In 1970, the self-titled debut album by the J. Geils Band was released, and immediately grabbed the attention of listeners partial to blues and rock music. One listen let you know the band had a deep appreciation for classic blues music. Their sound was centered on the wild vocal style and stage presence of lead singer Peter Wolf, the spot-on guitar work by J. Geils, topped off by the wailing harp from Magic Dick, born Richard Salwitz in 1945 in Connecticut.
Dick started taking music lessons in third grade. His instrument of choice was one of the brass instruments.
“I think what attracted me to the trumpet was probably hearing Louis Armstrong. That really did it for me. I took lessons as part of my school’s program, and was in the band. But I wasn’t deep into the band stuff because I like to be by myself, so the school band didn’t really interest me that much. But it did give an introduction to playing with a group plus learning to read some charts for second or third trumpet parts.
“All of that stuff has influenced me to this day. It has been the basis for the approach I take to learning, and my love of the music. I have had a love affair with the trumpet going back to that time. That led me to playing the saxophone a bit, although I never considered myself a good sax player. Or a good trumpet player for that matter! But that was the foundation for things like breath control and other aspects of playing that are super important to understanding me, the way I play, why I sound the way I do on harmonica.
“The first sax I owned was an alto, a Selmer Mark VI, which is a gorgeous instrument. That one I sold a few years ago, Since then, I picked up a Selmer Super 20 tenor sax with balanced action. Originally I was more attracted to the alto sax, primarily because of Charlie Parker, who was a huge influence. His sound and tone really got to me. His sound came from playing with a really hard reed. Somebody like Earl Bostic, who had a number of hits, used a softer reed to get his sound. Parker had a harder, stout tone on alto.
“There are a lot of tenor players that I like, with Dexter Gordon being one of my favorites of all time. Other favorites on alto are Art Pepper, who was a master at ballads, and Paul Desmond, who played in Dave Brubeck’s band. I admire their life-long commitment to learning to play their instrument to the nth degree. I find that really admirable. I work on playing several different instruments, which may work to my detriment. There are always calculations of economy to be made about how best to use the available practice time
“I apply what I have learned on saxophone directly to my playing on the chromatic harmonica, which has been my focus for the last few years. That doesn’t mean that I have given up on the diatonic harp, what people call the “blues” harmonica. On the chromatic, I don’t stick to just Chicago-style chromatic playing, like Little Walter doing “Blue Lights”. I am working on playing with a broader expression across a variety of musical sources. I listen to people like Jerry Murad, the lead player from the Harmonicats, Toots Thielemans, and Stevie Wonder. There aren’t a lot of top chromatic players around.”
Another jazz artist that Magic Dick was attracted to was Ornette Coleman, especially his small group recordings for Atlantic Records, where Coleman was doing original material that suspended the conventional approach.
“Coleman a number of things, like “C & D” from his Ornette! album, that were blues-like. Another thing that influenced at the time was his use of two drummers on some of the sessions, guys like Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, who were really great players. The approach I am taking now is to treat the chromatic harp as a jazz horn, and I don’t focus on any one type of music.
“Playing the chromatic as much as I do these days, my primary focuses are on bebop jazz and ballads. When I say bebop, I am referring to the music that Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie were doing back in 1945 when I was born. That music appeals to me more than the hard bop that came later. And I love the way Charlie Parker played ballads. That doesn’t mean I won’t play rock or blues any more, but that is where I am at currently.”
Six years ago, Dick started collaborating with guitarist Shun Ng, forming an acoustic duo. Ng was born in Chicago, raised in Singapore, and later settled in Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music on a scholarship. They met through Ng’s manager, who was Magic Dick’s old friend.
“We did some cool stuff, like a cover of the James Brown classic, “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” as a duo. And we regularly covered “So What,” from the classic Kind of Blue album by Miles Davis. Shun is back in Singapore now, got married, and with Covid issues, I don’t think he and I will be doing stuff any more. He is younger, and wants to focus on composing rather than going out on the road and performing. One thing I know is that his compositions will be great.
“I am into minimalism. I tend to prefer small bands, or even solo playing. There is nothing like hearing a great horn player doing a ballad unaccompanied, or with minimal backing. An example of that is the trio recordings the tenor great Sonny Rollins was pioneering in the late 1950s with just bass and drums, no chordal instrument at all. I ran across an interview where Rollins stated at that time that he didn’t want chordal accompaniment because he found that it got in the way of his ideas on tenor. The stuff he did in Europe at that time is stunning.
“So minimalism can be fewer instruments, but it can also be applied to the number of notes that you are playing. I am not into musicians who can play 900 notes in three seconds. That just doesn’t move me, no matter how well it is done. I’d rather hear slow playing, or medium grooves without the density of notes. J. Geils and I used to refer to that as “note auctions”. “
The trumpet became Dick’s constant companion as time went on, until a serendipitous moment occurred.
“I was doing a summer school session at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, studying to be a physicist or an engineer. I really liked electronics and mechanical engineering. I wasn’t real big on chemistry, but physical chemistry was another matter all together! My interests have always been broad, and yet they are all related.
“When I got back from that session, my girlfriend at the time had an older brother who was into blues. He was spending a lot of time listening to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. There was a ten inch record on Folkways Records, from the Library of Congress, of field recordings that got me interested in the harp. In a very short period of time, I had shifted my focus to Chicago blues and amplified harmonica, like the classic Muddy Waters and Little Walter. My interest went from the Piedmont style that Terry played to the darker side!
“I started playing the harp in earnest in 1967, and within a year, I had met up with J. Geils and Danny Klein, who became our bass player. We formed a jug band trio with me and Danny on vocals, Geils was on acoustic guitar, and Danny was playing a homemade washtub bass. I was also playing an instrument I kind of invented called a hydro-kazoo, which was a kazoo stuck into a beer can full of water. When you blew on the end of the kazoo, you’d get a bubbling sound when the air hit the water.
J. also played a manda-banj, which was a mandolin-sized banjo. It was a very intense interest.”
Within a short period of time, the trio went electric and moved to Boston, where they hooked up with singer Peter Wolf, and drummer Stephen Bladd. About a year later, Seth Justman joined on keyboards. In 1970, Atlantic Records released the self-titled album that introduced the J. Geils Band to the world.
“For that album, we were not recreating anything. What was always most important was to be fresh, put a new twist to it. Peter certainly had his own sound and charm, if you will. The more you know about this music, the more you know where Peter got his shit from. And the same goes for me, too. When it all came together, as a new band, there wasn’t anything like it. Some people thought we were the American version of the Rolling Stones. I could sort of understand that comparison, but I didn’t really feel it.”
The group became the house band at the Boston Tea Party, a famous club that originally been a synagogue. The room had high ceilings with a reflective ball that was the centerpiece for psychedelic light shows. They would open for headliners like B.B. and Freddie King.
“One night a promo guy for Atlantic, Mario Medious, heard us play and got real keen on us. When he got back to New York City, he told Jerry Wexler that Atlantic needed to sign us. But Wexler was not really our champion. The co-founder of Atlantic, Ahmet Ertegun, loved us. Ahmet and I shared a love of classic jazz going to Louis Armstrong. Ahmet knew his shit!
“A few albums into our career, we did a version of the song, “I’m Not Rough,” which was an Armstrong recording. I brought it to the band, pointing out that I thought we could do something with it, take it from an acoustic, country thing to an ending that had more of a city sound. J. played slide guitar on it, and he did a great job of emulating the slide trombone. I had transcribed Armstrong’s solo note by note to play on the diatonic harp. I think we did that quite successfully.
“So when we recorded in New York City, Ahmet would come into the studio now and then. He would also come to a lot of our NYC gigs. It was always a real thrill for me to look over and see him in the wings, standing 15 feet away from me on my side of the stage watching us. It was a special relationship.
“And Mario was special as well. He grew up in Memphis, near Beale Street. As a kid, he would hang out down there, getting to hear blues harp players like Sonny Boy Williamson all the time.
So, it was a good relationship for awhile. But in those days, with Atlantic, you had to pay to make records. It was a joke.”
The song that put Magic Dick in the spotlight was an instrumental he composed, “Whammer Jammer.” It first appeared on the band’s second studio album,The Morning After. When Atlantic released Live: Full House, a live album that captured the J. Geils Band in all of their glory, Magic Dick’s two and a half minute showcase captured the attention of fans around the world.
“There are a number of references mixed in there on that tune. Part of the opening came directly from Sonny Boy Williamson II and the Yardbirds doing “Bye Bye Bird.” I did it a little quicker, especially live. Then each chorus was taken from things that I had learned from the lexicon of the Chicago style of playing. The song is free-flowing composition rather than a burst of improvisation. “Whammer Jammer” has held up over the years because there is an inevitability to the flow, the unfolding of one chorus to the next, building to the climax.
“A number of people I have been talking to lately have been picking up on “Stoop Down #39,” which is a blowout harp instrumental from our Nightmares…..And Other Tales from The Vinyl Jungle album. That one is more spectacular, with more fireworks than “Whammer Jammer.”
Along with J. Geils, Magic Dick participated in a project featuring Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, released as Buddy Guy And Junior Wells Play The Blues. Eric Clapton and Dr. John also were involved.
“Michael Cuscuna was the producer at the time we were requested to play on a tune or two. We were asked, but I don’t remember who asked, or how it all came about. Buddy and Junior had already recorded their stuff, so they weren’t in the studio when J. and I were there to do our thing. It has never been one of my favorite records. There you have it, as a matter of historical record.”
In those days, the quality control for harmonicas was pretty bad. The tolerances went to hell, so they were almost unplayable. Eventually Dick started playing Hohner Golden Melody harps, which utilize a plastic comb and a tuning like that of a saxophone.
The J. Geils Band ran out of steam in 1984. leaving Dick in a bad way.
“It was a depressing period. It was about eight years worth of not playing. The whole ending of the band was a major change. But I have a deep and strong interest for photojournalism. I am a nut for cameras. So I directed a lot of energy toward that while pulling away from music for awhile.
“Then I got back into it around 1989. I wanted to play again, so I started working on getting myself back into playing shape. Once that happened, the next step was thinking about getting a band together. I approached J. Geils to see if he was interested. He hadn’t been playing much either. He was directing his attention to his Ferrari restoration business. J. had been deep into Italian sports cars for quite some time.
“He was interested in the band idea, which got him to start playing again in earnest. We both saw the band as an opportunity to focus on what our first love was – classic jazz and blues. The stuff we did with the J. Geils Band was more rock with blues and jazz injections. With our Bluestime band, we were aiming for a more authentic sound.”
The Bluestime band cut two albums for Rounder Records, Bluestime in 1994, and Little Car Blues in 1996. Both feature J. Geils getting a Charlie Christian influenced guitar sound while Dick started stepping outside his comfort zone.
“On the first one, it was my introduction as a singer. No doubt that I was relatively inexperienced, having only been singing for about two years. About a year before doing Bluestime, I started seeing a vocal coach. That sent me on a course of being serious about singing. I think my vocals are much better on the second album. Overall, our playing is real good on both, but I personally like Little Car Blues more. I think the sound and instrumental intensity is better. My vocals on the first were just too green.
“You need to work to improve your vocals. My vocal coach put me on a path that has totally influenced how I play harp. She taught me a breathing technique that opera singers and big-name pop stars use. There is a technically correct way to sing. It has everything to do with how you breathe and how you control the air. I took lessons from the late Jeannie Deva in Boston. She later moved out to Los Angeles. She had studied with Dante Pavone, who was the voice teacher in Boston. A lot of rock guys studied with him, including me for a very brief period.”
“Dante used to say that he could teach a fire hydrant to sing! Good coaches know the exercises that will help you develop the fundamental mechanics that you need to sing properly. Those fundamentals give you confidence. You have to know that you can do it without negative thoughts getting in your way. I was pretty shackled in the beginning. Getting past that really opens things up as what you can do.”
Still excited by the crossover of techniques from singing to playing harp, the key thing for Magic Dick is the ability to sing what he intends to play with rhythmic precision. His goal is to be able to achieve a free expression, an instantaneous connection between the mental conception of a sound or idea, and what comes out of your mouth.
“It is a fascinating process, taking it down to a microscopic level, like going from a blow note to a draw note. It might be an adjacent hole on the harmonica, so you are moving just a small amount to a different spot. As a professional player, you have to learn to play in time, with precision and expression. I like to practice solo, playing ballads to develop my concentration, like when you are trying to thread a needle. For a moment, you have to focus on a very small spot with great intention.
“I am learning to play more like a jazz improviser. Here are the changes, now play it. I didn’t take this approach as much when the band was active. Then I was part of a team, with certain roles to fill. These days, spending a lot of time at home due to Covid, a lot of musicians are doing what I am doing. The down time has provided the space for sustained work. So I am happy as a pig in shit!”
There are two different approaches to playing the harmonica – lip pursing or puckering, and tongue blocking. Each approach has advantages.
“You expand your sonic palette on the harp if you can utilize both, which I do. I can switch mid-stream or mid-phrase from one to the other. Each technique produces a different tone, sound, a different attack. You should be good at both. But I recommend that newer players focus on one approach until they get pretty good at it. Otherwise you can confuse the muscular actions of your mouth.
“The harmonica is a unique instrument. Everyone has their own unique sound. My natural instinct is to get out the microscope! I examine shit in amazing detail, from philosophical, physical, and sonic perspectives. But I don’t forget that what matters is how do you sound, what is coming out of the harp.
“The quality of your perception, of everything that goes into producing those notes is what separates the really good players from everyone else. I pay attention to the attack, how you launch the sound. The quality of the thought that initiates the action of playing makes a huge difference, controls the result. I think about this stuff every day. Some of it comes from being a trumpet player, because learning on it is so much trial and error, adjustments you make based on the sound you are getting.
“On one hand, you can memorize stuff and develop what you think is a level of facility on the instrument. But that is not real facility, not like Art Pepper’s alto playing, for example. You have to have the mental understanding of the action you need to take, then practice that action. I get great joy when that happens. That is why I discriminate in terms of who I spend my time listening to as I study the masters so intently.
Working with Pierre Beauregard in 1993, Dick patented a new concept in harmonica design that became known as “Magic Harps”.
“Our design provides alternate tunings for the diatonic harmonica. Conventional ten hole diatonic harps have a fixed layout, uses the same relationship of tones, unless it is a special tuning. They are also key specific. The Magic Harps were designed to allow you to play certain kinds of music with much greater facility than you could on a conventional diatonic, like the Little Walter Chicago style.
“They look and feel the same. The tunings readily enhance your ability to play melodies and chords that are appropriate for a wide range of musical genres. We came up with more than 40 different models under the one patent.
“All of the models share one common characteristic that is different than the diatonic. On the Magic Harp, you can bend all of the draw notes. On a diatonic, there is a crossover point at the seven hole where the logic between draw and blow changes. Our design is more symmetrical, added chord extensions, and made it more blues sounding. So we altered the color of the chords and the note relationship while retaining the characteristics of the harmonica sound.”
With the intention of playing more chromatic harp in a minimalist format, Dick continues to practice and work on improving his playing.
“I would like to do another duo, or trio, when our situation improves. It took some time to get used to performing in a duo with Shun, because you are really exposed every minute. But I respond to the pressure that puts on me. Also, each member has to play as they are a drummer, which further refines your attention, your understanding of grooves, and the importance of timing. Fewer instruments means that you can hear what is going on. I was often amazed playing with Shun that it sounded like so much more than the two of us.”