There were limited publications on the market for the harmonica player, relative to any other musical instrument. The American Harmonica News Magazine was just about it and Al Eichler and his editor Phil Lloyd produced it as a labor of love and almost as a service for us harp players. They happily accepted article submissions from just about anyone that had something to share with the harmonica public. I began to submit music reviews and such to them and did so for a long period of time. I felt that I was becoming a part of this community that found importance in the instrument and it opened doors to interviews with real live harp guys.
I began to feel that I was finding my way around the blues harp pretty well and felt that I was getting it down. What I lacked was any feedback from other harp players telling me that I was or was not. In the Eddie C. Campbell post, I detailed my first experience playing amplified harp from a stage in front of people. Here I was, on stage with "Real Deal" Chicago bluesmen playing Little Walter's Blues With A Feeling to a bunch of Aggies who had no idea who Little Walter was or for that matter Eddie C. Campbell. They were just in a club in downtown Bryan, Texas to have a good time and Eddie C was giving it to 'em. They gave me a big whoop for my efforts and the compliments from the band, including the harp player Mark Cihlar convinced me that maybe I could do this thing.
I had no amplifier nor microphone nor band to play it with, so I didn't exactly rush out shopping. Then, out of the blue (or blues), a guitarist by the name of Craig Watts called me and asked about my harmonica playing. I forget who told him that I played, but he was working some things up with a singer/guitarist from over in Giddings with thoughts of getting a blues band together. He invited me to drop by his house and do a little jamming.
Craig had a little shack in back of his house that served as his musical woodshed and when I dropped by he had the "Holy Grail" of harp amps sitting in there for me to play. I didn't know a lot about amplifiers that were conducive for coaxing good harp tones, but I had read and researched enough to know that an original '59 Fender Bassman was among the cream of that tonal crop. I didn't have a mic, so I blew through what I remember as being a Shure 58 vocal mic and we played a rather subdued volume--so the Bassman wasn't really whomping the tone that day (I did blow through it with a JT30 on a subsequent trip and the first note that I hit proved the hype was true). After the little backyard meeting, Craig invited me back over for a jam party attended by musician friends from Austin and the local area, one of those being Virgil Brawley. Can't remember the Giddings' vocalist/guitarist first name, but his last name was McBride and he was pretty talented, but it was Virgil's singing that impressed me the most.
Prior to this little jam session, local guitar hero Neil Kulhanek sold me my first amplifier to get me on the tone road which I mentioned in the post called Chasing Down Tone. Neil is pretty close to my age and has been playing anything that has strings attached to it and doing it very well since he was an adolescent and has been playing professionally just about as long with just about everybody. We got to know each other when his Mom babysat my daughters for years. Today, when he is not working his bank job, he's leading the blues/classic rock trio, Neil and the Real Deal. Anyway, it was Neil that encouraged me to drag the amp out to a downtown Brenham club called Patios on a Thursday night and participate in a jam hosted by himself, Sam Murski (local guitar hero II) and Robert Zientek (local guitar hero III). So, I began to ease out into the world of jamming on stage. I still needed a decent harp mic and was invited by my high school principal to take three mics that I found in a storeroom. The best of the bunch was a Shure 545 with a Turner 254 desk mic (which I cut off its stand) running a close second. The Turner worked well until its element died (it now houses a nice crystal element).
Patios' jam nights were extremely friendly affairs and a great deal of what was being played was in the blues category or close to it. Robert Z is an ex-student of mine and he was happy that his ex-teacher was crawling on stage with him. Robert is much younger than Sam and Neal, but he followed along on the same path and was playing professionally while he was in my high school class. Decades of musical experience and talent was on hand directing the jammers. Sam had two bands going at the time called Earlywine, which leaned toward country and the Fireants, which leaned toward classic rock (he has neither today, but his recent bands have played both my daughter's wedding). Robert's band Route 4 was basically country, but would throw down classic rock when the crowd asked for it. These guys made made me feel way more than welcome and put up with my rookie status. Matter of fact, if another harp player wasn't in the house, then they kept me on stage. I wasn't that good, I hit the right notes most of the time, but ran out of ideas quickly and my tone needed mentoring and I needed a better harp amp (achieved and recount under the amps and thangs posts--the amp part anyway). I did learn a thing or two from all these guys during those days. Sam and Neil have allowed me to swap licks with their bands many times over the years.
During this same period Virgil Brawley and Craig "Bonehead" Watts began putting together the first incarnation of the Juvenators, which became the only band devoted strictly to playing blues within 50 miles of my house. I think that Virgil nicknamed Craig for his affinity towards T Bone Walker's stuff. Rounding out the initial core in this band was local veterans Jimmy Bernick on bass and Doug McCord on the drum kit and they also ran with a third guitarist from LaGrange whose name escapes me right now. He eventually slid away from them. An outstanding saxman, Cameron Scott, sat in frequently. They began booking clubs around Brenham, Somerville, Navasota, Giddings, College Station, etc...These guys were really turning into a good blues band. The best part was that they allowed me to sit in with them just about anytime that I wanted to do so. I still had a lot to learn, but I was doing just that. Washington County, Texas isn't made up of a plethora of blues fanactics, but they were beginning to catch on to what the Juvenators were laying down. The crowds were nowhere near what the established bands in the area could draw playing country music, but they were growing when Doug and Jimmy left the band leaving the Juvenators with an empty bottom.
The Juvenators' kept rolling and managed to get themselves booked at the first Navasota Blues Festival(1996) honoring Mance Lipscomb. Sam Murski's Fireants also were on the bill, so Washington County was well represented at what was a long overdue tribute to one of the masters of the music. Oh, and the fact I just might get to honk on a couple of tunes was exciting.
I met one of the chief organizers of the festival, Richard Chase, who was originally from New York, but had followed Mance around learning his licks back in the day. He was checking out the Fireants at a local gig and we swapped stories and he convinced me to pitch in and help out with the promotional part of the fledgling festival. So, I interviewed and wrote up several of the artist's profiles for the program brochure and I went around Brenham tacking up promotional flyers. I'll get back to the festival story at some other time.
In the meantime, Virgil decided it was high time to move back to Mississippi to be closer to an ailing mother, so the Juvenators disbanded a couple of weeks before the festival. I do think that they would have found an extremely receptive audience, but it wasn't to be. Richard Chase really believed that the acts booked represent a little eclectic spirit because Mance was a songster and not strictly a bluesman. I ended up being talked into opening the show with Allison Crowson, who is a great country crooner and the closest we got to the blues was Patsy Cline's Walking After Midnight. I had to stretch a bit, but I could claim that I played on stage there. (Allison's was an ex-student of mine, who eventually became my assistant pricipal, who eventually joined a band with Sam and played my daughter's wedding.)
The highlight of that first festival was meeting Sonny Boy Terry, who was Houston's premier bluesharp man. I introduced myself as a writer for American Harmonica News Magazine (which I was) with an interest in writing a piece about him (which I did) and we've been close friends every since. Most important for me, though, was that I found out just exactly what seperated me from the BIG BOYS--TONE. Sonny Boy wasn't playing through an amplifier--he was going straight into the p.a. with a vocal mic and from the sound of his very first lick he was putting down exactly what I was missing. He was getting some kind of fat stuff happening and he didn't need an amplifier to do it. Here was the REAL DEAL. I had seen Charlie Musselwhite a couple of years earlier, so I knew what a pro sounded like, but Sonny Boy showed me then and there just how much of a rookie I was. Anyway, 'Nuff for now--
Mighty Sam McClain - When the Hurt is Over
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