Eminent players of the blues harmonica are featured in this rousing playlist of soulfully passionate recordings.
JAMES COTTON ~ from the album LIVING THE BLUES
ONE LITTLE PIECE OF SHADE
“James Cotton is a true harmonica legend. His aggressive, full toned harp approach defined a more contemporary approach to the instrument while simultaneously remaining true to the blues tradition.” ~ Bob Corritore
“Twenty-four hours a day, every day, you’ll catch me with a harmonica. I sleep with ’em in the bed with me. I play for the truckers on the CB when we’re driving down the highway. The highway is my home, and my Dodge van is my bed, and the blues is my companion.” ~ James Cotton, 1990
James Cotton, a true harmonica legend has long been one of my personal favorites and recognized as one of the foremost masters of the blues harmonica. He justifiably earned the nickname ‘Superharp.’ Mr. Cotton underwent surgery to combat throat surgery in his cancer battle in the 1990’s which reduced his gruff full bodied roar to a more whispering rasp: and he sang less and allowed other vocalists to shoulder the load; even abandoning singing on his last recordings.
His blues harp playing though remained mournful, sweet or fleet, and enchantingly delightful, even if losing some of the super lung power. On “One Little Piece Of Shade,” written by Dave Steen, Dr. John, aka Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack, is magnificent in providing an outstanding vocal and top-notch piano accompaniment to combine with Cotton and the others on this 1994 masterpiece.
One Little Piece Of Shade
Harmonica – James Cotton
Piano, Vocals – Dr. John
Bass – Johnny B. Gayden
Drums – Brian Jones
LITTLE WALTER ~ MY BABE
“Little Walter was the best I ever heard. Little Walter was another Robert Johnson… it’s hard to find them kinds of peoples.” ~ Muddy Waters
“Little Walter was the best harp player that has ever been or will be. I learned a lot of his harp licks on the guitar.” ~ Johnny Winter
Little Walter Jacobs was one of the most influential harmonica improvisers of the late 20th century. He was born in Marksville, Louisiana, and raised on a farm. Little Walter began playing harmonica in childhood, and by the time he was twelve he was playing for a living on New Orleans street corners and in clubs. In his teens he gradually worked northward, playing in stopovers in Helena, Arkansas, Memphis, and St. Louis, before reaching Chicago about 1946. He took instruction from Sonny Boy Williamson II and Walter Horton and listened to the music of Sonny Boy Williamson I. He began recording in 1947 and played in Muddy Waters’ blues band (1948 – 1952) before launching into a successful solo career.
One of his most popular songs was his version of Willie Dixon’s “My Babe,” which also reached #1 on the R&B chart. He scored fourteen Top 10 R&B hits for Chess Records’ Checker subsidiary.
MUDDY WATERS ~ from the album HARD AGAIN
THE BLUES HAD A BABY (featuring James Cotton)
“So I went out and bought Hard Again by Muddy Waters. That was a big learning curve. I listened to that album again and again and again. James Cotton was the harmonica player on that album.” ~ Sonny Terry
“A James Cotton shrieking locomotive harmonica and sledgehammer drum-work by Willie “Big Eyes” Smith drives the rousing “The Blues Had A Baby and They Named It Rock And Roll.” This classic song from Muddy Waters’ Hard Again features the Intertwining guitars of Johnny Winter and Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin that slice through the song as Muddy narrates the story with a joyous glee. The song’s title pretty much tells the story while truly outstanding rolling piano work by Pinetop Perkins adds to the song’s rollin’ and tumblin’ effect.” ~ RP / Vivascene
LINDSAY BEAVER & BRAD STIVERS ~ from the album of the same name
I KNOW WHAT TO DO
The song “I Know What To Do” from Lindsay Beaver and Brad Stivers’ first collaborative album was written by Lindsay Beaver, who applies a great sassy blues vocal like she knows just what to do! This husband and wife team has been thrilling fans with their electrifying performances across the USA and Canada. The rhythm section cooks on medium–high helping the tune reach a boil. The song also features a great guest appearance by Nova Scotia-based Joe Murphy on blues harp that sounds rough and ready, as does Brad Stivers’ raucous raging blues-meets-rockabilly guitar. It’s a good ‘un children.
Vocal, Drums – Lindsay Beaver ~ Guitar – Brad Stivers ~ Bass – Barry Cooke ~ Harmonica – Joe Murphy
JOHN LEE HOOKER ~ from the album THE HEALER
John Lee Hooker had a slew of guests on his 1989 album, The Healer. “That’s Alright, written by John Lee Hooker featured some memorable blues harp from guest great Charlie Musselwhite. Roy Rogers produced the release, and provided guitar. The song contains simple, yet effective lyrics. John Lee Hooker received a Grammy for the album; thanks in part to all the superstar appearances.
Vocals, Guitar – John Lee Hooker
Harmonica – Charlie Musselwhite
Bass – Steve Ehrmann
Drums – Scott Matthews
Guitar – Roy Rogers
JOHN LEE HOOKER ~ from the album THE HEALER
The members of Canned Heat joined the bluesman John Lee Hooker for some classic boogie goodness on the song Cuttin’ Out.
Vocals, Guitar – John Lee Hooker
Harmonica – Charlie Musselwhite
Guitar – Henry Vestine
Guitar [Slide] – Roy Rogers
Bass – Larry Taylor
Drums – Fito de la Parra
KENNY ‘BEEDY EYES’ SMITH & THE HOUSE BUMPERS ~ from the album DROP THE HAMMER
“I don’t play the drums, I feel the drums.” ~ Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith
“Kenneth Smith has assembled an exceptional group of like-minded fellow musicians to craft the album Drop The Hammer. Kenny and his group (The House Bumpers) delve into numerous contemporary blues styles providing plenty of poise, precision and pizzazz. The prototypical lineup pioneered by Muddy Waters and his Windy City peers required a polished accomplished blues harpist. Omar Coleman, one of Chi-Town’s finest players (born and raised on Chicago’s West Side) passionately fits the bill on ‘Drop The Hammer.
“The album kicks off with “Head Pounder,” a tune brimming with African based Bo Diddleyesqe rhythms and a dose of Chicago slide guitar courtesy of Billy Flynn (who also plays sitar on the track). These idiosyncratic characteristics are complemented by a deeply echo-chambered vocal by Kenny. Omar Coleman’s biting blues harp nicely fuels the song. The sum of the components aid in bestowing a primal urgency to make this a stand-out opening track.” ~ RP / Vivascene
JOHN MAYALL ~ from the album USA UNION
TOOK THE CAR
John Mayall’s USA Union‘s release was a fine release of ten original songs recorded without a drummer, maintaining his reputation as a blues innovator. On the album, Mayall played blues harp, guitar, piano, tambourine, and sang.
An all-American lineup supplied the sturdy support. The clean lead guitar throughout the album was provided by Harvey “The Snake” Mandel, with the bass guitar work of Larry “The Mole” Taylor. Don “Sugarcane” Harris imparts fine electric violin to the bluesy mix.
Vocals, Harmonica – John Mayall
Lead Guitar – Harvey Mandel
Violin – Don “Sugarcane” Harris
Bass Guitar – Larry Taylor
BONNIE RAITT ~ from the album LUCK OF THE DRAW
GOOD MAN, GOOD WOMAN
The venerable Delbert McClinton is a legend among Texas roots music aficionados, not only for his amazing longevity, but for his ability to combine country, blues, soul, and rock & roll as if there were no distinctions between any of them (in the best time-honored Texas tradition). A formidable harmonica player long before he recorded as a singer (he played the signature harp riff on Bruce Channel’s 1962 number one hit “Hey! Baby”), McClinton’s career began in the late ’50’s, yet it took him nearly two decades to evolve into a bona fide solo artist with 1975’s Victim of Life’s Circumstances.
McClinton’s biggest break, though, came when he was tapped for a duet with Bonnie Raitt on her 1991 Luck of the Draw, the follow-up to her much-lauded comeback Nick of Time. The result, “Good Man, Good Woman,” brought McClinton his first Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
OMAR COLEMAN ~ from the album BORN & RAISED
MAN LIKE ME
“Junior Wells….. when I discovered that guy and started listening to that stuff, I was like, “Man, that’s what I want to do!” Maybe not wear them little shark skin suits, but his singing, his charisma, his playing. It made sense to me.” ~ Omar Coleman
Omar Coleman’s 2015 release, Born & Raised, on Delmark Records, provided great Chicago Blues from kickoff to completion. Just what we’ve come to expect from that respected Windy City record label.
Coleman is, if not the best, one of Chi-Town’s finest harmonica players (born and raised on Chicago’s West Side) and he finds ample opportunities to solo passionately on his Blues Harp. His soulfully passionate vocals are blues-rooted with enough R&B funk fire to make you want to get up and dance.
The band Coleman assembled was truly top shelf, and on Omar’s original composition “Man Like Me,” great guest guitarist Toronzo Cannon provides fuzz-toned sparks of his own to help the group create a churnin’ blues inferno.
The tight blues chops of guitarist Pete Galantis are in this fine mix. While hanging sturdily on bass guitar was the brilliant multi-instrumentalist Ari Seder, a graduate of the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music with a B.M. in jazz guitar. The rollin’ piano of Neal O’Hara is bouncing along like a kangaroo to complete the ensemble effort. “Do you know what I am sayin’?”
MAN LIKE ME – Personnel
Vocals, Harmonica – Omar Coleman
Guitar – Toronzo Cannon
Guitar – Pete Galanis
Keyboards – Neal O’Hara
Bass – Ari Seder
Drums – Marty Binder
FABRIZIO POGGI from the album Fabrizio Poggi And The Amazing Texas Blues Voices
NOBODY’S FAULT BUT MINE
A proud recipient of the Horner Lifetime Award, native Italian musician Fabrizio Poggi started his career playing his harmonica throughout the US and Europe.
To earn his lofty position alongside the harmonica greats, he has shared stages with greats such as Buddy Guy, Flaco Jimenez, Charlie Musselwhite, Little Feat and The Original Blues Brothers Band. Other artists this talented gentleman has accompanied onstage include The Blind Boys of Alabama, Ronnie Earl, Sonny Landreth, Guy Davis, Eric Bibb… and on and on.
And on to …Talented Texas Blues Singer Carolyn Wonderland, a multi-instrumentalist with skills on acoustic and electric guitar, slide guitar, electric mandolin, trumpet and piano. She sings this Blind Willie Johnson classic like nobody’s business!
Nobody’s Fault But Mine – personnel
Harmonica – Fabrizio Poggi
Vocals, Guitar – Carolyn Wonderland
Guitar – Bobby Mack
Piano, Organ – Cole El Saleh
Bass – Donnie Price
Drums – Dony Wynn
Backing Vocals – Mike Cross, Shelley King
DAVE WELD ~ from the album SLIP INTO A DREAM
20% ALCOHOL (featuring Bobby Rush)
“I started lying about my age when I was 12, becoming 15 overnight — and I ain’t never looked back. If you can’t give me a pass on that, then I ain’t studdin’ ya.” ~ Bobby Rush
“Merely living and surviving nine decades would be marked as a huge accomplishment for anyone. But, then pack in thousands of nights filled with music, dancing, laughter, raucousness, professionalism, showmanship, all done with passion plus compassion and you have the life of Bobby Rush.” ~ Dan Aykroyd
“The only non-original song contained on Slip Into A Dream is “20% Alcohol,” written and released on J.B. Hutto & his Hawks album ‘Hawk Squat’ on the Delmark record label. Delmark is a well-respected label based in Chicago since the mid-fifties concentrating primarily on American Jazz and American Blues music. This reverent take of “20% Alcohol” on Slip Into A Dream rivals the gritty original even considering legendary piano man Sunnyland Slim had a key presence on J.B.’s record. The artistic inspiration Dave Weld received from J.B. Hutto cannot be overstated. His years of friendship, the sage advice received, and the astute tutelage on slide guitar and the idiosyncrasies of being a bandleader all live on in Dave Weld’s music.
“On this tribute rendition the living blues legend Bobby Rush, at nearly 80 years of age, provides inspired blues harp that endows the song with a breathtaking Chicago blues authenticity that is not easy to create; even with the wealth of local talent available in the Windy City. The rhythm section cooks and Dave soars on his traditional guitar slide break (primitive and effective) and his vocal delivery is earthy and muddy as the Mississippi Delta.” ~ RP /Vivascene
MUDDY WATERS ~ from the album HARD AGAIN
CROSSEYED CAT (with James Cotton)
“Playing with Muddy was excellent. I loved it. I loved him as a musician and I loved him as a person. It was the most fun I ever had. He was a big influence on me.” ~ Johnny Winter
“Yet another Hard Again powerhouse ensemble track is “Crosseyed Cat” with aggressive piercing guitars, blues harp blowing, and piano runs accompanying Willie “Big Eyes” Smith’s traditional Chicago Blues shuffle style drum work. Willie held the position of drummer in Muddy Waters band from 1961 to mid ’64, and then again from 1968 to 1980. A brief side note: Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and Pinetop Perkins had a wonderful blues recording called Joined At The Hip a few years ago, released right before Perkins’ death. Willie shows off his harmonica and vocal expertise on that album, another very highly recommended release.
“On Hard Again James Cotton and Johnny Winter both soak each song with incredible blues riffs. And at sixty-plus, an age when most have retired to the rockin’ chair, Muddy’s vocals are as full of attitude and as saucily cool as at any time in his illustrious career. There’s simply not a less-than-stellar performance in the bunch; not a weak moment anywhere on the record. A good analogy might be made by comparing Muddy Waters to a super-talented ball-player (Larry Bird comes to mind, showing my age) who continually makes those around him better. Muddy inspires those around him to provide their tip-top performances, and a tip of the hat to Johnny Winter for convincingly capturing it so perfectly for posterity.
“The legacy that Muddy Waters left behind is the stuff of legend, making timeless music, universal in its power to touch and move us deeply. Hard Again is one of the bricks that built that formidable and legendary wall. If there ever were an essential blues record, this is it.” ~ RP / Vivascene
HUBERT SUMLIN ~ from the album ABOUT THEM SHOES
COME HOME BABY
“You know Hubert Sumlin for the amazing guitar he played for the decades he was with Howlin’ Wolf. He’s often described by naming the rock stars who idolized him, but I suggest he should be valued most for the Blues he played, as well as for how he inspired more famous players.” ~ Bob Margolin
On About Them Shoes Hubert Sumlin and his musical friends covered seven songs from the catalog of McKinley Morganfield (Muddy Waters). My favorite among those fine offerings is “Come Home Baby,” that features a vocal and blues harp from the late Paul Oscher. David Maxwell’s piano is a prominent force, as it is on most of the album, and the blues guitar interplay of Sumlin and Margolin is divine.
Come Home Baby – personnel
Lead Guitar – Hubert Sumlin
Guitar – Bob Margolin
Harmonica, Vocal – Paul Oscher
Piano – David Maxwell
Bass – Mudcat Ward
Drums – Levon Helm
Percussion – George Receli
THE ROLLING STONES ~ from the album BLUE AND LONESOME
RIDE ‘EM ON DOWN
“The blues echoes right through into soul, R&B and hip hop. It’s part of the make-up of modern music. You can’t turn your back on the blues.” ~ Ronnie Wood
The Rolling Stones included a searing take of “Ride ‘Em on Down” on their 2016 release of blues classics Blue & Lonesome. This covers collection paid tribute to the post-war Chicago blues that first got the Stones rolling and inspired their very name. Since then, the blues have served as the band’s foundation, but this effort was their first all-blues release.
Blue & Lonesome was bashed out in three days, which gives the effort a raw power and Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood creating guitar sparks for the first time in eons, the Stones sound like a band playing together in the same room rather than one that travels on
“Ride ‘Em on Down” was written by Tommy McClennan and Bukka White and was first recorded and released by Tommy McClennan in 1940. The track dates back to the 1930’s when Delta blues great Bukka White penned the track under the title “Shake ‘Em on Down.” Chicago blues singer Eddie Taylor recorded the track in 1955 as “Ride ‘Em on Down,” the version that inspired the Stones to cover the track.
“The thing about the blues is it changes in very small increments. People reinterpret what they know – Elmore James reinterpreted Robert Johnson licks, as did Muddy Waters. So, I’m not saying we’re making the jumps that they made, but we can’t help but reinterpret these songs.” ~ Mick Jagger
“Ride ‘Em on Down” features a scorching harmonica solo courtesy of Jagger.
“This is the best record Mick Jagger has ever made. It was just watching the guy enjoying doing what he really can do better than anybody else… And also, the band ain’t too shabby.” ~ Keith Richards talking about the singer’s harmonica skills.