Various Artists – Hard Core Harp
19 songs – 71 minutes
From the opening chromatic and low-register solo acoustic riffs of 1960s Muddy Waters sidekick Paul Oscher on “Alone With The Blues” to the breathtaking diatonic runs of Mark Hummel’s “Harpoventilating,” this collection of music delivers a dazzling collection of ear candy for any blues harmonica aficionado with this release, which is subtitled 20 Years Of Blues Harmonica Masters On Electro-Fi Records.
Founded in Toronto, Ont., in 1996 by Andrew Galloway with the assistance of former high school bandmate Gary Collver and Alec Fraser, the label signed Chicago blues legend Little Mack Simmons as its first artist, releasing his Little Mack Is Back album a year later and has included many of the world’s top harmonica players throughout its continuing run.
This release gives all of them place to shine. But this is far more than a harmonica CD. Many of the selections here give other musicians ample space to ply their wares. That’s particularly true of the second cut, Billy Boy Arnold’s “Mellow Chic Swing. A star in the ‘50s who vanished from the stage for decades before reemerging in the ‘80s, he swings from the jump vocally on this one to deliver a tribute to Sonny Boy Williamson with guitarists Mel Brown and Billy Flynn carry the musical load.
The action moves from Chicago to the West Coast for James Harman’s “Bonetime.” Based near Los Angeles, the Alabama native delivers a breezy, greasy stop-time shuffle full of sexual innuendo. Next up, San Francisco Bay-based Hummel faithfully covers Little Walter’s “It’s Too Late Brother” with a helping hand from Rusty Zinn on the six-string.
Chromatic master George “Harmonica” Smith, moved to Los Angeles in the early ‘70s after a stint in Muddy’s band. Considered the godfather of West Coast harp, he tutored Rod Piazza when they worked together in the band Bacon Fat. He’s captured here with a tried-and-true take on Sonny Boy’s “Crazy ‘Bout You Baby,” a cut that was recorded live in 1983 – a few months prior to his passing. He’s backed by guitarist Buddy Reed and the Rocket 88s.
It’s on to the Midwest for the next few numbers, beginning with Detroit-based Harmonica Shah’s “She Used To Be Beautiful.” He’s followed by Snooky Pryor, the often overlooked Waters sideman who’s credited by many historians with revolutionizing the instrument by creating the modern harmonica. He’s believed to be the first man ever to hold a microphone in hand and cup it directly behind the harp instead of playing it at distance or on a stand. Former bandmate Pinetop Perkins gives him an assist on keys to deliver “Rock-A-While.”
Best known for his work with Anson Funderburgh & The Rockets, Sam Myers takes on “Ninety Nine,” another Sonny Boy tune, before Waters drummer-turned-harmonica player Willie “Big Eyes” Smith tears it up on his original, “Don’t Think I’m Crazy.” Arnold returns to his root next for his 1950s hit, “I Wish You Would,” aided by Zinn.
There are great harp players North Of The Border, too, as evidenced by Al Lerman, who’s up next, backed by the Juke Joint Rockers. A student of Carey Bell who founded Fathead, Canada’s preeminent blues band of the ‘90s, he rips and runs through the instrumental, “Liquified Boogie,” a song culled from Smith’s Bluesin’ It release.
Simmons, Myers and Arnold return to the rotation for “Leaving In The Morning,” “Coming From The Old School” and “Sweet Honey Bee” before Hamilton, Ont., based acoustic bluesman Harrison Kennedy joins the action. A man who traded bottles of wine to Sonny Terry for harp lessons as a youth, the Juno Award winner was a founding member of soul superstar group Chairman Of The Board, but delivers “Afraid To Fail” in true country blues tradition.
A cover of Snooky’s “Pitch A Boogie Woogie” is up next, delivered faithfully by his son, Rip Lee. It preceded his dad’s slow-blues masterpiece, “Headed South,” the only live recording in existence that paired him with Brown on guitar. The disc concludes with George Smith’s masterful take on the Little Water standard, “Juke,” before Hummel brings the action to a close.
If you’re a fan of old-school harmonica that’s free of electronic gimmickry and over-blow techniques, Hard Core Harp is guaranteed to give you eargasms. Highly recommended, a strong contender for historical album of the year, and available through most major retailers.