When the blues had a baby and they called it rock ’n’ roll, the harmonica was almost thrown out with the bath water .
Guitar emerged as the nation’s most popular instrument in the 1960s, and it has stayed on top even as rock music sometimes fades from the spotlight. Mark Hummel, however, continues to be a champion for harmonica, an underdog of an instrument, diminutive and difficult to understand.
“Harmonica has always been the red-headed step-child compared to the guitar,” said Hummel, who since 1991 has presented the world’s greatest harp players with his Blues Harmonica Blowout tours. “With the guitar you can see the guy’s fingers moving. When you play harmonica, your hands are cupped over it. People can’t see it, so they don’t take it quite as seriously. The mystery was what attracted me to it. I wanted to figure it out.”
Hummel traded a six-pack for a harmonica lesson from a friend who sent him home with a James Cotton record. He continued to investigate the mystery.
“The first guys I saw live were (the duo) Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee,” he said. “Then I heard Sonny Boy (Williamson), then I heard Little Walter. The first two definitely had an effect on me. But when I heard Little Walter it really sent me. It was an all-out quest after that.”
Hummel has played professionally since the 1970s and he perhaps gained his greatest honors in 2014 when he received two Blues Music Awards and was nominated for a Grammy Award for producing and playing upon the album “Remembering Little Walter.”
Jazz Gillum featured harmonica on records in the 1930s and in the ’40s Sonny Boy Williamson was the first to incorporate harmonica with a full blues band. They both “bended” notes, a technique called second position, which created a blues’ – and later rock ’n’ roll – sound. Then Little Walter put his harmonica up to a microphone.
“By amplifying the harmonica Little Walter really did almost give it a saxophone sound,” Hummel said. “From 1952-56 he was the harmonica player everybody aspired to be. Every Chicago blues band needed harmonica.”
Little Walter was murdered when he was 37 years old.
“He is the equivalent on the harmonica as to Charlie Parker on saxophone and Jimi Hendrix on guitar,” Hummel said.
Parker and Hendrix also died prematurely.
Besides extraordinary musicianship, Hendrix was the quintessential showman, playing guitar behind his head and with his teeth before lighting it on fire. Two of today’s showiest harmonica players are part of Mark Hummel’s Blues Harmonica Blowout, Rick Estrin and Steve Guyger.
The quick-witted and wise-cracking Estrin wears thick-rimmed glasses, a nice suit and his hair in a pompadour. He can play harmonica with no hands. Saturday’s show will be a rare reunion show with Estrin and guitarist Little Charlie Baty. Little Charlie and the Nightcats performed for more than 30 years.
Guyger played almost 15 years with blues great Jimmy Rogers. A Philadelphia resident who also can play without using his hands, the 62 year old rarely appears in Northern California.
“He’s a helluva player,” Hummel said. “He’s ambidextrous. He can flip the harmonica and play it backwards. I’ve never seen that before.”
Joining the players at Tahoe will be 79-year-old Billy Boy Arnold, who as a teenager performed with Bo Diddley on Chicago sidewalks. He also played on Diddley’s first record and was on the first blues recording with an electric bass guitar.
Arnold was 12 years old when he knocked on Sonny Boy Williamson’s door.
“I asked how you play ‘wa wa wa;’ now they call in bending the notes but back in the day they called it choking. I was already inspired when I first heard his records. I didn’t necessarily want to be a professional, I just wanted to know if I could do that. I had two lessons before his untimely death.”
(To read more about Billy Boy Arnold, see related Tahoe Onstage article here.)
Mark Hummel’s Blues Harmonica Blowout
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
2015 Blues Music Award Nominees who will appear Jan. 3 at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe
Traditional Blues Album
“The Hustle is Really On” – Mark Hummel
Album– Elvin Bishop
Contemporary Blues Album
“Can’t Even Do Wrong Right” – Elvin Bishop
Contemporary Blues Male Artist
B.B. King Entertainer
Elvin Bishop Band
Rick Estrin & the Nightcats