I never quite recovered from Once Upon A Time In The West, Sergio Leone’s finest film, partly because of the exquisite pain of the final nine-minute scene, and the music which accompanies it. A haunting four-note phrase which has punctuated the entire story is finally given its full dreadful context, and we discover why Charles Bronson’s character is called Man With A Harmonica. I cannot do full justice to this in writing but watch the scene. The harmonica is played by Franco de Gemini, the music was written by Ennio Morricone.
Everything else here is just great great music. Scene one of Once Upon A Time … takes place in a railway station, so next we go to the Charlie McCoy version of bluegrass standard Orange Blossom Special. Harmonicas and trains go together.
We can argue this all night but one of the finest blues harpists was undoubtedly Little Walter who distorted his sound with electrification and feedback years before any guitarist did the same. He played with Muddy Waters for years at Chess Records then made a string of mighty singles of his own in the 1950s. The only harmonica player in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. His big hit was his first single Juke, but here we have the unearthly sounds of Blue Light (Checker, 1954).
Chicago boy Paul Butterfield fell in with Muddy Waters too and was encouraged to jam. He formed his own multi-racial band in the early 60s and became a key player in the blues-rock crossover scene especially with the second LP from 1966, East-West, with Elvin Bishop and Mike Bloomfield on guitars. Walking Blues (forgive me for listing the LP track rather than the blistering live version from 20 years later) is a Son House song from the 1930s covered by everyone.
And thus to Stevie. The second time I was fortunate enough to see Stevie Wonder live he played a number of jazz covers, including Miles Davis (All Blues) and Herbie Hancock (Spain). I was unaware that he’d guested on a Hancock track Steppin’ In It, and although his featured solo is a revelation I’ve had to stick with his cover of Bacharach’s Alfie which is a tour de force of chromatic harmonica genius, identifiable by his joyous personality coming through the notes.
I had a dream about Sonny Boy pushing past me in the street as an older man tried in vain to keep up. “Help me,” said the elder, “that young fella stole my harmonica …” But it was too late. SBW II stole Sonny Boy Williamson’s name, his fame and his mojo. And after all it was Sonny Boy Williamson I who was the pioneer of blues harp, playing on hundreds of pre-war sides, while his own Good Morning Schoolgirl (1937) became a classic.
One of his pupils was a certain Muddy Waters, blues legend, who recorded a song he co-wrote with Brownie McGhee - The Blues Had A Baby (And They Called It Rock’n’Roll) in 1977 on an LP called Hard Times, produced by Johnny Winters, with all concerned blowing like it’s 1950 Chicago. James Cotton is on the harmonica playing mainly rhythm which the instrument excels at too.
James Cotton was, along with Little Walter, a huge influence on The J. Geils Band who signed to Atlantic in 1970 with their scintillating blues-rock sound so beloved of that era’s rockers. Whammer Jammer features Magic Dick on harmonica from the sophomore LP The Morning After (1971).
There is just time for a side-step into the great Larry Adler, genuine prodigy on the harmonica as any of his recordings will testify to. Both Ralph Vaughan Williams (after whom I was named!) and Malcolm Arnold wrote classical pieces especially for him, he covered Bach, Mozart and Gershwin brilliantly and here he plays his Oscar-nominated title tune from the film Genevieve, a post-war British comedy about the London-Brighton car rally. Adler was forced out of the USA during the McCarthy era and he settled in the UK where he was much loved.
Now pipping Big Mama Thornton to the #10 slot I choose the apparently quiet and undemonstrative Big Walter Horton and his 1953 classic Easy, which demonstrates his amazing tone & signature shuffle. Hugely respected by his peers, particularly Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters, who nevertheless sacked him after he turned up to a session loaded.
The man responsible for popularising the blues in the UK is often thought to be Alexis Korner. It was John Mayall however whose band proved to be a training ground for so many of the guitarists of the 60s blues boom including Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor. Here he excels at making music with his mouth – quite literally – on Room To Move, both with his harmonica and any number of wheezes shouts and whoops, reminding us of Sonny Terry’s Fox Hunt which is zedded for another topic.
And for the last two songs we turn inevitably to the greatest player of them all I suspect. I offer two examples: first a lush song by the icon Quincy Jones from his 1971 LP Smackwater Jack, entitled Brown Ballad, with harmonica by Belgian jazzer Toots Thielemans whom Jones once called “one of the greatest musicians of our time”.
John Barry clearly agreed when he asked Toots to play the theme to Midnight Cowboy which plays us out and closes that remarkable film with Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso dying in the arms of Joe Buck, a young Jon Voigt in a memorably poignant final scene. Warning : the soundtrack album has the harp played by Tommy Reilly. So the clip to close is from the film too.
And why not.
The Aerophonic A-List Playlist:
Man With A Harmonica - Ennio Morricone (Franco de Gemini)
Orange Blossom Special – Charlie McCoy
Blue Light - Little Walter
Walking Blues - Paul Butterfield Blues Band
Alfie - Stevie Wonder
Good Morning School Girl - Sonny Boy Williamson I
The Blues Had A Baby - Muddy Waters (James Cotton)
Whammer Jammer - The J. Geils Band (Magic Dick)
The Genevieve Waltz – Larry Adler
Easy - Big Walter Horton
Room To Move - John Mayall
Brown Ballad - Quincy Jones (Toots Thielemans)
Midnight Cowboy - John Barry (Toots Thielemans)
The Blow-by-Blow B-List Playlist:
Prison Blues - Alex, Alan Lomax
Not Fade Away - The Rolling Stones
Chicago Breakdown - Doctor Ross
Steppin’ In It – Herbie Hancock (Stevie Wonder)
Fruta Boa – Toots Thielemans
Run Around - Blues Traveler
Willie Brown Blues - Ry Cooder, Sonny Terry
I Want To Take You Higher – Sly & Family Stone
Just A Feeling - Charlie Musselwhite
Twenty Yards Behind - Dr Feelgood
Livin’ On The Highway – Nico Wayne Toussaint
Your Funeral My Trial – Sonny Boy Williamson II
Living in a Hard Hard Land – Chris Wilson
On The Road Again - Canned Heat
Guru's Wildcard Pick:
Indulge me. Last year I played on the 50th anniversary Magical Mystery Tour concert in Liverpool – an honour, a thrill. I played a Hohner bass harmonica on Fool On The Hill (John & George both play on the track). Simple notes. The Beach Boys I Know There’s An Answer on Pet Sounds turned the fabs onto the bass harp as a texture.
But guru’s pick would have to be Stevie Wonder playing Creepin’, For Once In My Life (zedded), Fingertips, Please Don’t Go but the prize of a video goes to the finest harmonica moment I have witnessed, more than once: Isn’t She Lovely. Pure joy.
If you’re bored, song starts at 2.45
Thanks for playing it was a gas, I learned a lot, my brain melted, I’m happy.
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic: Every breath you take: songs featuring the harmonica. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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