Best harmonica songs ever written?
July 21, 2007 6:47 PM   Subscribe

What are the best harmonica songs ever written/performed and where can I find them?

I have to admit, as much as I think I know a thing or two about music, I have very little familiarity with this instrument. I have enjoyed moments from folky Bob Dylan, to the Yardbirds, to early Led Zeppelin to late Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, but I don't recall enough good moments in between to be able to reconstruct the canon of the mouth harp, or else identify the instrument's Segovia, its Hendrix. Does it exist somewhere?
posted by Tommy Gnosis to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I couldn't name a particular Little Walter song, but he was cream of the crop. Kim Wilson did a pretty good Little Walter impersonation on the early Fabulous Thunderbirds albums, too. Or try James cotton. Sorry, no individual songs, but you could pick for yourself from the above and be doing well. Or maybe it's just me, but I think the harmonica reached its apogee in American Blues.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:52 PM on July 21, 2007

In terms of sheer proficiency, I don't think anyone can top John Popper, of Blues Traveler. Their one really big hit, "Run Around", shows a little of his absolutely amazing ability.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 6:59 PM on July 21, 2007

This might not be exactly what you're looking for, but recently I had the pleasure of attending a night of British film music at the BBC Proms. One of their selections was music from the film Genevieve, which featured a harmonica solo by Philip Achille that brought the house down (seriously, it was incredible, and he got a couple of standing ovations). Anyway, according to the IMDB, the original harmonica player was Larry Adler, who apparently was a great harmonica player. He might be a good place to start looking for the Segovia or Hendrix of harmonica players.
posted by dropkick queen at 7:16 PM on July 21, 2007

Seconding John Popper.
posted by futility closet at 7:54 PM on July 21, 2007

Stevie Wonder bops some harmonica, particularly "Fingertips." Toots Thielemans "Bluesette" is a well-known standard, and Toots might well be your "Segovia of the mouth organ."
posted by paulsc at 8:08 PM on July 21, 2007

Yea, the Israeli Adler Trio had been playing for over 40 years, and covered many of the tunes you are looking for
posted by growabrain at 8:47 PM on July 21, 2007

John Popper's good technically, but there are far better musicians who are harp blowers, IMHO.

Check out Kim Wilson's solo stuff (I believe he's the only white blues man whose singing and harp-blowing Muddy Waters ever praised). When I first stumbled across That's Life, I played the shit out of it.

You might also check out Charlie Musselwhite. I'm not a fan of his singing as much, but the man blows a mean fucking harp. In addition to his solo career, he's played with the likes of Tom Waits and The Blind Boys of Alabama. His blowing on "Filipino Box Spring Hog" is the musical equivalent of barbecue and bourbon. Good stuff.

James Cotton, Sonny Boy Williamson. Jimmy Rogers. Little Walter. Pretty much everybody on this list.
posted by middleclasstool at 9:00 PM on July 21, 2007

I don't know much about harmonica myself, but I caught a documentary last year about the making of this George Gershwin tribute album. They had a segment of Larry Adler playing "Rhapsody in Blue," and it was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen. Previously I'd thought of a harmonica as a catchy sort of rhythm instrument, but he coaxed sounds out of that thing that blew my mind. It was like watching a master violinist.
posted by web-goddess at 9:03 PM on July 21, 2007

Look into the recordings of Larry Adler.

One of the strangest, perhaps one of the strangest ever made, is his recording of "Rhapsody in Blue", accompanied by George Gershwin on piano. Gershwin was actually already dead, but he had recorded a piano roll of the piece. Adler got a copy of the piano roll, and used tape to cover up the holes of the melody line. He then performed the melody on harmonica as the modified piano roll place on a player-piano. (I believe he did the same thing for "An American in Paris".)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:03 PM on July 21, 2007

[Rats. Race condition.]
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:06 PM on July 21, 2007

Check last year's Awesome Harmonica Songs? thread. I'll repeat my recommendation there of War and its harmonica player Lee Oskar's first solo record.

identify the instrument's Segovia, its Hendrix

The Segovia and Hendrix of harmonica? There's only one choice, mentioned twice above - Little Walter:

Who's the king of all postwar blues harpists, Chicago division or otherwise? Why, the virtuosic Little Walter, without a solitary doubt. The fiery harmonica wizard took the humble mouth organ in dazzling amplified directions that were unimaginable prior to his ascendancy. His daring instrumental innovations were so fresh, startling, and ahead of their time that they sometimes sported a jazz sensibility, soaring and swooping in front of snarling guitars and swinging rhythms perfectly suited to Walter's pioneering flights of fancy.

This album is a great place to start:

These are the recordings that changed the sound and style of blues harmonica forever, and everyone who came after him was as influenced by him as jazz saxophonists were by Charlie Parker.

I also really like the second Sonny Boy Williamson. Check tracks 4 and 12 on this mind-blowingly good blues harmonica album.
posted by mediareport at 10:20 PM on July 21, 2007

bruce springsteen - simple but great
posted by edtut at 12:13 AM on July 22, 2007

On the licking stick ... Mr Magic Dick
posted by alloneword at 12:51 AM on July 22, 2007

Sonny Boy Williamson is the cream of the crop for blues. He was a master of building a song's intensity. I recommend Keep it to Yourself.

For sheer harmonica virtuosity, Howard Levy, formerly of The Flecktones, and Carlos Del Junco will blow your mind.

Corky Siegel does some great stuff.

Lee Oskar, formerly of War, is also a fine player, if a little whitebread in some's opinion. He even sells his own line of fine harps. Many say his are better than Hohners.
posted by wsg at 2:04 AM on July 22, 2007

I thought John Sebastian Sr., 1st harmonica player to play Carnegie Hall (ref?) was the Segovia of harmonica.
posted by MtDewd at 6:37 AM on July 22, 2007

Charlie Musselwhite, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Cotton. Believe it or not, Magic Dick from the J.Geils Band is actually pretty damned good.
posted by jonmc at 7:38 AM on July 22, 2007

I don't know as much as I'd like to about blues harmonica, but I can second Howard Levy. I really enjoyed his playing in Sinister Minister on the Flecktones' Live Art album.

For something different, you might be interested in Ralph Vaughan Williams's Romance for Harmonica, Strings, and Piano.
posted by musicinmybrain at 8:25 AM on July 22, 2007

Orange Blossom Special by Johnny Cash, I have no clue who plays the harp but its fun.

Of course get all the blues guys. Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson II in particular. Get thier Chess collections.


George Harmonica Smith
James Cotton
Junior Wells
Lazy Lester
Howlin Wolf
Slim Harpo
Billy Boy Arnold
Jimmy Reed
Sonny Terry

Modern blues guys that are pretty good include:

William Clarke
Kim Wilson
Rod Piazza
Rick Estrin
Charlie Musselwhite
James Harman
posted by 4Lnqvv at 9:38 AM on July 22, 2007

Sister Hazel!
posted by trim17 at 12:33 PM on July 22, 2007

Probably like a lot of people, I started trying to play the harmonica because I wanted to sound like Sonny Boy Williamson on the King Biscuit Time album. In my mind, the whole album is well worth a listen if you're looking for the best blues harmonica. And while that style is what I love, Deford Bailey blew my mind the first time I heard him play. You'll swear there were 3 or more harmonica players on the recording sometimes, but it's just Deford going crazy with his tongue. He's got an interesting history, including being the first african-american performer on the Grand Ole Opry. I think it was in "Harps, Harmonicas, and Heavy Breathers" that it mentioned that Bailey recorded under his name for the black labels and under a different name for the music labels aimed at white audiences, as one of the first african-americans to enjoy popularity across the racial divide of music at the time. That book, by the way, is a fantastic history of the instrument and its most famous players. Very fun to read if you're into that sort of thing.
posted by msbrauer at 4:04 PM on July 22, 2007

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