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In general, I'm not a fan of Top-10 lists. But the lists below can, I believe, serve several useful functions. For beginning players who might otherwise waste time trying to figure out what good blues harmonica actually is, my lists can help point the way towards the heart of the tradition. For better players, my lists can serve as an incitement to constructive dialogue about what makes a blues harp player great, influential, or essential, rather than merely excellent or professionally competent.
Every Top-10 list is based on criteria, implicit or explicit. Here are mine, in no particular order:
§ORIGINALITY. I call this the three-second test. If you turned on the radio and heard this player, could you tell within three seconds that it was them--assuming you knew their music to begin with? Each player in my Top-10 plainly meets this criterion. (So do all in the Second-10 and a fair number in Honorable Mention.) Your local "traditionalist" pro, whose sound is a not-quite mixture of Little Walter, James Cotton, and Sonny Boy Williamson, doesn't pass this test--although he's an excellent player and is certainly helping keep the tradition alive.) Lurking within what harp players call "tone" is the absolutely individuated voice, if you're lucky enough to develop one. (Jason Ricci, the youngest player in the Top-20, has such a voice. So does Sugar Blue, one of the most strikingly original blues harmonica voices of our time)
§INFLUENCE. Are the players in question central to the tradition of blues harmonica as it has emerged over the past 100+ years? Are they foundational in some way? Do they help modernize, consolidate, or conserve the tradition? Have they spawned imitators, including very good players who never escape their orbit? If you leave them off the list, has an injustice plainly been done? (John Lee Williamson changed the way everybody who came after him played harp. Billy Branch and Sugar Blue are, in very different ways, both the inheritors and modernizers of the Chicago blues harmonica tradition.)
§TECHNICAL MASTERY. Does this player make music at a speed or with a complexity that sets him or her above the rest? (Little Walter in "Back Track" and "Roller Coaster," James Cotton in "Creeper Creeps Again," and Paul Butterfield in "Goin' to Main Street" set a standard here, and Sonny Terry wins admission on the basis of pretty much any thing he's every recorded. Sugar Blue raises the bar yet again. And please don't forget DeFord Bailey.) Or, alternately, does this player have an extraordinary ability to hit the deep blues pitches, especially the so-called "blue third" that I discuss in many of my videos? (Junior Wells exhibits this sort of mastery.)
§SOULFULNESS. In some ways, this criterion should lead things off. We're talking about bluesharmonica, after all, not basket weaving. We're talking about an extraordinarily expressive instrument. The thing it seeks to express is a range of passions and moods, many of them very powerful and a few of them downright ugly. Does this player attack his or her instrument with ferocity that makes you shiver, or jump? Or with a late-night hoodoo-spookiness that makes you feel your own loneliness? Or with some magical combination of all those things that makes you cry? (Howlin' Wolf, despite his narrow range, makes the Top-20 for this reason.)
§RECORDED EVIDENCE. In order to earn a spot on one of the lists below, a player (or the partisans of a player) must be able to convince with the help of recorded evidence. Buddy Bolden was the greatest trumpet player ever to come out of New Orleans, many say, but he never made a recording. Obviously the best and most influential players can't be fully summarized by 10 minutes' worth of vinylized or digitized performances, and some players--John Lee Williamson in particular--don't benefit from this exercise. Still, it has its virtues as a teaching tool and a way of guiding the conversation. If pushed, and if given time to do some additional research, I could supply, for every player below, three recordings that justify their selection. I've mentioned a few of those recordings above; I encourage you to compile your own lists. ("Juke" is one of Little Walter's Big Three; "Whammer Jammer" is Magic Dick's prime cut, but his incredible intro to "Stoop Down #39" also belongs there. Never heard of it? Aha. Lists are useful!) As you argue over my lists--and I hope you'll argue over them, on my blues harp forum and elsewhere--I challenge you to supply those Top 3 recordings for any player you believe deserves higher ranking and/or inclusion. You're convinced that mistakes have been made here? Tell us what we should listen to. Don't just gripe; make your best case by supplying evidence. (Note: please don't make your case to me in an email. Instead, share it with the blues harp forum. I'll be joining the dialogue there from time to time.)
My lists have some quirks. You will notice that neither the Top-10 nor Second-10 list contains a non-American player, or a woman. My British friends will argue that John Mayall deserves a place in one of these lists, and they may be right. My Canadian friends will argue the same thing regarding Carlos del Junco, and they're almost certainly right. So who would you kick off of which list to make room for Mayall or Del Junco? Mayall is clearly one of the Top-10 all-time blues bandleaders, but bandleading and harp playing aren't the same thing. As for Carlos--well, as Jack Benny once said when a holdup man said "You money or your life!," "I'm thinking, I'm thinking. We can argue this one.
As for female players: I'm familiar with the excellent work of Big Mama Thornton, Annie Raines, Cheryl Arena, Christelle Berthon, Big Nancy. Do any of those players meet several of the various criteria I've outlned? If so, whom would you kick off of which list to make space? I've recently had my attention directed to several excellent YT videos by women players headlined "Mulheres Gaitistas"--"Women Harmonica Players." Here's a webpage you should check out: www.myspace.com/mulheresgaitistas
Norman Davis has created the DEFINITIVE website on female harmonica players. It's entitled, not surprisingly, "Hermonicas"
Note: To make it easier for you to familiarize yourself with the players on the lists below, I've created a new webpage entitled "Classic Harmonica Blues," with direct links to Amazon:
I think it's possible that the late Igor Flach, from the former East Germany, is a Top-20 all-time player. He easily meets the originality, technical mastery, soulfulness, and recorded evidence tests.
Here, in any case, are my lists. PLEASE NOTE: Within each list, the players are listed in no particular order. I'm simply giving you two groups of wonderful, original, influential, technically skilled, and soulful players, plus a big helping of harmonica excellence beyond that. If you're a beginner, start by familiarizing yourself with the music of the players on the Top-10 list. And please note: if you click on the hyperlinked artists, you'll be taken to pages where you'll find the artist's recordings, videos, lessons, and more:
TOP-10 ALL-TIME: Little Walter (Jacobs) Big Walter (Horton)
John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson (aka, Sonny Boy I)
Rice Miller (aka Sonny Boy Williamson, Sonny Boy II)
George “Harmonica” Smith
*Since I've put 11 names in the top 10, I'll add an eleventh name to this second list: all of the old-school players who show up on a Yazoo album entitled “Harmonica Blues: Great Harmonica Performances of the 1920s and 30s” including Freeman Stowers, Jed Davenport, Palmer McAbee, Blues Birdhead, and Noah Lewis. If you don't own this album, order it immediately:
HONORABLE MENTION:A WHIMSICAL AND INCOMPLETE LIST OF EXCELLENT BLUES PLAYERS (and the occasional gospel player), SOME OF WHOM ARE MY FRIENDS, ALL OF WHOM DESERVE YOUR ATTENTION:
Rev. Dan Smith, Rory McLeod, Jazz Gillum, Eddie Martin, Taro Senga, Sheldon "Bent Reed" Ziro, Dave Harris, Bonny B., Lyndon Anderson, T. C. Carr, Forest City Joe, Charlie Sayles, Igor Flach, Peg Leg Sam, Phil Wiggins, R.J. Mischo, Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson, Gary Primich, Kid Thomas, Nat Riddles, Billy Gibson, Billy Boy Arnold, Victor "Doors" Puertas, Jim Liban, Jerry Portnoy, Pierre Lacocque, Studebaker John, Flavio Guimaraes, Dr. Isaiah Ross, Paul Harrington, Mark Hummel, Mason Casey, Jerome Godboo, Lee Sankey, Elder Roma Wilson, Rod Piazza, Wade Schuman, Annie Raines, Big Chico, Chris Turner, D.W. Gill, Jean-Jacques Milteau, Paul Jones, Paul Linden, Michael Arlt, John Popper, Carlos del Junco, Paul Oscher, Rick Estrin, Papa Lightfoot, Eddie Martin, John Mayall, Steve Guyger, Steve, Cohen, Mikey Jr., Rob Paparozzi, Dennis Gruenling, Mike Stevens, Curtis Salgado, Greg Szlap, Rainer "Harpface" Sochting, Ben Bouman, Harpdog Brown, Johnny Marino, Madcat Ruth, Joe Filisko, Andy J. Forest, Wayne Rainey, Frank Frost, Johnny Sansone, Paul Orta, Stephane Bertolino, Errol Linton, Slim Harpo, Doug "Joe Lee" Bush, Lee Oskar, Johnny Hoy, Doug Jay, Jerry McCain, Big Harp George Bisharat, Harmonica Hinds, Snooky Pryor, Richard "Rip Lee" Pryor, Eddie Mapp, William Clarke, Wallace Coleman, Omar Coleman, Johnny Dyer, John Nemeth, Rock Bottom, Mark Wenner, Richard Sleigh, Al Price, Jimmy Z(avala), Dan Kaplan, Ron Sorin, Tom Ball, Jimi Lee, BBQ Bob (Maglinte), Juke Logan, Harmonica Shah, David Burgin, Ronnie Shellist, R.J. Harman, Rachelle Plas, Greg Izor, Sugar Ray Norcia, Steve Marriner, Pierre Beauregard, Michael Frank, James Harman, Roly Platt, Son of Dave, Richard "King Biscuit Boy" Newell, Fingers Taylor, Hammie Nixon, Mark DuFresne, Bill Dicey, Deak Harp, Sam Myers, Kim Field, Mitch Kashmar, Norton Buffalo, Nico Wayne Toussaint, Billy Bizor, Charles Pasi, Little Sammy Davis, Steve Baker, Cheryl Arena, Lester Butler, Tad Robinson, Junior Parker, John Hammond, Jr., Taj Mahal, Pat Ramsey, Paul Reddick, Grant Dermody, Paul Lamb, Bob Corritore, Gary Smith, Rio Santa Cruz, Keith Dunn, Mark Ford......
Please note: I have deliberately left myself and my fellow harp-website gurus--David Barrett, Dave Gage, Jon Gindick, Glen Weiser, et. al.--off the Honorable Mention list. Of course we are all fine players and I encourage you to patronize our websites, come to our gigs, purchase our CDs and tabs, join our mailing lists, etc.
Needless to say, the great Howard Levy and Stevie Wonder belong on any Top-10 all-time list of harmonica greats, but I believe it misrepresents and considerably diminishes their talents to frame them as blues harmonica players alone. To consign them to an "honorable mention" slot would be even worse. So I've left them out of this discussion. Levy's Harmonica Jazz and Stevie's "Fingertips" and "Boogie On, Reggae Woman" will always be dear to my heart. Please listen to and learn from them.
Finally, there is the jazz question. I love jazz, I jam along with jazz CDs, and some of my best friends and acquaintances are wonderful jazz harmonica players, including William Galison, Randy Singer, and Chris Michalek. Frederic Yonnet is doing some innovative, genre-defying work. I have neither the knowledge-base nor pressing desire to adjudicate claims about the relative abilities of jazz harmonica players. I'm sure Toots Thielmans belongs in the Top 10, but that's about all I'm sure of. So I'm sidestepping the issue, without guilt. Somebody else should make a list and administer it on a website called Modern Jazz Harmonica. (I know nothing about Irish harmonica, either, or folk harmonica, but I'm sure that guys like Brendan Power and Bob Dylan belong on those Top-10 lists, too. In fact, Brendan belongs on the General All-Around Harmonica God list. If you don't agree...hey, your gods are OK with me.)
Before you go: Here's a 2008 video of Jason Ricci sitting in on a slow blues with the Walter Trout band. This is what originality, technical mastery, and soulfulness look like on the rock-flavored leading edge in our post-9/11 era. If you're an ambitious young cat looking to make your mark on the blues harmonica world, be forewarned: JR's fireworks will put your ego in check.
Another contemporary player of note, and one of the very best, Dennis Gruenling finds fresh sounds on the instrument by looking back towards the hard-swinging side of the jazz-horn tradition and by working the ultra-low harps. Check this out:
Many years ago there was a child prodigy in Japan named Taro Senga. Recently he has resurfaced in a band called Monster. Whew! Here is an uptempo boogie that updates Little Walter's "Juke." Modern Blues Harmonica LOVES this video!: