Friday, May 9, 2008

Sam Myers

I mentioned "In the Beginning", the post that kicks off this blog, that I intended to resurrect some of my articles that I wrote for long defunct publications or websites. This would be one of them. Back then, Blues Access was one of three major blues magazines on the market. It was put out by Cary Wolfson and managed by Leland Rucker as a labor of love that eventually just got too expensive to operate successfully. I'll always be beholding to these two guys for agreeing to publish my article on Sam Myers.

To me, Sam was one of the few authentic blues harmonica players still alive and doing it well at the time (he lost the battle with cancer a couple of years ago before he had much of a chance to enjoy the success of his highly aclaimed solo album, Coming From the Old School). I'd read very few articles about Sam over the years and wondered why he wasn't in print more than he was. There were articles that featured Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets with quotes from Sam, but not a whole lot more. I really had no plans of writing anything the night that I went to catch Anson and the band until the opportunity just presented itself:

A couple, a bartender and another solitary figure on a barstool were the only other occupants when we walked into the room. It's true that the first freezing temperatures of the season are rolling into Bryan, Texas, but I expected to find a few more bodies in the warm Third Floor Cantina less than an hour before Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets' scheduled performance.

But I immediately recognized the hulking figure on the barstool as Funderburgh's front man and harmonicist, Sam Myers. As a harp player, I wanted a chance to talk with him, but my initial attempts at establishing a dialogue were met with clipped, bored answers like, "yeah","uh huh" and "that's right". I felt as if maybe I shouldn't bother him before his gig, turned away to my traveling companion and told him how Myers once played drums with Elmore James.

"Elmore James and I go way back," Myers interrupted. "I knew all those guys that played back then." (Myers is legally blind, but his hearing is acute). And thus began a conversation with a most articulate musician. We talked harmonicas; he now prefers the Hohner Masterklasse to his old workhorse, the Hohner Marine Band. Part of the reason is that he feels the company uses different wood to make them today than it used to, and he says the more expensive Meisterklasse allows him to change out reed plates if a reed goes bad instead of replacing the entire instrument.

We talked equipment. Sam plays his harp through a pair of Fender Bassman amplifiers that have a short patch cable connecting the two together and it gives him a rich stage sound. He expained that the amp series provides the best tone for him. We discussed his old Astatic microphone that he blows through with a tongue-blocking technique, and he seem perplexed that I was interested in his harp playing and his methods. "I just blow, man," he said.

When I tried to explain that other players would want to know how he get those nice fat single notes, he said that they should know how to do that already. I said, yea, they did, but they are always interested in knowing how the masters do it. He listened to the rest of my harp questions, but it became apparent that he prides himself foremost as a singer: his business card sports a flaming harmonica logo, but the only words on the card are "Blue Singer Extraordinaire".

Throughout the evening's performance he lived up to his billing. He went from crooning and phrasing words in a style that would make a Sinatra fan take notice to full-throated roars that resurrected the ghost of Big Joe Turner. As Funderburgh's shuffles took us to Texas and points in between, Myers' harp and vocals led us over to the Delta and up to Chicago. He deserves to be mentioned alongside Little Walter and Big Walter and both Sonny Boys for his harp style and tone, and Little Milton, Bobby Bland and B.B. King for his vocal dynamics.

"My first musical instruments were trumpet and drums," he said. "I didn't pick up a harmonica until much later, sometime in my twenties. I never did appreciate harmonicas as much as I did horns."

Myers was born in Laurel, Mississippi in 1938 and attended the Piney Woods County Line Schools. "I chose music and played horn in the band and sang in the choir. We sang gospel and other types of music. We formed the men's chorus and sang in quartets and other groups. This is where I learned my voice training."

Myers began playing harmonica after hearing it on records and liking the sound. "I was way into music. I went out and bought a bunch of harmonicas," he said. "They were plastic ones--they didn't have metal ones around. So I tried blowing until I could match the key on the records and learned to play. Since they were easy to carry, I decided that was the way to go. I don't have any heroes that influenced me or anything like that. Little Walter and Big Walter and Sonny Boy, we all came up together doing our thing. So they never were really heroes or anything, I was doing the same thing that they were," said Myers.

He began visiting Chicago as far back as 1949 and witnessed first-hand the nascent sound that became known as Chicago blues. "The first band I got together was when I went to Chicago and formed the Windy City Six," he said. "When the army got most of those guys, I got back with Elmore."

It was Myers' harp that flavored James' rendition of "Look Over Yonder Wall" and his drumming that drove "Shake Your Moneymaker". He toured with James' bands for almost 16 years in the 1950s and '60s. "We played throughout the South on the "Chitlin Circuit" and everywhere else. I didn't just record and play with Elmore. We ran together and were close friends. It would take a couple of hours to tell you all the things that Elmore and I got into together," he said. "He was just a regular guy, like anybody else. We used to own a whiskey still and I'll tell you what we mostly made. We made mostly rye. You make rye from rye seed, just like you make corn liquor from corn.

"I played on a lot of Elmore's stuff. People will ask me sometimes, 'Is that your beat, man that's good stuff?' I'll say, yeah, 'I put that beat in there', but, you know, it's not a big deal."

In Jackson, Mississippi, Myers began fronting and playing harp for King Mose and the Royal Rockers. Drummer Mose led them around Mississippi, Louisiaana and Arkansas in the late '50s and early '60s. He remembers recording "Sleeping in the Ground"/"My Love is Here to Stay" in 1957 for Johnny Vincent's Ace logo and "You Don't Have to Go"/"Sad, Sad Lonesome Day" in 1960 for Bobby Robinson's Fury Records with this group.

"Sleeping in the Ground" has been covered by other artists, including Eric Clapton, but it has yielded little profits for author Myers. "I didn't make anything off Eric Clapton's recording. Oh, yeah, they paid money for it. I didn't get any of it, but somebody did. I didn't sell my rights. Whoever ran the publishing company would put their name on it and get paid for it. I wrote it and got nothing. I'll tell you something else. They have something that they call public domain. They say that if a song is old enough, it belongs to the public and anyone can record it. I think that's bullshit!"

From 1979 to 1982, Myers fronted the Mississippi Delta Blues Band and recorded for the TJ label out of Palo Alto, California. "Most of those guys were from California. I was the only one in the group from Mississippi," he said. "We toured all over the place. We toured Europe and just about everywhere else."

He was playing with Robert Jr. Lockwood about the time he met up with Anson Funderburgh during a recording session. "Yeah, I go way back with Robert Jr. Lockwood. We are very close friends, and we played a lot together through the years," said Myers. "No one can back a harmonica player like Robert Jr. Lockwood. He and Jimmy Rogers are the only ones left that can really do it like it used to be done.

"Robert Jr. was the one that made it happen on record with Sonny Boy and Little Walter and those guys. He and Luther Tucker could really back up those guys. He brought the jazz guitar into the blues, and it really fit. He can teach guitar and he can play any style that you want. Most people don't appreciate how good Robert Jr. Lockwood is on his own. I saw Robert Jr. back in October. He is doing OK. His wife, Annie, had recently passed on," said Myers. (Robert Jr. Lockwood died this past year).

The room was beginning to fill up, and several people, recognizing Myers, wanted to schmooze. He turned away no admirers, especially a young Hispanic lady that had traveled four hours just to see Sam sing and play. She got her picture taken with him, and Myers, a natural emcee with remarkable charm on stage, returned the favor by mentioning how honored he was by her dedication to the band during his patter with the audience.

When somebody asked if he could buy him a drink, Myer's reply suggested that he looks after his health these days: he requested a diet cola. His song, "I Done Quit Getting Sloppy Drunk", took on a more autobiographical meaning. "Oh, no, I was never much of a drinker--even in my younger day," he said. "I've got to watch my blood sugar level."

Speaking about an impending tour to France, Myers speaks wistfully about the times he had toured Europe and how much they like their blues overseas. "Yeah, they treat bluesmen real nice over there. They respect the music much more than they do here in the States. If you get canceled out when you get to a club or something over there, they'll take care of you. They'll make sure and see that you have a place to stay and see that your are looked after. They know that you are a long way from home. I'll tell you one other thing. Those European women look after their men. They'll go to work and feed you and you can stay at the house. So, if you are a lazy man, it is a good place to be," he said.

Hooking up with Funderburgh and the Rockets has allowed Myers the chance to receive the recognition that he has long deserved. He took to the road with the Rockets after they recorded My Love is Here to Stay in 1985, and the chemistry continued unabated. Their latest collaboration is a celebration of that union, That's What They Want, on Black Top Records. They stay on the road constantly, their styles have meshed beautifully and the critics annually claim the Rockets as being one of the best live bands on the circuit.

"I wish we could stay out there all the time," Myers admitted. "I like traveling and I don't really care about living in Dallas. I moved there to be close to the band. Colorado is one place I don't like to go to and we keep going back there because Anson's wife is from there."

To cold? "No, the air makes it hard for me to breathe."

So, does he go out and jam around Dallas' busy blues scene when he has time off?

"No, I don't go out jamming like a lot of fellows do. I'll go out and check out some friends and hang out. I'll sing sometimes when asked, but I don't play any harmonica. I don't go around with harmonicas in my pocket or anything like that. The only time I play harp is with Anson."

OKAY--There you have it. I could have gone through the article and updated it with things like; Black Top Records not existing any longer and that Sam and crew recorded several other efforts since this was written, but I decided to simply re-type it as it was written in Blues Access #33, warts and all.

We lost a good one when Sam Myers died and he'll be tough to replace, but Anson is still plying his trade as one of the best in the business. I know that he has featured John Nemeth and Darrell Nulisch on harp and vocals for a few gigs and saw that he's even featuring James Harman at an upcoming festival.

Jeff Horton has a website that is still up at and he published a biography about Sam last year. Check there for more details. Anyway--


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the best article I've seen on Sam Myers. After hearing What They Want, I realized Sam was face to face and just as tall as Muddy. Sam has the only harp tone that ever stayed with me. And thanks for describing his rig! I'm just now learning blues harp and I want to get as close to his heavy, worn and rich sound as I can. I'm also glad you mentioned his time with horns. Sure did inform his harp. Anyway, thanks for this beautiful tribute.
Rick Hart, a songwriter

Ricky Bush said...

Hey Rick--

Thanks for the comments. Yeah, chatting with Sam Myers was definitely a really special moment in my life. Those experiences are far and few between. Anyway--