The following are songs from the best harmonica players I’ve ever heard and that influenced my style of playing harmonica. (See the Flying Other Brothers for examples of my playing.)
Song 1: John Mayall, “Room to Move”
Turning Point, a John Mayall live album from a 1969 concert at the Fillmore East, kicked me in the ass and launched my harmonica career. I was barely 15, in my first band, and “Room to Move” became my signature tune. I learned about breathing, pacing, and playing rhythm. The album crossed the lines between protest folk, blues, and jazz, from the pioneer of the British blues and the mentor of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck. It was not a well known album, and it was probably not his best album, but it was a turning point for me.
Song 2: Alan Wilson of Canned Heat, “On The Road Again”
The second song I learned, at age 15, is still the most often requested when I play live. “On the Road Again” appeared on Boogie with Canned Heat in 1968. It is a remake of the 1953 Floyd Jones song of the same name, which is based on Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues”, recorded in 1928.
Harmonica player Alan Wilson, also known as Blind Owl, provides the distinctive falsetto as well as a harmonica performance for the ages. His tambura at the beginning and end reinforces his hypnotic one-chord drone on guitar to give it an exotic, Eastern flair. The boogie riff itself is a basic E/G/A blues chord pattern adapted from John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen” from 1949. But Wilson’s harmonica has a distinct country-acoustic feel that I prefer, not overly amplified as in most Chicago-style blues. The opening harmonica riff is something I play nearly every day, just to warm up.
Song 3: Sonny Terry with Woody Guthrie, “Goin’ Down This Road Feelin’ Bad”
I’ve played this song hundreds of times — with every band I’ve played in or with. Woody Guthrie recorded it with Sonny Terry (Saunders Teddell) on harmonica in 1940. Known also as “Lonesome Road Blues”, ”Down In The Jail On My Knees”, “Blowin’ Down This Road”, and “I Ain’t Gonna Be Treated This Way” among other titles, this song is probably best known for its cover by the Grateful Dead, although Garcia was known to favor a version by Delaney and Bonnie.
For me, Woody’s is the original version, and Sonny Terry is the source of my harmonica style. You can hear Sonny whooping and hollering while playing harmonica, without stopping to take a breath. Sonny could make a harmonica walk and talk at the same time. He was a musical legend, a Piedmont blues musician, long-standing partner with Brownie McGhee, and a frequent collaborator with Woody. He was invited to play at Carnegie Hall for the first “From Spirituals to Swing” concert in 1938. Producer John Hammond supposedly went looking for Robert Johnson in the Deep South, found out he had been murdered, and discovered blind Sonny working the juke joints. Among many strange career highlights, Sonny appeared in the movie The Color Purple.
He played acoustically, not directly on the microphone as more modern blues players did (and still do), but with enough air between his harmonica and the mic so that you can hear the wah-wah effect of his hands as he cupped and opened them around his harmonica. I enjoy playing this way, because it is the same way as playing without a mic to a small audience without amplification. I also picked up the chugging tongue-clucking chords he used for rhythm.
Song 4: Delbert McClinton with Bruce Channel, “Hey Baby”
This 45-inch single must have been in my older brother’s record collection, because I remember hearing it at age 7 in 1962 when it reached number one on the pop charts. Bruce Channel is the singer, and a young Delbert McClinton plays the harmonica.
As a youngster I was hooked on pop music, and I probably considered this song to be one of the novelty records of the day, on a par with “The Purple People Eater” and “Splish Splash”. In any case, with this song I discovered what a harmonica was. Even at that age I was thinking about instruments. I had forgotten the song for several years until I heard NRBQ cover it, and that’s when I remembered the harmonica part.
Texas-born Delbert McClinton went on to win four Grammy awards for rock and blues. This single launched the harmonica into modern pop music, not only for its novelty but also for the fact that John Lennon met Delbert McClinton in 1962 and asked him for tips on how to play the harmonica, just before John recorded “Love Me Do”.
Song 5: John Lennon with the Beatles, “Love Me Do”
You knew I’d eventually get around to the Beatles.
And yet, it would probably surprise you that so many Beatles songs featured the harmonica, played by John Lennon: “Love Me Do”, “From Me To You”, “Please Please Me”, “Chains”, “There’s a Place”, “Thank You Girl”, “I’ll Get You”, “Little Child”, “I Should Have Known Better”, “I’m a Loser”, “For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” (with Lennon, Harrison, Starr, and road manager Neil Aspinall in a quartet, along with handler Mal Evans on bass harmonica), “Rocky Raccoon”, and “All Together Now”. (There was also a bass harmonica on “Fool on the Hill”, not played by Lennon. McCartney was inspired by Brian Wilson’s use of the bass harmonica on the Pet Sounds album.)
But “Love Me Do” was the first, and also the first single by the Beatles. Directly influenced by the previous song, “Hey Baby” by Bruce Channel with Delbert McClinton on harmonica, John Lennon asked McClinton for advice on how to play the harmonica when the Beatles shared a tour bill with Channel in 1962. Another song that influenced Lennon was “I Remember You” by Frank Ifield.
At that time Lennon had already learned how to play a chromatic harmonica, which can play all the notes in the chromatic scale and are mainly used in jazz and classical music. Lennon was also trying to learn the diatonic harmonica, which contains the notes of a specific scale and is mainly used in blues, rock, and country music. Lennon ended up playing both kinds of harmonica on different songs. Lennon often used the term “harp” to denote a diatonic harmonica and “harmonica” to describe the chromatic harmonica (“with a button”).
I first learned to play the part in “I’m a Loser”, around the time I bought my first harmonica at age 9. I eventually learned all the harmonica parts of Beatles songs, and I’m still frequently asked to play “Rocky Raccoon”. I play mostly the diatonic harmonica, in different keys, bending notes as needed. I try to play the chromatic but I can’t bend notes on it, and I’m nowhere near as good as Stevie Wonder or Toots Thielemans. Neither is Lennon, but “Love Me Do” presents his harmonica playing in all its ragged glory.
Song 6: Brian Jones with the Rolling Stones, “Not Fade Away”
The harmonica of pop and folk music, which often featured the chromatic harmonica, collided with the harmonica of blues, which mostly featured the diatonic harmonica (or mouth harp, as Brian Jones called it), to form an entirely new instrument of rock ’n’ roll. In my experience it was the Rolling Stones, chiefly Brian Jones’s harp riffs, on the Stones’ cover of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” that ushered in this new era.
My harp style is more like Brian Jones than like any other rock musician, because it combines some of that country and folk feel with the blues. I enjoy playing acoustically to a vocal mic, as Jones did, rather than honk raucously into a bullet mic like most blues harmonica players do.
This song appeared as the A side of their first U.S. single, in 1964. The Rollin’ Stones (as they were called then, by their founder Brian Jones) were taking Britain by storm with their novel rudeness and sneering sexuality that was antithetical to the cute mop-top Beatles (a headline from the period: Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?). Their launch into the U.S. market was overshadowed by so many other British bands (the British Invasion as it was called), but “Not Fade Away” broke through and received some airplay. It was later, sometime in 1966 when I was 11, that my older brother got the album that included this gem.
Brian Jones was a blues purist, an Elmore James protege, and master of the slide guitar when he met Keith Richards, who had the Chuck Berry riffs. Together they would forge a new sound that intertwined their two lead guitars. Both would play leads and riffs, and both would play rhythm, shifting back and forth with an ease forged from years of practice.
In this song, Brian demonstrated how the blues harp could be just as important as the guitar, playing rhythm and lead. Brian’s playing, intertwined with Keith’s guitar, added a sinister aspect to Buddy Holly’s love song. Rather than pleading with the girl to give her love to him, Mick Jagger is blunt and domineering, pointing out the inevitable: “I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be! You’re gonna give your love to me.” Brian’s harp pounces a response in that unmistakable Bo Diddley beat.
Pure rock ’n’ roll heaven.
Brian Jones was a musical genius who played all sorts of instruments. I devoted several chapters of my novel, The Experiment, to the legend of Brian Jones, who first established that dashing Swinging London mod style of dress and habits typically associated with Jimi Hendrix (who copied Jones). Brian Jones was killed under mysterious circumstances after leaving the Stones in 1969. Long-time Rolling Stones bass guitarist Bill Wyman said of Jones, “He formed the band. He chose the members. He named the band. He chose the music we played. He got us gigs. … he was very influential, very important, and then slowly lost it – highly intelligent – and just kind of wasted it and blew it all away.”
Song 7: Phil Wiggins with Cephas & Wiggins, “John Henry”
This song (and the next) focus on the country blues as played by virtually unknown harmonica players, proving once again that the best players are almost never famous (unless it’s for something else, such as singing or songwriting).
This song is perfection when it comes to country-blues harp. I’m breathless every time I hear it. Starting at 2:16 is one of the best harmonica solos I’ve ever heard. This is a live recording, no overdubs!
Cephas & Wiggins were a modern Piedmont blues duo. They started playing in 1976 and recorded albums in the 1980s. I first heard them on a compilation album from the Smithsonian Folkways collection (Blues Routes). Both men received the National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor in the folk and traditional arts in the U.S. But most people have never heard of them.
The story of John Henry has been the subject of numerous folk songs, stories, plays, books, and novels. John Henry was an African American folk hero, a “steel-driving man” (hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock in constructing a railroad tunnel) in a deadly race against a steam-powered rock drilling machine. He died with his hammer in his hand.
Song 8: Jimmie Fadden with Doc Watson and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, “Tennessee Stud”
“Tennessee Stud“, a Jimmy Driftwood song, is a straight-up country tune often played by Doc Watson, and this time he is backed by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band featuring a virtually unknown harmonica player. Ever hear of Jimmie Fadden? And yet, this is perfection in country music harmonica, and in country music in general. You can hear the galloping horse in Fadden’s rhythm. Fadden played the jug and drums as well as harmonica in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The harp supports the song, interweaving with the guitar and fiddle runs without stepping on them. Fadden doesn’t even play a solo. There’s no need — he gets his point across throughout the song.
Notable about this album (Will the Circle be Unbroken) is that every track was recorded on the first or second take, straight to two-track masters. This is a live recording. No overdubs or corrections. Just flawless playing. They achieved perfection in one take.
The song also features Vassar Clements on fiddle. His work on this album earned him wide acclaim, and he went on to perform with the Grateful Dead, Old and In The Way, Dickey Betts, and Paul McCartney.
Doc Watson, on vocal and guitar, performed bluegrass, folk, country, blues, and gospel music, and won seven Grammy awards as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Song 9: Jeffrey Carp and Paul Butterfield with Muddy Waters, “All Aboard”
In this harmonica duet you can really hear the difference in sound between the melodic chromatic, played by Jeffrey Carp, and the raucous blues harp, played by Paul Butterfield. While Butterfield honks the train whistle, Carp rides the rhythm of the rails in syncopation with Sam Lay’s drums. At the end of the song they both line up like cabooses behind the train as it goes around the bend.
These musicians were giants in the blues. Carp, who died in a boating accident in 1973 at age 25, was a prodigy who recorded with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker. Butterfield, inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, formed the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which recorded several successful albums and was popular on the late-1960s concert and festival circuit.
Muddy Waters, of course, is the singer. The Fathers and Sons album featured Mike Bloomfield on guitar on some tracks, Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass, Otis Span, Sam Lay, and a host of other players. The album was Muddy’s biggest mainstream success.
Song 10: Paul Butterfield with the Butterfield Blues Band, “Mystery Train”
I’ve always been impressed by Paul Butterfield’s style of popping the sound like tiny explosives, as well as roaring a train whistle, as you can hear in this song. He approached the blues harp like a horn, playing more single notes than chords. Butterfield’s style was always intense but understated. He played concisely with sustained breath control and could bend notes at will. He favored a diatonic ten-hole Hohner Marine Band. A left-hander, he held it upside down (with the low notes to the right), using his left hand for muting effects.
Butterfield formed the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1963 in Chicago, and by 1969 the band was well established, performing at Fillmore East and West, Monterey Pop, and Woodstock, featuring Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop on guitars. The blues band also performed at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, with some of its members backing Bob Dylan for one of Dylan’s first plugged-in electric performances. This song is from the band’s first album, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
Written and recorded by bluesman Junior Parker in 1953, Mystery Train is an enduring classic. It was the first recording to make Elvis Presley a nationally known country music star. In my college years one of the popular bands would call me up to sit in and do Mystery Train, and it became a staple in my repertoire. The Band recorded a version in 1973 and reprised it with Butterfield on harp in 1976 at The Last Waltz concert. The big mystery in this song is the title: there is nothing mysterious in the song’s lyrics.
Song 11: Little Walter, “My Babe”
Little Walter was a giant of the Blues, the Jimi Hendrix of the blues harmonica, responsible for establishing the standard vocabulary for modern blues and blues rock harmonica players. He is the only artist inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame specifically as a harmonica player.
Little Walter is credited with being the first harp player to use a hand-held microphone and amplifier. In the movie Cadillac Records, you can see the engineer objecting to the close placement of the mic and the way Little Walter would play loudly into it, purposely distorting the sound.
The first Little Walter song I heard was “My Babe“, written by Willie Dixon, which became a number one R&B single for Walter in 1955. Elvis Presley and many other artists covered it. The song is mostly a reworking of the traditional gospel song This Train (Is Bound For Glory) recorded by Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Song 12: Sonny Boy Williamson II, “Eyesight to the Blind”
Let’s go let’s go let’s go now now! Down into the Mississippi Delta, home of the Delta-style country blues. Sonny Boy Williamson II played into a microphone acoustically, using his hands for a dampening effect. You can hear his impossible note-bending, and some of the most vibrating wah-wahs ever produced with a blues harp in someone’s hands. I have tried and failed, repeatedly, to get that next-to-last note, and to get that elusive wah-wah sound.
Recorded in 1951, “Eyesight to the Blind” was Sonny Boy’s first release, on Trumpet Records. The song was covered extensively by other blues and rock musicians, including Clapton, Bloomfield, B.B. King, and David Bromberg. You may recognize the lyrics from the Who, who adapted them for the rock opera Tommy. The Flying Other Brothers performed it with G. E. Smith on guitar and vocals, Roger McNamee on guitar, Bill Bennett on bass, Bert Keely on guitar, Pete Sears on keyboards, Jimmy Sanchez on drums, and yours truly on blues harp.
Known as Sonny Boy Williamson II to distinguish him from the original Sonny Boy Williamson, Alex (or Aleck) “Rice” Miller, a.k.a. Little Boy Blue, started his career in 1941 playing the influential King Biscuit Time radio show, advertising the King Biscuit brand of baking flour on station KFFA across the river in Helena, Arkansas. He recorded with Elmore James, and was the harp player on hand for Robert Johnson’s last night alive at a Delta fish fry. He also recorded “Don’t Start Me Talkin'” (covered by the Doobie Brothers) and “Bring It On Home” (covered by Led Zeppelin). “Help Me” became a blues standard covered by many blues and rock artists. The Band’s Robbie Robertson tells a story, in The Last Waltz, about meeting him, watching him play harmonica while spitting blood, and planning to record with him, right before he died.
Song 13: Magic Dick with the J. Geils Band, “Whammer Jammer”
You couldn’t go to college in Boston in the early 1970s without stumbling over the J. Geils Band. “Whammer Jammer” in its original form is impressive enough, but this live version from the Full House album is full of energy and vitality. It starts simply enough with the blues chords, and then he bounces from one note to another and back so quickly that the harp warbles like a cell phone, and the song takes off.
Everybody expected a harmonica player to be able to do this song. Back then someone in the audience would shout it out as a request, like the “Freebird” of harmonica bands. Maybe, just maybe I could do parts of it, but not all of it, and not at that speed!
The band, fronted by guitarist John Geils, formed in Massachusetts around 1968 and played many gigs in and around Boston. The original band members included vocalist Peter Wolf, harmonica and saxophone player Richard “Magic Dick” Salwitz, drummer Stephen Bladd, vocalist/keyboardist Seth Justman, and bassist Danny Klein.
Song 14: Taj Mahal, “Corrina”
Got a bird, wanna whistle! “Corrina” features Taj Mahal’s quietly tasteful blues harp, slipping into a Cajun style that I learned from my musical companion in college (also Taj’s “Cajun Tune”). It’s about blowing through two holes separated by your tongue so that the harp sounds almost like an accordion.
“Corrina” has often been invoked in a blues song; it may have traditional roots, but each version is different musically and lyrically. From Blind Lemon Jefferson and Bo Carter to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, from Cab Calloway and Dean Martin to Bob Dylan, from Jerry Lee Lewis to Joni Mitchell… even Steppenwolf! The song is more like a meme with more than 100 different versions. Back in college we had a dog named Corrina, and I played in a duo in the house basement, rechristened Cafe Corrina.
Taj is a singer-songwriter and film composer who plays the guitar, piano, banjo, harmonica, and many other instruments. He formed the Rising Sons in California with Ry Cooder, one of the first interracial bands in rock. He worked with Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, and the Rolling Stones. I could probably do an entire list of Taj songs featuring harmonica, but go check out “Going Up to the Country”, “Cajun Tune”, and “The Cuckoo” for more examples.
Song 15: Bob Dylan, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”
This song is another one I learned during my college years and played in my duo at Cafe Corrina. I like this version from the Greatest Hits Vol. II album, which is actually a studio outtake. It would also appear as “Ride Me High” on many band set lists, including most of the bands or groups I played in — The Great Next Whatever (the duo), the Mystic Valley Ramblers, the Graceful Duck, and the Flying Other Brothers to name a few.
In this version, after name-dropping the Rudyard Kipling poem Gunga Din (of course referring to the movie), Bob Dylan makes a snide remark (pack up your money, put up your tent McGuinn) to Roger McGuinn, the Byrds frontman, who recorded a version of this song in a country style.
I could do an entire list of Bob Dylan harmonica songs. My favorites besides this one are “Bob Dylan’s Blues”, “I Shall Be Free No. 10”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Desolation Row”, “All Along the Watchtower”, “As I Went Out One Morning”, and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”.
Dylan didn’t usually play in the crossharp position, as I do (playing a C harp for a song in the key of G, or an A harp for a song in E), so for many blues notes he’d blow rather than draw, and therefore couldn’t really bend the note (see Dylan Harp Trivia). But his style is so emotional, and his chords so interesting, that I was influenced by it anyway. Opinions vary among music historians, even about his singing and his guitar playing, but Dylan always has a firm grip on delivering concepts in a passionate manner, and he does this with harmonica in many songs.
As Dylan himself said in the notes to one of his songs, “Most of the time I would blow out of the harmonica because everybody sucks in. The proper way to play is like Little Walter or Sonny Boy Williamson would play — which would be to cross it — and I found myself blowing out more because nobody was doing that in that area. And that’s what defined that harmonica and guitar sound which I hadn’t heard until that point. I just stumbled on it one day.”
For more Dylan, see My Back Pages.
Song 16: Will Scarlett with Hot Tuna, “Know You Rider”
This song is one I’ve played in just about every group, band, and folk gathering I’ve taken part in.
“I Know You Rider“, “Know You Rider”, “Rider”, “I Know My Babe”, “Woman Blues”, “Bound to Love Me Some”, “Circle Around the Sun”… so many different versions have appeared since this traditional song was first adapted by Blind Lemon Jefferson for a recording in 1927, titled “Deceitful Brownskin Blues”. I first heard a version by the Kingston Trio, called “Rider”, in 1963. The Big 3 (featuring Mama Cass) also covered it at that time. It was eventually covered by the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, James Taylor, Taj Mahal, and one of my favorites, John Renbourn.
When I heard the Hot Tuna version, I learned the harmonica part immediately, and it became part of my bag of tricks. Hot Tuna began as a side project to Jefferson Airplane, featuring Jorma Kaukonen on guitar and Jack Casady on bass. It would go on to become a huge success, with these two playing together up to the present time. I was fortunate to be part of the Flying Other Brothers when Jorma invited us into a band camp in 2003 with Jack, Pete Sears, and G. E. Smith as camp counselors; we subsequently played with them at shows in San Francisco.
I also had the honor of performing a duet with Will Scarlett in Berkeley (at Freight & Salvage) in 2005, in which he showed me his distinctive style of honking into a microphone with its wire dangling over his shoulder, using his hands to make wah-wah sounds. He collaborated regularly with guitar virtuoso Steve Mann and toured with folk blues master Brownie McGhee. At the New Orleans House in Berkeley in 1969, during the recording of Hot Tuna’s first album, Will showed up unannounced and asked to play. Jorma told me that he didn’t even like harmonica, but allowed Will to come up to the stage and play along, and this song was the result. “He just stayed up on stage and kept on playing,” said Jorma.
Song 17: Charlie McCoy with the Steve Miller Band, “Going To The Country”
This song caught me by surprise when I first heard it at age 16. This is country-music harmonica at its finest.
Charlie McCoy is one of the best country harmonica players of all time. His high notes are clean and bright, and his blues licks crack like a whip. The Grammy-winning session musician plays a wide variety of instruments, including guitar on Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row and Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, and bass guitar on all John Wesley Harding tracks. He also plays keyboards, drums, and several wind and brass instruments. You can hear him on recordings by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Chet Atkins, Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, Joan Baez, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Kris Kristofferson, Paul Simon, Barefoot Jerry, Ringo Starr, and of course, the Steve Miller Band.
Steve Miller formed his band in San Francisco in 1966. By the time this album (Number 5) was released in 1970, the band included Lonnie Turner, Bobby Winkelman, Ben Sidran, Tim Davis, and Nicky Hopkins. Everyone knows Steve Miller as the Joker who can Fly Like an Eagle, but he started with the blues, graduated into psychedelic rock, and took this hayride into country music before making the hits.
Song 18: Norman Mayell with Sopwith Camel, “Dancin’ Wizard”
And now for something completely simple, from the closet of unknown harmonica players: This song was hiding on a mysterious album from 1973 that I didn’t hear until around 1975. The thing is, who knew that Norman Mayell, the drummer of a Top 40 group long disbanded, could play the harmonica so sweetly? He also plays the sitar on this song. The combination of sitar and harmonica really makes this song work.
Sopwith Camel formed in late 1965 in San Francisco with Peter Kraemer (vocals and sax), Terry MacNeil (guitar), Martin Beard (bass), and Mayell (drums), and had a top 40 hit with the vaudevillian-style “Hello, Hello” (not to be confused with the Beatles song). The band was unable to follow up, and disbanded in 1967. Mayell appeared on Norman Greenbaum’s hit album Spirit in the Sky in 1969, but it wasn’t until 1971 that the Sopwith Camel re-formed. In 1973 they released The Miraculous Hump Returns from the Moon.
While the album combines vaudeville, psychedelic rock, and Eastern mysticism in a pleasant unambitious hippie groove (kind of like Norman Greenbaum), Dancin’ Wizard is its own special form of musical beauty. You won’t be able to get it out of your head.
Song 19: John Sebastian with The Doors, “Roadhouse Blues”
Ex-Lovin’ Spoonful frontman John Sebastian’s harmonica pops up in strange places (he was listed as “G. Pugliese” for contractual reasons on The Doors album, his father’s last name before changing it to Sebastian). I first heard his harmonica on Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s Deja Vu, a little snippet of blues harp was perfect for the title song.
Then I heard this song on the Morrison Hotel album. Who knew it was John Sebastian? The Doors didn’t have a harmonica player; they played a sinister music with a macabre organ and the voice of a prophet screaming in the wilderness. But Sebastian fuses his folk-melodic style with the loud rock style of Mick Jagger in “Midnight Rambler”, with a touch of Sonny Boy Williamson II’s wah-wah agony. “Roadhouse Blues” boils over with Sebastian’s unbridled enthusiasm. I learned that blues harp lick early, learned it well, and find myself playing some of that lick in every rocking blues song.
Sebastian is a singer, songwriter, guitarist, and autoharp player as well as harmonica player. He is best known as a founder of The Lovin’ Spoonful, as well as his impromptu appearance at the Woodstock festival in 1969 and a number one hit in 1976, “Welcome Back” (theme song for the Welcome Back, Kotter TV show). His father, John Sebastian, was a noted classical harmonica player. Through his father’s connections, he met and was influenced by blues musicians Sonny Terry and Lightnin’ Hopkins. He played in the Even Dozen Jug Band and in The Mugwumps, and also played on Fred Neil’s album Bleecker & MacDougal and Tom Rush’s self-titled album in 1965.
In August 1969, Sebastian made an unscheduled appearance at Woodstock. He traveled to the festival as a spectator, but was asked to appear when the organizers suddenly needed an acoustic performer after a rain break because they couldn’t set up amps on stage for the next act until the water was swept off. He also appeared on two Doors live albums, playing on “Little Red Rooster” on Alive, She Cried and on seven songs on Live in Detroit.
The Doors formed in 1965, with Jim Morrison on vocals, Ray Manzarek on keyboards, Robby Krieger on guitar, and John Densmore on drums. On recordings they occasionally used session bass players and Manzarek played bass organ; on this song Lonnie Mack (Lonnie McIntosh) played bass.
Song 20: Charlie Musselwhite, “Revelation”
Musselwhite is a modern white bluesman from the Mississippi Delta, one of the few who came to prominence in the early 1960s along with Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield. Musselwhite was reportedly the inspiration for Elwood Blues, the character played by Dan Aykroyd in The Blues Brothers movie (he also appeared in the film Blues Brothers 2000). He plays guitar as well as harmonica, but on this song he plays a diatonic blues harp, the guitar is Andrew “Junior Boy” Jones, and the drumming is Tommy Hill.
Musselwhite has released over 20 albums and has been a guest performer on albums by many other musicians, such as Bonnie Raitt’s Longing in Their Hearts and the Blind Boys of Alabama’s Spirit of the Century, both winners of Grammy Awards. He also performed on Tom Waits’s Mule Variations and INXS’s Suicide Blonde. He has won 14 Blues Music Awards, has been nominated for six Grammy Awards. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2010. In 2011 Musselwhite toured with Hot Tuna and then with Cyndi Lauper, having played harmonica on her hit album Memphis Blues. In 2014 he won a Blues Music Award in the category Best Instrumentalist — Harmonicist.
Musselwhite believes the key to his musical success was finding a style in which he could express himself. He said, “I only know one tune, and I play it faster or slower, or I change the key, but it’s just the one tune I’ve ever played in my life. It’s all I know.”
Song 21: Mickey Raphael with Willie Nelson, “Blue Skies”
“Blue Skies” from Willie Nelson’s Stardust album was composed in 1926 by Irving Berlin as a last-minute addition to the Rodgers and Hart musical Betsy. Michael Siegfried “Mickey” Raphael has a clear sound with a shuddering, smoldering blues bent and quavering high notes that can melt your heart. I am proud to say that Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna) once told me that I sounded like “that guy Mickey” when I played with the Flying Other Brothers.
Raphael has performed and recorded with a wide variety of country and rock stars ranging from Emmylou Harris and Paul Simon to Leon Russell, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Lee Lewis, and U2. But he is mostly known for his work with Willie Nelson. Raphael, 20 at the time, was never formally hired in the legendary band. He just showed up. “When I joined Willie’s band, I really didn’t know anything about country music. I’d never really listened to it at all. I was a folk blues player. I just wanted to play in a country band and ride around in a bus.”
Take me with you when you go! Raphael rode the bus for the last 47 years and is still riding it. Raphael credits blues great Paul Butterfield and rhythm and blues saxophone genius King Curtis as two of his biggest influences. “Charlie McCoy was the first harmonica player I really listened to in country music.”
Song 22: Lee Oskar with War, “All Day Music”
Including Lee Oskar is a no brainer, because I use his brand of harmonicas!
Oskar met and joined forces with ex-Animals Eric Burdon in 1969, hung out in the Los Angeles clubs together, and eventually hooked up with the rock-funk fusion group War, founded by Howard E. Scott and Harold Brown. Burdon agreed to the novel idea of pairing up Oskar’s harmonica with Charles Miller‘s saxophone to form a horn section. This team-up set War apart from the start, giving Oskar room to display the full spectrum of his improvisational prowess.
Oskar’s harmonica magic was always a vital element in War’s music and performances. Oskar’s signature solos helped to define the War sound by adding dashes of color to its R&B, jazz, rock, and Latin influences. You may recall their big hit with Burden, “Spill the Wine” — you can hear Oskar’s harmonica on the chorus. War (with Oskar) also recorded hits like “Cisco Kid”, “Why Can’t We Be Friends”, and “Low Rider”. He also had a solo hit, “Before the Rain“.
Oskar continued with War for 24 years. In 1983, he formed a company to manufacture high-quality harmonicas. His company, Lee Oskar Harmonicas, sells harmonicas suited to many different styles of music, including the most common blues, folk, rock, R&B and country but Oskar’s altered tunings also allows players to explore other genres such as Tango, Clave, Hip Hop, Reggae, Ska, Latin, Gypsy, Yiddish, Eastern European, Asian, and many other types of music. The harmonicas themselves are manufactured by Tombo of Japan.
Song 23: Stevie Wonder, “Creepin'”
Stevie Wonder (Stevland Hardaway Morris) needs no introduction. As a child prodigy, Little Stevie Wonder played a live show in 1963 that included Fingertips, a chromatic harmonica instrumental, which shot to number one on the Billboard Top 100. He went on to be Motown’s most famous star and the winner of 25 Grammy awards.
Creepin’ influenced my playing style mostly because the harmonica solo he plays in the song’s middle part is breathtaking. His playing style with a chromatic harmonica, which includes impossible-to-bend notes, is so fantastic it is beyond words. (I also love Boogie On Reggae Woman, but he plays a diatonic A-flat blues harp on that rather than a chromatic.)
The song is haunting, mystifying, and you can feel those moments of ecstasy in the harmonica solo. It is also one of those songs in which Stevie played everything: lead vocal, background vocal, Fender Rhodes, chromatic harmonica, drums, Moog bass, and synthesizer. Minnie Riperton added the background vocal. The album, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, was released shortly after a car accident that almost took his life.
Song 24: Howard Levy with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, “Tell It to the Gov’nor”
It just keeps getting better with this demonstration of extreme virtuosity with a blues harp. When I heard Howard Levy I was ready to hang up my harmonica belt. I can’t believe how good he is on a blues harp (diatonic harmonica). He bends notes in such a smooth, fluid way that he can get all the notes, chromatic style, on a blues harp.
In a sense he is the inverse of Stevie Wonder; where Stevie can bend notes on a chromatic to get a soulful sound with all the notes, Levy can bend the notes of a diatonic in a soulful way to get all the notes of a chromatic. This is the way I would want to play if I could, playing all possible notes with one harp without having to switch keys, and smoothly bending the notes, which I can’t do on a chromatic.
Levy has been performing as a solo artist for decades, moving freely between piano and harmonica, sometimes playing both simultaneously. He is a founding member of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, with whom he won a 1997 Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for the song “The Sinister Minister”. Levy has toured or recorded with a wide variety of artists in different genres, including John Prine, Bobby McFerrin, Chuck Mangione, David Bromberg, Dolly Parton, Donald Fagen, Paquito D’Rivera, Pete Seeger, and Tom Paxton.
The Flecktones formed in 1988 when Béla Fleck was invited to perform on the PBS TV series The Lonesome Pine Specials. The original members were Fleck on banjo, Victor Wooten on bass guitar, his brother Roy Wooten on Drumitar, and Levy on harmonica and keyboards. The Flecktones merged bluegrass with jazz with an astonishing musicianship. Released in 1990, their debut album included this song.
Song 25: Toots Thielemans with Kenny Werner, “What a Wonderful World”
At the end of the playlist, it is fitting to present the best harmonica player I’ve ever heard. Consider the range of this playlist. Folk-rock, country-blues, pop, rock, psychedelic blues, country & western, bluegrass, Delta blues, bar-band soul, gospel, acoustic rock, hard rock, musicals, funk, newgrass, and now… jazz! American music is permeated with harmonica sounds.
Jazz master Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor, Baron “Toots” Thielemans, was a Belgian musician known for his harmonica playing as well as his guitar, whistling skills, and composing. His jazz credits are exemplary and lengthy, from Benny Goodman’s band and George Shearing to Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Quincy Jones and Paquito D’Rivera. Sadly he passed away in 2016.
If you’ve heard a harmonica on a movie soundtrack, it may have been Toots. He performed on Midnight Cowboy (1969), The Pawnbroker (1964), The Getaway (1972), Cinderella Liberty (1973), The Sugarland Express (1974) and Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977). His harmonica theme song for Sesame Street has been heard for over 40 years.
One of my favorite songs of all time, “What a Wonderful World” is a jazz song written by Bob Thiele (as “George Douglas”) and George David Weiss. It was first recorded by Louis Armstrong and released in 1967. This version was recorded in 2001 by Thielemans with Kenny Werner on piano.
Beatles related anecdote: While playing in Hamburg in 1960 on tour with Shearing, John Lennon noticed that Thielemans played a Rickenbacker guitar. Lennon was impressed, and felt he had to have an American guitar, on the principle that “if was good enough for Thielemans it was good enough for me.” Lennon and the Beatles helped make Rickenbacker world-famous.
More Toots Thielemans: “Midnight Cowboy” (movie theme song) by John Barry
The movie Midnight Cowboy (1969) starred young, relatively unknown actors Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. Its main theme is a harmonica solo composed by John Barry and performed by Toots Thielemans (although on the soundtrack album version, it was played by Tommy Reilly). At the 42nd Academy Awards, the movie won three awards: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. (Unfortunately there was no category for best harmonica solo in a theme song.) The Moviola version is John Barry conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Other notable performances by Toots: