Do it if you can, harmonica man

“The harmonica is the most voice-like instrument.  You can make it wail, feel happy, or cry.  It’s like singing without words.” — Bluesman Charlie Musselwhite

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Who knew that one of the most expressive instruments in the annals of rock music got its start in ancient China?

Have you ever heard of the sheng?  Me neither.  As one of the first free-reed wind instruments ever devised, it happens to be the precursor of the harmonica, also known as the mouth harp, or French organ, or blues harp.

maxresdefault-10The harmonica, as we know it today, was invented in Germany in the early 1800s.  It migrated to America in the 1850s and, because of its relative simplicity and affordability, was quickly adopted and widely used in American folk music.  Almost anyone could play a harmonica, almost anytime or anywhere.  Indeed, even Abraham Lincoln was known to keep one in his pocket.  He once said, “Sometimes I think I’m happiest when I’m sitting on my porch playing my harmonica.”

By the 20th Century, the harmonica became an important part of country-western music, and the blues, and folk music.  It should probably come as no surprise that when rock and roll arrived in the mid-1950s, the harmonica came along for the ride.

Whether it’s played in a slow drawl or a frenetic double-time, the mouth harp can create a musical mood unlike any other instrument.  It’s suitable for a gentle acoustic arrangement or a rockin’ blues band at full tilt, and the best mouth harp players are capable of handling both environments.

In the Spotify playlist at the end of this post, you’ll find a sampling of the work of the artists who have been rated as the best harmonica players of the past 50 years.  Let’s take a look at who they are:

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Little Walter

Delta bluesmen like Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy WatersJames Cotton and Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs set the standard and forged new trails in the use of the harmonica in classic ’50s and ’60s blues tracks like “Bring It On Home,” “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Don’t Start Me to Talkin’,” “Mean Ole Frisco,” “Key to the Highway” and “Roller Coaster.”  They went on to inspire dozens of up-and-coming mouth harp artists like Britain’s blues titan John Mayall, and Keith Relf of The Yardbirds, and Chicago blues wunderkind Paul Butterfield and Canned Heat’s Alan Wilson.

Meanwhile, in Nashville, harmonica greats like session wizard Charlie McCoy were in high demand, inserting expert harp solos on many dozens of tracks by the leading artists of the day, from Johnny Cash and Buck Owens to Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton.

Folk music may be the genre through which the harmonica reached the widest audience, bob-dylan-play-guitar-harmonicathanks to Bob Dylan, who was inspired by the harmonica playing of the Memphis Jug Band, Woody Guthrie and John P. Hammond.  Beginning in 1962, Dylan used a harmonica mounted on a neck rack, which allowed him to play it and an acoustic guitar simultaneously.  Many of his early anthems — “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “The Times They Are A-Changin'” — showcased prominent (albeit rudimentary) harmonica passages.  Dylan continued to use harmonica selectively in the ’60s (“I Want You”), the ’70s (“Tangled Up in Blue”) and the ’80s (“Every Grain of Sand”) as well.

“The harmonica is now the world’s best-selling instrument.  You’re welcome.” — Bob Dylan, 1964

257a93422d1929d3302748dfe0376924Over in England, a Liverpudlian named John Lennon took notice of the harmonica, particular the way Dylan used it.  Prior to The Beatles’ arrival on American shores, the band’s debut single on the British charts was “Love Me Do,” which put Lennon’s harmonica front and center.  And the band’s next hit single, the #1 “Please Please Me,” also featured the harmonica in key moments of the arrangement.  In the 1964 smash film “A Hard Day’s Night,” Lennon’s mouth harp completely dominates the recording of “I Should Have Known Better.”  Later, on his solo albums, Lennon occasionally added a harmonica lick here and there (“Oh Yoko” on the “Imagine” LP).

Musical-Genius-stevie-wonder-36838745-389-394In Detroit, a blind child prodigy named Stevland Morris had wowed the key people at Motown Records, who dubbed the 12-year-old “Little Stevie Wonder” because of his multiple talents.  Said Wonder many years later, “I never imagined I’d ever meet (Motown chief) Berry Gordy.  When I did, he told me, ‘You know, your singing’s okay, but I like your harmonica playing better.’”  Sure enough, his first appearance on the charts in 1963, an amazing live performance called “Fingertips,” was a tour-de-force that stressed his harmonica abilities over his vocals.

Stevie-WonderIn fact, it was only the tip of the iceberg, as Stevie Wonder emerged as one of the finest harmonica players of his age, from his ’60s hits like “I Was Made to Love Her” and “For Once in My Life” to ’70s staples like “Isn’t She Lovely,” “Too High,” “That Girl” and “Boogie On Reggae Woman.”  Just as important were his many guest harmonica solos on the recordings of others, like James Taylor’s “Don’t Be Sad ‘Cause Your Sun is Down” (1976), Elton John’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” (1982), The Eurythmics’ “There Must Be an Angel” (1985) and Dionne Warwick’s “That’s What Friends Are For” (1991).

In the rock music world, the harmonica has been a celebrated component of some of the genre’s biggest names:

 

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Jack Bruce

Jack Bruce, Cream’s bass player and lead vocalist, was also a virtuoso on harmonica, as heard on the 7-minute live recording “Traintime” from their #1 LP “Wheels of Fire.”

 

On The Doors’ blues stomper, “Roadhouse Blues,” that’s The Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian chipping in with a great harp solo.

Mick Jagger offers some mean licks on “Midnight Rambler,” the great Rolling Stones track from 1969’s “Let It Bleed” (as well as the live “Get Yer Ya-Yas Out” LP).  The Stones also invited the great blues harps man Sugar Blue to contribute to monster hits like “Miss You” and “Emotional Rescue.”

Robert Plant belts out some earthy blues harp on early 1969 Led Zeppelin songs like “I Can’t Quit You Babe” and “Bring It On Home,” as well as on the seismic 1971 track, “When the Levee Breaks.”

Ozzy Osbourne shows his harmonica chops on Black Sabbath’s debut LP on the heavy metal classic “The Wizard.”

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John Mayall

The aforementioned John Mayall must be singled out for his incredible mouth harp work on the 1969 song “Room to Move,” the most well-known of dozens of harmonica-laden songs in his voluminous catalog.

 

Allan Clarke, co-founder and lead vocalist of The Hollies, also played harmonica, which was featured most famously on their Top Ten hit, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”

Richard “Magic Dick” Salwitz of J. Geils Band is widely praised as a ferocious mouth harp player, and you can hear him wailing away on studio and live versions of tracks like “Lookin’ for a Love,” “Homework” and especially “Whammer Jammer.”

Tom Johnston of The Doobie Brothers had a way of making a harmonica sound like a locomotive chugging down the tracks, which came in very handy on the group’s 1973 #1hit “Long Train Runnin’.”

 

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Neil Young

Neil Young‘s early work is full of songs that feature his aw-shucks brand of harmonica, from the #1 hit “Heart of Gold” and CSN&Y’s “Helpless” to deep tracks like “Out on the Weekend” and “Oh Lonesome Me.”

 

Billy Joel won his claim to fame as the Piano Man, but on that same 1973 song, it was Joel himself who provided the telltale harmonica part that helped catapult the song to legendary status among ’70s anthems.

 

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Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen added harmonica parts to his songs as early as on his 1973 debut album (“Mary Queen of Arkansas”) and his classic “Born to Run” (the intro to Thunder Road”).  Later, harmonica was critical to his arrangements for the title track on “The River” and throughout his spared-down LPs like “Nebraska” (1982) and The Ghost of Tom Joad” (1995).

 

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Kim Wilson

Kim Wilson of The Fabulous Thunderbirds is still among the Top 20 harmonica players mentioned when such lists are compiled.  Check out his playing on such tunes as “I Don’t Care” and “Look at That, Look at That” from the group’s 1986 album “Tuff Enuff.”

Steven Tyler of Aerosmith surprised many when he contributed harmonica to the excellent song “Cryin'” from the group’s 1993 LP “Get a Grip.”

John Popper of Blues Traveler emerged as one of the top harmonica players of the ’90s, especially on incredible tunes like “Run-around” and “Hook” from their Top Ten LP “four” (1994).

Tom Petty added the harmonica parts to his song “You Don’t Know How It Feels” on the 1994 “Wildflowers” album.

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Because harmonicas are inexpensive and portable, many people without much musical talent have picked them up and tried to play them without success.  (Perhaps you have a friend or family member who has done this!)  Their lame results have caused the harmonica to suffer some undeserved belittlement as a serious musical instrument, lumping it in with the kazoo and the recorder.  This is unfair…but it has sparked humorous cartoons like the ones below:

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And then there are one-liners like:  “I play the harmonica…but the only way I can play is if I get my car going really fast, and stick it out the window.” — Comedian Steven Wright

 

A little-known fact about the harmonica is its healthcare benefits.  Because of the sucking and blowing of air required to make it work properly, the harmonica has been used in pulmonary rehabilitation programs to help patients regain lung capacity.  How many instruments can make that kind of claim?

Let us conclude by praising Tom T. Hall, award-winning country singer-songwriter, who in 1983 came up with “The Harmonica Man,” which told the story of an old man who longed for, bought, and eventually died holding a harmonica he’d seen in a storefront window:  “An old man stood and stared into the music store window, and he saw a sorta harmonica lyin’ there in the sun, he thought of the music the harp could be playing, he closed his old eyes and he started to hum… Well, he bought the harmonica and he took it on home, with his youth all behind him and livin’ alone, he soon learned to play it as pure and as cool as any great master musician could do…”

 

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I’m so glad you came into my life

What comes to mind when you think of rock music lyrics?

songwritingGetting high?  “We’re gonna lay around the shanty, mama, and put a good buzz on…”

Cars?  “I’ve been drivin’ all night, my hand’s wet on the wheel…”

The weekend?  “Monday I got Friday on my mind…”

Rebellion?  “It’s my life, and I’ll do what I want!…”

Basic philosophy?  “You can’t always get what you want…”

Mindless words thrown together?  “Semolina pilchard, climbing up the Eiffel Tower…”

love-songs-cassette-mixtape-billboard-650What about love and romance?  Well, of course.  But far too often, the songs seem to center on heartbreak and unrequited love.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, I’ve collected a baker’s dozen of great love songs from years gone by that you and your loved one can sing to each other.  A Spotify playlist below will help you recall the words and melody in case you’ve forgotten them.  Enjoy!

 

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turtles_happy_together“Happy Together,” The Turtles, 1967

One of the most joyous, infectious tunes of the 1960s, in my opinion, is this irresistible song by The Turtles, the L.A.-based group fronted by Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman (later known as Flo & Eddie).  The team of Alan Gordon and Garry Bonner wrote “Happy Together” expressly for The Turtles, who took it to #1 in the spring of 1967.  It’s one of the Top Ten most-played songs on the radio in the past 50 years:  “I can’t see me loving nobody but you for all my life, when you’re with me, baby, the skies will be blue for all my life, me and you, and you and me, no matter how they toss the dice, it had to be, the only one for me is you, and you for me, so happy together…”

Joni_Mitchell-Both_Sides_Now“You’re My Thrill,” Joni Mitchell, 2000

Joni’s songwriting skills are widely known, but in her later years, she has shown a fine ability to interpret the works of others.  On “Both Sides Now,” a collection of standards that follow a romantic relationship from early infatuation to painful denouement, her time-worn voice poignantly covers such classics as the 1933 chestnut “You’re My Thrill,” first popularized by Billie Holiday.   Remember the exhilaration of new love?  “You’re my thrill, you do something to me, you send chills right through me when I look at you, ’cause you’re my thrill…”

1200x630bb-8“At Last,” Etta James, 1960

Mack Gordon and Harry Warren wrote this classic in 1941 for the Glenn Miller film “Orchestral Wives,” which flopped at the box office.  It languished for nearly 20 years before blues singer Etta James cut her smoldering rendition and made it the signature song of her impressive career.  I still hear “At Last” at weddings when the happy couple takes their “first dance” as husband and wife:   “I found a thrill to press my cheek to, a thrill that I had never known, you smiled, and then the spell was cast, and here we are in Heaven, for you are mine at last…”

MI0000082694“Grow Old With Me,” Mary Chapin-Carpenter, 1995

The late great John Lennon was known mostly as an iconoclastic rocker, from his lusty rendition of “Twist and Shout” to the strident “Revolution” and much of his solo catalog, but wow, he could sure write some beautiful ballads as well — “In My Life,” “Imagine,” “Beautiful Boy,” to name just a few.  In the months before he was killed, he wrote several dozen songs, many of which, sadly, were recorded only in demo form.  The best of these is “Grow Old With Me,” which he intended to be, in his words, “a new standard to be played at 50th anniversaries.”  Mary Chapin Carpenter, among others, resurrected the song and offered beautiful treatment of a real gem:  “Grow old along with me, two branches of one tree, face the setting sun, when the day is done, God bless our love, God bless our love, spending our lives together, man and wife together, world without end, world without end…”

51fWG8ix9fL._SS500“Can’t Help Falling in Love,” Elvis Presley, 1962

Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, seasoned New York songwriters on their own, were commissioned to team up to create a song for Elvis in 1961.  Little did they know it would be not only the best-selling song of 1962, but it also reached the top of the charts a second time three decades later in a rendition by reggae group UB40:  “Like a river flows surely to the sea, darling, so it goes, some things were meant to be, take my hand, take my whole life too, for I can’t help falling in love with you…”

R-3020804-1422913032-9574-jpeg“For Once in My Life,” Stevie Wonder, 1968

Although this upbeat track became one of Stevie Wonder’s best loved among his early works, it was actually recorded first by The Temptation and The Four Tops, but their versions went nowhere.  Wonder’s televised performance of the song on “Ed Sullivan” included an electrifying harmonica solo that took it to another level:  “For once in my life, I have someone who needs me, someone I’ve needed so long, for once unafraid, I can go where life leads me, somehow I know I’ll be strong…”

2030166-38646“How Deep is Your Love,” The Bee Gees, 1977

The Brothers Gibb were writing and recording songs for their next album when producer Robert Stigwood asked them to contribute songs for the soundtrack of a movie he was producing about the disco dance culture.  They offered three dance tracks — “More Than a Woman,” Night Fever” and “Stayin’ Alive” — and this shimmering ballad, and they ended up as the anchor songs on the most successful movie soundtrack of all time, “Saturday Night Fever.”  Barry Gibb had emerged as the primary lead singer of the trio by then, much to the disgruntlement of Maurice and Robin.  But all three have said this was their favorite from the LP:  “I believe in you, you know the door to my very soul, you’re the light in my deepest, darkest hour, you’re my savior when I fall, and you may not think I care for you, when you know down inside that I really do, and it’s me you need to show, how deep is your love…”

VanMorrisonMoondance“Crazy Love,” Van Morrison, 1970

“Van the Man” is still touring and just released his 51st (!) album, still chock full of jump blues and Irish soul.  In his early years, he was infatuated with poetic imagery (his “Astral Week” LP) and jazzy ballads like “Moondance” and “Tupelo Honey.”  On the “Moondance” LP, he offered a couple of timeless love songs, the best of which is “Crazy Love”:   “And when I’m returning from so far away, she gives me some sweet lovin’ to brighten up my day, yes it makes me righteous, yes it makes me feel whole, yes it makes me mellow down into my soul, she give me love, love, love, love, crazy love…”

51tGMRJ8HIL-1“Only One,” James Taylor, 1985

Taylor has written plenty about love, though mostly wistful tunes about heartbreak.  Every so often, he finds himself in a good enough mood to write a happy love song like “Your Smiling Face,” or cover a familiar one like “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).”  Also worthy of your attention is a little-known track from his 1985 LP “That’s Why I’m Here” called “Only One,” which features harmonies by Joni Mitchell:  “You are my only one, you are my only one, don’t be leaving me now, believe in me now, well, I’m telling you now, now you’re my only one…”

whitealbum-500x500“I Will,” The Beatles, 1968

The celebrated White Album showed that The Beatles embraced, and could convincingly perform, a wide variety of musical genres:  blues, country-western, folk, dance-hall, avant-garde, you name it.  Their repertoire also had plenty of love songs, and although both Lennon and Harrison each wrote a few, it was usually McCartney who handled this assignment:  “P.S. I Love You,” “And I Love Her,” “Here, There and Everywhere”… and from The White Album, there’s the short-and-sweet “I Will”:   “Love you forever and forever, love you with all my heart, love you whenever we’re together, love you when we’re apart…”

mzi.klirqvpz.600x600-75“Sweethearts Together,” The Rolling Stones, 1994

There are precious few songs in the voluminous catalog written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards that would qualify as romantic, but there are exceptions (“As Tears Go By,” “Wild Horses,” “Angie”).  Much later in their career arc, The Glimmer Twins surprised us by offering their prettiest ballad yet, “Sweethearts Together,” a tender ode to eternal love.  This one is a delightful break from their usual badass rock stance:  “Sweethearts together, we’ve only just begun, sweethearts together, so glad I found someone, sweethearts forever, two hearts together as one…”

MI0003210767“The Best is Yet to Come,” Frank Sinatra, 1964

Ol’ Blue Eyes was known for many great romantic songs in the American songbook, and one of the better ones was this beauty, written in 1959 by Cy Coleman and lyricist Carolyn Leigh.  The songwriters first gave it to the young Tony Bennett, who recorded a decent version, but Sinatra’s 1964 recording backed by the Count Basie Orchestra remains the definitive rendition.  The lyrics celebrate newfound love while positively looking forward to even greater things:  “Out of the tree of life, I just picked me a plum, you came along and everything’s starting to hum, still, it’s a real good bet, the best is yet to come…”

R-2386642-1400924329-2574.jpeg“Valentine,”  Nils Lofgren, 1991

Ever since he first showed up on our radar in 1970 as the talented backup guitarist on Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” album, Nils Lofgren has quietly established himself as a force to be reckoned with.  He emerged as a remarkable songwriter and vocalist, although it was his guitar skills that took him to loftier heights as a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.  On his 1991 LP “Silver Lining,” Lofgren showed his sweet side with the romantic “Valentine”:  “Our differences are part of life, still, love will pass the test of time, I want you every day and night, girl, won’t you be my valentine?…”

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