People often ask me: “Who do you think is the best blues harmonica player?” Well, to start with, any answer is bound to be subjective. One might as well ask an ardent football fan: “Who do you think is the best team in the country?” Different people prefer different styles of playing and have their own personal favourites. Plus, how do you quantify ‘best’? Probably, what most people who ask this question mean is, “Who is the most technically accomplished?” In which case, I have to answer, “I don’t know and don’t really care.”
Some of the modern players – John Popper and Howard Levy, to name but two – have developed a level of technical wizardry that is spellbinding, but, while I am in complete awe of their capabilities, neither has truly moved me in the way that any of the five on this list has. When questioned, I always compare harp players to guitarists. There is no doubting that Stevie Vai and Joe Satriani are far more technically accomplished than, say, Freddie King, Lowell Fulson or Peter Green, yet each of these three has moved me with a single note, played in the right place at the right time, something that messrs Vai and Satriani’s phenomenal, high-speed widdling could not do if I were to listen to it from now till judgement day. The old musical cliché ‘light and shade’ is often neglected or overlooked in the pursuit of groundbreaking technical accomplishments. Personally, when it comes to music, and especially blues, I am more impressed by feel, tone and taste than I am by physical capability, speed of thought or dexterity.
In essence, I suppose I have always been someone who prefers to have his soul stimulated when listening to music rather than his brain. Music that moves me has as much to do with what is not played as it has to do with what is.
So, the main criterion I have employed in selecting my personal all-time top five harp players is how much I have been moved by their playing. I suppose there is also an element of how influential I consider them to be in the development of blues harp playing, though.
Clearly, in the history of blues harp, there have been many, many great players and great characters. Aside from the five I have chosen, I thought it worth listing a few others who have influenced me greatly and whose playing I admire, respect and love… a sort of honourable mention list, if you will. These include: Snooky Pryor, James Cotton, Junior Wells, Jimmy Reed, Carey Bell, George Smith, Slim Harpo, Jerry Portnoy, Charlie Musselwhite, Alan Wilson, Paul Butterfield, Sonny Boy Williamson I, Noah Lewis, Freeman Stowers, DeFord Bailey, George ‘Mojo’ Buford, Dr Ross, Rev Dan Smith, George ‘Bullet’ Williams, Jed Davenport, Jaybird Coleman and Wlliam McCoy. Apologies if I have left out your own particular favourite.
So, here are my five favorite blues harp players, in reverse order:
5) Howlin’ Wolf (1910–1976)
Born Chester Burnett, on 10th June 1910, at White Station, Mississippi, Howlin’ Wolf had one of the most distinctive voices in blues history – a rasping, gravelly style, which he punctuated with his trademark howls. He was taught to play harmonica by Sonny Boy Williamson II, who was married to his half-sister, Mary. Wolf’s playing displayed many of the characteristics of his tutor’s, rhythmic and hard-driving, yet simultaneously wonderfully melodic and tuneful.
4) Sonny Terry (1911–1986)
Born Saunders Terrell, on 24th November 1911, at Greensboro, North Carolina, Sonny Terry lost his sight in his teens and turned to a musical career. He played with delta blues guitarist Blind Boy Fuller. After Fuller’s death in 1941, he formed a long-term partnership with Brownie McGhee. A country blues harp virtuoso, Terry employed the vocal whoops and imitations of trains and fox hunts developed by blues harp pioneers, such as, Jed Davenport and Jaybird Coleman.
3) Walter Horton (1917–1981)
Born on 6th April 1917, at Horn Lake, Mississippi, Walter Horton learned to play blues harp as a young child. He started playing professionally in the 1920s and accompanied many of the leading delta blues musicians of the thirties. A pioneer of the heavily-amplified harp sound associated with the Chicago blues of the 1950s, and venerated for the warmth and richness of his tone, Horton’s recordings for Chess Records are widely regarded as among the best ever made.
2) Little Walter (1930–1968)
Born Marion Jacobs on 1st May 1930, Little Walter was the first harp player to explore the possibilities that overdriven amplification afforded in terms of new timbres and sonic effects. Having moved to Chicago as a teenager, Walter’s reputation spread quickly, earning him a coveted spot in Muddy Waters’ band. His 1950s recordings for Chess Records display the virtuosity and technical innovations that made him, perhaps, the most influential of all blues harp players.
1) Sonny Boy Williamson II (died 1965)
Much of the life of Alex ‘Rice’ Miller, aka Sonny Boy Williamson, is shrouded in mystery. His date of birth ranges from 1893 to 1912, dependent upon to which source one refers. He variously gave his name as Alex (or Aleck) Ford, Willie Miller and Willie Williamson, among others. He hoboed around the south throughout the 1930s, under the name Little Boy Blue, playing with, among others, Robert Johnson, before deciding to use the name of the already-established harmonica player John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson. The original Sonny Boy was murdered in Chicago in 1948, allowing Miller to declare himself the ‘one and only Sonny Boy Williamson’. Sonny Boy went somewhat against the grain during the fifties by favouring a more traditional, non-amplified sound, thus enabling him to retain his trademark wah-wah effect. He travelled to Europe with other legendary blues performers in the early sixties and loved England so much that he stayed on to tour with the Yardbirds and the Animals after the other performers had returned home. He even dressed as an English gent; sporting a tailor-made, harlequin-style, two-tone suit, bowler hat, umbrella and brief case, in which he kept his harps. Among all the tall tales and exaggeration, what is beyond any doubt is that Sonny Boy was a unique entertainer, a truly great harmonica player and a genuine blues legend. Three of Sonny Boy’s recordings – Trust My Baby, You Killing Me and Mighty Long Time – are, to my mind, the most hypnotic, haunting, yet soulful blues harp playing ever recorded.