.’ That was some of the best advice I ever got,” he said. “I mean, I can sound like Cotton, but I don’t use any of his licks. If you listen to my records, you really don’t hear anybody else’s (licks) but mine. I’m not the fanciest harmonica player and I know that … but I do have my own thing goin’ on. The beauty of the harmonica is, you can take it in so many different directions and everybody can sound like themselves.”
That spirit of giving – much like what Cotton provided for him back in the day – is what motivates Deak to do for the students that he teaches and mentors these days. It’s more about passing on traditions than it is about pocketing a paycheck.
“Carson Diersing’s mom called me up, worried about his career. He wasn’t getting anywhere and his teacher said it was looking like he just didn’t have that drive. His mom didn’t know what to do and really couldn’t afford to pay for hourly lessons. She wanted to arrange for him to come and stay with me for a couple of weeks and pay for his expenses (food and lodging). I said, ‘Pay me? No. This is the perfect opportunity for me to pass this on to somebody that is a well-deserved musician that needs that extra kick.’ I made sure he was fed and taken care of and I didn’t want a darn thing for it, that’s just the way I am,” he said. “I did say, ‘Now, if he comes down to me, I’m gonna’ be his papa and he’s going to listen to me.’ He was 16 at the time. Well, sure enough, he came down and he’s been learning from me. We just did a show with Gip Gipson who’s 94-years-old and I let Carson play with me and note-for-note, he was backing me up … I’m just so impressed with the way his playing is coming along. That’s what James Cotton did for me. I stayed at Cotton’s house for months, learning from him. He took me to The Checkerboard Lounge and everywhere. I was his step-son. That’s just what he said I was.”
Although it was just for a couple of fleeting years (2009-10), Deak was a member of Kilborn Alley Blues Band, a group that has carved out quite a nice reputation as a top-notch and hard-working outfit for itself over the years.
“I love those guys. The reason I left was because of my harmonica business. I was taking orders but was not able to fill them because I was on the road so much. And I didn’t want things to keep going on like that,” he said. “I just needed more time to build my harmonica business.”
He still keeps in touch with his old mates from Kilborn Alley – and as a matter of fact, their relationship goes well beyond the occasional long-distance phone chat.
“I just went up there to Chicago to Nick’s (Moss) studio and I’m going to be featured on their new record. They allowed me two days to record four songs and we started rolling and I banged through the first song in about 15 or 20 minutes. Before long, about an hour-and-a-half into the session, I had recorded the whole thing,” he said. “Nick Moss said, ‘You’re done! That’s what I’m talkin’ about!’ I banged ‘em out and it was up to my par. I reckon I saved them some time and studio money.”
Even though he still does make the occasion trip up to his old Windy City stomping grounds from time to time, you won’t find Deak’s Mississippi Saxophones and Blues Emporium in a metropolitan setting like Chicago or New Orleans or Memphis. No, sir.
You’ll find it nestled perfectly into the vibrant heart of Clarksdale, just down the block a bit from Ground Zero Blues Club. So just how did Deak – who spent a great deal of his younger years several hundred miles to the north in Illinois – end up picking Clarksdale as home for his entrepreneurial venture?
“I was into documentary films about Clarksdale and there I was living up north in the middle of the corn and the tourists sure weren’t coming to my house (there) and saying, ‘I’m a harmonica player from Brazil.’ But being down here, I get people all the time that come in and just drool over my shop,” he said. “Like I said, Charlie Musselwhite comes by, Harrison Kennedy’s (Chairmen of the Board) been in here, Mike Wolfe (from American Pickers) has been in, Dan Aykroyd … they never would have found me up there in the corn, you know?”
Visit Deak’s website at: www.deakharp.com
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2015 Blues Blast Magazine
Blues Blast Magazine Senior Writer Terry Mullins is a journalist, author and former record store owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc collection. He’s also been known to spend time hanging out on the street corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues.