Monday, April 21, 2008

Strange Brew In The Midnight Hour

The first harmonica notes that struck a chord with me, when I was about 11 years old, were from John Lennon's opening licks on "Love Me Do". Matter of fact, several of the early Beatles hits had harmonica highlights featured within the songs, but that first single had something bluesy going on with it. Their music didn't really grab me, but I was 11 and these were predominantly love songs that they were cranking out and I didn't want to hold anyone's hand. The 11 year old girls in the country made sure that they overshadowed every musical act on the planet, including Elvis (of course, by then Elvis was a movie star singing such pap as "It's Now or Never"). Those harp riffs did catch my attention, though.

I'm pretty sure that the first blues song that I ever heard was recorded by the Rolling Stones (the Beatles Evil Twin) and came blaring across the AM radio airwaves from Houston's KILT. I think I was on the crest of turning into a teenager when Mick Jagger sang "I'm a king bee/Buzzing around your hive", so its testosterone laced message resonated a little more than "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah" and Mick was kicking it a little more in the harmonica department. They were also covering Willie Dixon songs, which of course we were completely clueless about at the time. My interest with the harmonica commenced then.

What I thought would be a simple sound to re-create never found its way out of my newly acquired Hohner Marine Band harmonica. It turned out to be an excellent model harp to learn the music on, but I could just not do it. Oh, it was easy to get going with the pamphlet of standard tunes that came with every harmonica, such as "Oh, Suzanna", "On Top of Old Smokey", "Red River Valley", etc...Even those, though, I could not coax single notes from the harp, so I played them as chords. I wore some of those tunes out and grew impatient and eventually gave up on trying. I knew no one who played the instrument, and certainly, since I couldn't single out one note, I had no clue about the bluesy sound associated with bending a note, or back then, they called it choking a note. It would be a long, winding road before I ever got serious about playing the harmonica again.

Don't know for sure, but I have a theory that forced school integration coincided with blues artists beginning to cross over to "white" radio top 40 formats. I just know that just about the time that we integrated schools, when I was in the eighth grade, that Slim Harpo's "Scratch My Back" was getting pretty regular play, along with Jimmy Reed's stuff. I loved it, especially since the harmonica was featured prominently with these guys. I had no clue that James Moore was Slim Harpo's real name and that James Moore wrote some of the songs that I thought were the Rolling Stones, and it really didn't matter. I really didn't know what blues music was, but I was beginning to get a feel for what it was all about and it was all about feeling. Meanwhile, the Stones headed down the road of rock, covering Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly more often than the bluesmen that inspired them early on and they lost me for awhile when they wanted it "painted black".

Staying with my integration theory: R&B, Motown, and Soul began to become quite popular with us Anglos. These were some cats that could really, really sing and the music was meant to dance, dance, dance to along with such songs as Wilson Pickett's "Midnight Hour". A party without Wilson Pickett on the turntable was a travesty. This, to me, was what eventually segued into Disco in the '70s, but back then local bands had to know this stuff to survive.

There were some great bands that played the area frequently, sometimes booked into our teen dances. Roy Head and Traits, who had a fairly major R&B hit with "Treat Her Right" and BJ Thomas and the Triumphs, prior to "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head", were major draws. But the fledgling band that played a number of our "Sock Hops" and really impressed us was the Moving Sidewalks which was Houston's answer to the Thirteenth Floor Elevators and featured the stellar guitar slinging of Billy Gibbons (he of ZZTop fame) and they threw down the blues filtered through pschodelic lenses. It was about this time that I asked for a guitar as a gift, which I flailed on for about a year and my persistant impatience had me give up on the notion of mastering it, so I put it down (still have it, though).

The first LP record that I ever bought was Fresh Cream, by more of those English that were enamored with the blues. Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Jack Bruce took the blues off the shelf, dusted it off, and blasted it into the stratosphere. The album was chock full of blues covers and rock magazine interviews with Clapton began to straighten me out as to what was what with the blues. Now, I could add Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, and Skip James to Slim Harpo and Jimmy Reed to my list of artists who's albums I wanted to find--an impossibly back then in small town Texas, but the Englishmen's efforts were readily available. There second album veered into the pschodelic and experimental realm of rock, but Clapton was still throwing Albert King licks into songs like "Strange Brew". Refused to buy anything after their Disraeli Gears.

I had the same experience when Jimi Hendrix hit the scene. He could crank out some kind of extraordinaire blues and then lose me--but "Red House" always kept me riveted and Led Zeppelin held my interest for a couple of albums and moved on without me.

By the time I left for college, I had yet to own or know anyone who own an record by an true-to-life, real deal, bluesman. Anyway--next up SRV, Thunderbirds, and Cosmic Cowboys.

No comments: