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Who was the first blues harp player to record?

(Plus a few other blues harp "firsts")

Who was the first blues harp player to record? That depends on what you mean by "blues harp player".

If you mean the first African-American harmonica player to make a record, that is probably Pete Hampton. He was born in Kentucky in 1871 and made a string of recordings between 1903 and 1911, mostly done in Britain and Germany. His harmonica playing was featured on "Dat Mouth Organ Coon", which he recorded as an Edison cylinder in 1904. He later recorded versions of this tune for other companies, although none of his other songs seem to feature any harmonica playing. The piece starts out as a typical vaudeville song, then Hampton goes into a harmonica solo. His harp playing cannot be considered blues in the strictest sense of the word, although it does have many elements of the blues in it, including a short fox chase section and a finale which appears to have Hampton playing harp with his nose whilst simultaneously whistling! The Edison recording is on the CD "The Navvy's Motor Ride" (Cylidisc CD 510), as well as on the accompanying CD to Rainer Lotz's excellent book "Black People - Entertainers of African Descent in Germany and Europe" (www.lotz-verlag.de/books.html). An .mp3 of a later recording of this piece for Nicole Records can be found on this page.

If you mean the first African American harmonica player to appear on a blues record, then it was a somewhat obscure player called Herbert Leonard. He appeared on Clara Smith's "My Doggone Lazy Man" recorded on January 31st 1924 (re-issued on Document DOCD-5365, "Clara Smith Vol 2"), a couple of months before the harp and guitar-playing songsters Daddy Stovepipe and Stovepipe No.1 made their first recordings. Although later recordings showed he was familiar with cross or second position harp, most of his work concentrated on straight harp played in the instrument's upper register. (For available recordings of Leonard and some of the other artists mentioned on this page, see FFAQ18.)

On the other hand, if you mean second position harp played with lots of bent notes and other typical blues stylings, then the first recorded examples of this were by a white musician named Henry Whitter. In early December 1923, Whitter recorded several tunes for the Okeh label, the first of which was his cross harp classic "Rain Crow Bill Blues". Unfortunately, there don't seem to be too many current CD reissues of Whitter's solo recordings, although the album "G.B Grayson and Henry Whitter: Early Classics Vol. 1 & 2" (available from Old Homestead Records) has three of his later harmonica solos. However, you can hear .mp3s of the tunes from his first session on this page.

Just for the record, here are some other "firsts".

The first recorded example of third position seems to have come along comparitively late in the history of bues harp. Although probably the most common minor position these days, it wasn't featured in a recording until December 1951 when Little Walter played an E harp in the key of F# on Muddy Waters' "Lonesome Day", reissued on "Rollin' Stone - Golden Anniversary" (Chess 112301). The same album also features another tune with Walter in third position on an E harp, "Please Have Mercy", recorded a few months later.

Fourth and fifth positions turn up on record a little earlier. Rhythm Willie's "Breathtakin' Blues" (reissued on RST Jazz Perspectives JPCD1505-2) is in fourth position, Gm on a Bb harp, recorded in 1940. As far as I know it's the only pre-war blues recording in this position and I have transcribed it on this page. Outside of the blues tradition, Winslow Yerxa discovered a piece which alternates between F major and D minor played on an F harp, recorded in 1929 by a French Canadian player called Pit Paré, which can be heard on this page this page at the Library and Archives Canada site. Even earlier than these pieces is the 1915 recording of "Toreador March", by Arthur Turelly. This features a section played in Gm on a Bb harp and can be heard on this page.

As far as I am aware, the first recording of fifth position by a blues player was done by William McCoy in 1928 and is called "Central Tracks Blues". It is available on "Texas: Black Country Dance Music" (Document DOCD 5162). He's playing an A harp in the key of C# and this piece is transcribed on this page. Joe Filisko alerted me to another pre-war instance of 5th position recording the following year, by Eddie Mapp accompanying Curley Weaver on the song "It's The Best Stuff Yet", reissued on "Georgia Blues 1928 - 1933 (Document DOCD-5110). The recording comes out in the key of Eb and it seems that Mapp is playing a B diatonic in fifth position. However, I strongly suspect that it was actually performed in the key of E and the recording has been slowed down, although due to the quality of the recording it is hard to be certain. The next recorded example of fifth of which I am aware, was by the legendary "?" Turner (legendary for never having her first name noted, but remembered for apparently being cross-eyed!), who accompanied Guitar Slim (one of many musicians with the same nickname), using fifth position on a track called "Alla Blues" (although I think that should actually be "L.A. Blues"). It was recorded in late 1947, or early 1948, in Los Angeles, although the guitar playing is pure Texas. Ms Turner is playing a G harp in the key of B. It has been reissued on the British ABM label, ABM 1089 "West Coast Down Home Blues". Later still, Percy Randolph plays a G harp in the key of B on "Jack Of Diamonds". Recorded in 1958, this was issued on Snook's Eaglin's album "Country Boy Down In New Orleans", Arhoolie 348.

Once again, I'm grateful to Joe Filisko for alerting me to a pre-war recording of sixth position. Eddie Mapp plays an E harp in the key of Eb to accompany guitarist Curley Weaver on his 1929 recording of "No No Blues", also reissued on "Georgia Blues 1928 - 1933 (Document DOCD-5110). Actually, it sounds as though Weaver is using voicings on the guitar normally associated with the key of E, so either he tuned his guitar a semitone flat, or the recording has been slowed down and Mapp was actually playing an F harp in the key of E. Either way, it is still sixth position and quite a unique performance.

Twelfth position is used by contemporary players such as Howard Levy (who refers to it as "first flat position"), Will Scarlett, Carlos Del Junco, Charlie McCoy and others, but was never really common amongst traditional blues players. It was used by Daddy Stovepipe on a couple of tunes, the earliest being "Stovepipe Blues" recorded in 1924 and reissued on Document DOCD-5166, "Alabama Black Country Dance Bands 1924 - 1949". The song begins in the key of C, with a C harp played in first position (the recording plays almost in C#, but as C# harps were not available in the twenties, I assume he's playing in C and the recording has been speeded up) and then modulates to the key of F, Stovepipe shifting to twelfth position on the same harp. Reissued on the same CD is a another performance from Stovepipe using twelfth position - "Greenville Strut", recorded 1931, also features a C harp played in the key of F. Another early twelfth position recording in a very different style, was made by Alvin Gautreaux with the New Orleans jazz group John Hyman's Bayou Stompers, back in March 1927. "Ain't Love Grand" was played in the key of Eb using a Bb harmonica and is reissued on "The Owls Hoot" (Frog Records DFG2).

The earliest recording I have so far found of a chromatic harmonica is "Hayseed Rag", recorded in 1924 by The Dizzy Trio featuring Borrah Minevitch. An .mp3 of this piece can be found on this page. It was almost 30 years before blues players started to use the chromatic, at least on record. The first recorded example is, not surprisingly, by Little Walter on the tune "That's It", recorded in July 1953. Unfortunately, it is not the best of debuts, as he swaps from diatonic to chromatic and seems to forget what key he is supposed to be in, noodles around for a while, then swaps back to diatonic! This piece is in the key of C and Walter is using a Bb diatonic in third position. He switches to a standard C 64 chromatic, which I suppose means that he is playing it in first position, but as he is mostly concentrating on the draw notes with the slide held in, it is perhaps easier to think of it as being a variation of sixth position (or if you really insist, you could claim it to be in the key of B# and that Walter is playing in thirteenth position!). Perhaps not surprisingly, this track was not issued at the time, but has since been made available on the 2CD collection "Blues With A Feeling: Chess Collectibles Vol 3" (MCA Chess CHD2-9357). Later in that same session, he turned in a somewhat more competent performance on "Fast Large One", a tune in a more conventional third position style (key of D on a C chromatic). It also went unreleased at the time, but is currently available on "The Essential Little Walter" (MCA Chess CHD2-9342).


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