Blues Survivors: Mark Hummel’s band blasts Bluesdays

Tahoe Onstage

Mark Hummel, drummer Wes Starr & The Blues Survivors play Bluesdays at The Village at Squaw Valley.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage photos

Failing to give credit where credit is due gives Mark Hummel the blues.

Hummel is a contemporary harmonica artist who will paid homage to Little Walter Jacobs with his band The Blues Survivors on a tour that began Tuesday, July 2, at Squaw Valley’s Bluesdays.

“Little Walter was the guy who made the harmonica a must-have instrument in the blues,” Hummel told Tahoe Onstage. “When Little Walter came along, all of sudden everybody wanted a harmonica in their blues band. You couldn’t even work in Chicago as a blues band unless you had a harmonica.”

Rough city, tough man: Little Walter died in 1968 at the age of 37, possibly due to internal injuries after a fight on the South Side of Chicago.

Chicago was a landing site of the Great Migration, and was the hub of the blues in the 1950s and ’60s. It featured amplified music that began acoustically in the Mississippi Delta. Artists included Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Rush, B.B. King and Magic Sam. Others came up from Louisiana, including Buddy Guy, Lonnie Brooks and Little Walter.

“For being such a famous guy, there wasn’t all that much known about him,” Hummel said.

However, Little Walter is well known for his innovated musicianship on the harp, a sweet voice and many great songs that became blues standards: “My Babe,” “Mellow Down Easy,” “Blues with a Feeling” and “Boom Boom.”

Little Walter died in 1968 at the age of 37, possibly due to internal injuries after a fight on the South Side of Chicago. He was played by actor Columbus Short in the 2008 movie “Cadillac Records” as a violent, hot-tempered man.

“Walter was a troubled guy, there’s no doubt about that,” Hummel said. “But I don’t think he was that guy how he was portrayed in that movie. There’s no proof that he shot anybody. That’s kind of bogus. Everybody carried a gun in Chicago. I am sorry but that was the norm in Chicago. The way that pictures get painted on people is sometimes very unfair. But he had an extremely hard life. That’s why he played the blues like he did.

“Billy Boy Arnold and Charlie Musselwhite both knew Walter really well and neither of those guys claim that Walter had a bad temper. They said he had a drinking problem, but they said he was very nice to them.”

Another misconception is that Little Walter was the first to cup his hands around a harmonica and a microphone that was plugged into an amplifier. Hummel says it was likely Sonny Boy Williams, although Snooky Pryor said he did it first.

“The originators sometimes get overlooked, and that upsets me,” Hummel said. “Because they created something that was so beautiful and so pure. It’s sort of like people acting as if Elvis Presley or Jimi Hendrix came out of thin air. All of these people got what they got by listening to people that I like. Nowadays, people think that Stevie Ray Vaughan invented this music and he would be the last guy to turn around and say that.”

In 2013, Hummel produced “Remembering Little Walter,” which featured himself and fellow harp players Musselwhite, Arnold, James Harman and Sugar Ray Norcia. It received a Grammy nomination and won Blues Music Awards for Album of the Year and Best Traditional Blues Album.

One of the guitarists on the album was Nathan James, who will play on the tour that stops at Squaw Valley. Bassist R.W. Grigsby also played on the album and will be on the tour. Rusty Zinn will play guitar and Wes Starr is on drums.

“I never get tired of playing Little Walter’s music,” Hummel said. “It’s a thrill for me to do those songs, especially when you’ve got a great band like who I am bringing on this tour. You’ve got the two guitar players who can really play off of each other.

“It’s a beautiful thing to be able to play those songs with a band like that. Little Walter was the king of amplified harmonica.”

 — Tim Parsons

  • Bluesdays
    6 -8:30 p.m. Tuesdays
    The Village at Squaw Valley
    June 18 — Roy Rogers & The Delta Rhythm Kings
    June 25 — Vanessa Collier
    July 2 —  Mark Hummel & The Blues Survivors
    July 9 — Christone “Kingfish” Ingram
    July 16 — Danielle Nicole
    July 23 — Coco Montoya
    July 30 — Chris Cain
    Aug. 6 — Sugar Ray Rayford
    Aug. 13  — Jimmy Thackery & The Drivers
    Aug. 20 — Dennis Jones Band
    Aug. 27 — Honey Island Swamp Band
    Sept. 3 — Popa Chubby

    Tim Parsons / Tahoe OnstageThe Blues Survivors

    Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

    Bassist R. W. Grigsby

    Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

    Nathan James and Wes Starr

    Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

    Rusty Zinn

    Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

    Mark Hummel

About Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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