After five years, Mark Hummel on Jan. 3 will bring back to Harrah’s Lake Tahoe his Blues Harmonica Blowout. This year’s tour is a tribute to Bluebird Records and features Elvin Bishop, Billy Boy Arnold, Rick Estrin, Little Charlie Batty, Mark Hummel, Steve Guyger, Rich Yescalis, Bob Welsh, June Core and R.W. Grigsby.
I recently called Mark at his home in California’s Bay Area to talk about the show and learn a little bit about his background and band of bluesmen. This is going to be a great evening of blues music that you won’t want to miss. Here’s some of what Mark shared with me.
— Nick McCabe
NM: I’m intrigued by the fact that you and I were on similar paths at the same time in the 1970s, but you took it to a very successful career, whereas I remained playing in bar bands for gas money. I think it takes a certain fearlessness to get out there and pursue a musical career. What do you think?
MH: I think there’s a certain drive and ambition that you have to have to sustain a career in music, and not everybody has that. You have to be willing to take a chance on music, and dance out onto that thin limb and give it your all. That and some talent will take you a long way. It’s also nice to have somebody out there to push you along and believe in you.
NM: You started playing in 1970 when the musical heroes of the day were guitar players like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page. What made you take up the harmonica?
MH: It was mainly because all my friends were really good guitar players and messed around on the harmonica, but didn’t get real serious about it, and I was just the opposite. I fooled around on guitar, but felt uncoordinated on it compared to what I could get going on the harmonica.
NM: Do you remember what made you want to be a musician?
MH: Well, it was probably The Beatles or the Monkeys. Who knows? Some group from when I was a kid. At the time it seemed like a cool thing to be a musician. They seemed to have a cool life.
NM: Do you have any special memories of successes or failures as a young musician that helped you head in the right direction?
MH: When I first started in high school I would get so nervous the night before a gig at school or at the park when I was going to play in front of my friends, that I would toss and turn all night. I found it to be an exciting, but nerve racking thing to do. Gradually as you do it more and more you learn how to channel your nervous energy.
NM: I understand that you moved from LA to Berkeley in 1974 after only four years of playing to pursue a career in music. Is that right?
MH: I came up when I was about 18 and visited for a couple months, and then came back when I was 19.
NM: That’s a leap of faith!
MH: Ya, it was. I came up here in my VW bug with $40, and that’s all I had, with all my belongings in the back seat. It was definitely a leap of faith.
NM: Is that when you got serious about blazing a trail in the music business?
MH: I came up here with that intent in mind. I left Los Angeles because I was not a big fan of L.A. It was much more commercial musically to me whereas people in the Bay Area were more interested in blues and different styles of music – hippie music was big up here. I just felt like it was a more real place, and that’s why I moved.
NM: How did you start out after the move?
MH: I started out by just playing on the street for tips, a bowl of soup or a sandwich. The first guy I met up here was Ron Thompson, a guitar player. Ron turned me on to the blues scene in the ghettos around here. That’s how I got into the blues – by going to the local blues clubs, and meeting the blues musicians there. That’s pretty much how I got my start. I did that for about four years.
NM: How long was it before you could make a living at playing music?
MH: For about six years I worked part time as a wheelchair attendant for people in wheelchairs, because it was part-time work and I didn’t have to be up super early. That let me play gigs at night and I could travel on weekends. Then in about 1981 I was playing so much that I didn’t have time for that anymore and that’s when it became a full time occupation.
NM: Tell me about the beginnings of the Harmonica Blowout Series. When did that start?
MH: It started in 1991. It was actually started by a guy named Tom Mazolinni in about 1980 as an offshoot of the San Francisco Blues Festival. He called it the Battle of The Harmonicas. He did it for about seven or eight years, but he wasn’t real consistent with it, so I started my own version in 1991 in a club in Berkeley. That went so well that the club owner suggested that I do it every year. So we did it in his club every year for about six years, but he eventually got murdered. It was a club called Ashkanaz.
NM: Well that’s unpleasant. So the Harmonica Blowout Series has become very successful for you. Today you have top name touring artists joining you in the shows. In 2009 you had me pick up John Mayall and bring him up to Harrah’s, and I still brag about that. When did you start getting these big name artists to join the shows?
MH: Probably around the late ’90s I started having touring guys like Carry Bell and Kim Wilson join me. Before that I hired people like Norton Buffalo, William Clarke, Paul Delay and Curtis Salgado. In 2000 I had a really star studded show at Yoshi’s in San Francisco with Kim Wilson, Rod Piazza, Billy Branch, Rick Estrin and Junior Watson. That was probably my first really star studded show.
NM: Have you done it every year since you started it?
MH: There was one year after that murder where I didn’t do it because the club closed and I hadn’t found another place yet, and that’s when Yoshi’s came along. That’s pretty much where I’ve been doing it since. This year it’s not called Yoshi’s anymore. It’s now called ‘The Addition’ and we’ll be there from January 15th through the 17th.
NM: You’re finally bringing your Blues Harmonic Blowout show back to Harrrah’s Lake Tahoe after five years, and you have some heavy hitters joining you for this one. This year’s tour is a tribute to Bluebird Records with Elvin Bishop, Billy Boy Arnold, Rick Estrin, Little Charlie Batty, Mark Hummel, Steve Guyger, Rich Yescalis, Bob Welsh, June Core and R.W. Grigsby.
I’d like to talk a bit about each one of these artists. Let’s start with the great Elvin Bishop. Has Elvin done one of these shows with you before?
MH: No, this will be the first time he has joined us on these shows. He has joined us and sat in before, but this will be his first official show.
NM: Is he joining for the entire tour?
MH: No. He’s just joining us for the Tahoe date and the three days in San Francisco.
NM: Tell me about Billy Boy Arnold.
MH: Billy Boy is great. He was around Chicago from the late ’40s on, and actually took lessons from the original Sonny Boy Williamson (John Lee Williamson) who was on Bluebird Records. Since our show this year is a tribute to Bluebird Records, Billy Boy is the perfect guy to have along. He actually knew a lot of the artists that were on Bluebird Records back in the ’30s and ’40s – guys like Blind John Davis, Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Bill Bronzy and Tampa Red – he actually got to meet a lot of those guys. He’s also been on a lot of these shows. He’s on the Grammy Nominated “Little Walter CD” that we did. He’s on “I’m a Man” by Bo Diddley.
NM: How was it getting a Grammy nomination?
MH: It was pretty cool.
NM: Was it your first one?
NM: Was it your last one? (laugh)
MH: It better not be the last one. You never know. Charlie Musselwhite got nominated 19 times before he got one. We did win two Blues Awards for Best CD and Best Traditional Blues.
NM: Next up we have Rick Estrin who was with you the last time you came to Harrah’s, and is from my hometown of Sacramento.
MH: Right, and he’s a longtime co-leader of Little Charlie and The Nightcats. He and Little Charlie will be together for this. This will be the third year in a row that they have played together on this show.
NM: What can you tell me about Steve Guyger?
MH: Steve is a Philadelphia harp player. He’s joined us on the Blowout tours on the East Coast, but never out here on the West Coast. Rick Estrin pushed really hard to get him and Rich Yescalis out to join up on this particular show, because he says these guys are going to kick everybody’s ass, and if Rick says so I’m sure it’s true. They both have played together with blues man Jimmy Rodgers who played with Muddy Waters and Little Walter. Steve is thought of by many on the East Coast as the best harp player on the East Coast.
NM: Bob Welsh?
MH: Bob Welsh is a great guitar player. Bob has been playing in the blowouts since about 2001, and he’s now Elvin Bishop’s guitar player.
NM: June Core has been playing with you for a long time, right?
MH: June is Charlie Musselwhite’s regular drummer. He was with me at the last Harrah’s show and so was RW, my bass player. I started using June back in ’86. He’s been playing with Charlie for quite some time now. There’s a lot of “musical chairs” in the blues community. June played with me in the ‘80s and with Little Charlie in the ’90s, and has been playing with Musselwhite for about eight years now. Everybody kind of rotates in out of everybody’s groups.
NM: I think in this kind of musical community once you have your chops pretty well worked out, you can slide back and forth with whoever is available.
MH: Ya – that’s like Bob Welsh. He’s played on and off with me since about 2001, but for the last three years he’s been with Elvin Bishop, but that doesn’t mean I stop using him. I use people kind of based on how open their schedules are. The only guy who’s really with me all the time is the bass player, RW Grigsby. He’s a real absolute permanent member in almost every gig I do. Other than that, we all kind of go in and out of others gigs.
NM: That’s what you have to do to survive.
MH: Absolutely, and for rhythm section guys it’s a must. If you’re a bass player or a drummer you better play as many gigs as you can. It’s a lot different than if you’re a guitar player, a singer, or harmonica player, because you’re waiting for someone to call you, whereas the guitarist, singer, or harp player are usually the band leaders and are out getting the gigs. Most rhythm guys have a regular group, like June with Charlie Musselwhite, but you see them out all the time playing with other people. June and Charlie were on my last album, and RW played on the whole thing. This is what we do. This is how we survive. We help each other.
Mark Hummel’s Blues Harmonica Blowout: Bluebird Records Tribute
Artists: Mark Hummel, Billy Boy Arnold, Elvin Bishop, Rick Estrin, Little Charlie Baty, Steve Guyger, Rich Yescalis, Bob Welsh, June Core and R.W. Grigsby
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 3
Where: Harrah’s Lake Tahoe South Shore Room
Bluebird Records was a division of RCA created in 1932 to satisfy the need for ‘cheap’ recordings. Bluebird became one of the best selling ‘cheap’ labels of the 1930s and early 1940s. In the 1930s, Bluebird recorded popular dance music, country, blues and jazz, as well as reissuing jazz, gospel and blues items previously released on Victor. Many blues artists were brought to the label by talent scout and record producer Lester Melrose, who had a virtual monopoly on the Chicago blues market. The records were recorded cheaply and quickly, often using a regular pool of Chicago musicians including Big Bill Broonzy, Roosevelt Sykes, Tampa Red, Washboard Sam and Sonny Boy Williamson. They produced a characteristic small band style which became known as the “Bluebird sound” and which, when electric amplification was added, became hugely influential on R&B and early rock and roll records. However, Bluebird all but ceased making blues records in 1942. (courtesy of Wikipedia)