Our First-Ever Blues Harp Albums (Part 1)

Which record got you hooked on blues harmonica? This week the Harp Surgery team goes back to Original Spin…

Elwood’s choice:

I’ll never forget the day I decided to take up blues harmonica. I was 18 years old, doing a crappy internship in a run-down part of the most boring town in England, and I decided to go shopping for music in my lunch hour. I can’t remember where I found the CD, but I do remember it just jumped right out of the shelf at me: Blue Skies, by some soulful-looking fellow named Muddy Waters.

The first track was ‘Mannish Boy’. I don’t recall the first listening per se, and yet I know exactly how it must have felt, because this bellowing, ball-tightening number still sends giant surges of electricity down the ole tendons. With Muddy on vocals, Willie Big Eyes Smith on drums, Bob Margolin on guitar and Johnny Winter on slide, the track’s signature riff has James Cotton on harp. I’d never heard of James Cotton, but that electric riff came shredding through my earphones like demonic buzz-saws being shot outta Satan’s crossbow.

I was hooked.

As I later learned, this was a compilation comprising tracks from the three smoking studio albums Muddy Waters cut with Blues Sky records: Hard Again (with James Cotton), I’m Ready (with Big Walter Horton and Jerry Portnoy) and King Bee (with Portnoy). It also featured two live tracks from Muddy “Mississippi” Waters – Live. So basically, the first straight blues album I bought featured three of the best blues harpers you could expect to find in a studio in the mid-70s. I didn’t know it, but I’d just purchased a blues harmonica master class.

Rarely does a single compilation cover so vast an array of skills and techniques in blues harmonica. It’s a complete starter pack to playing harp: aside from hosting treasurable performances from three top harmonica instrumentalists, from the point-of-view of a beginner blues harp we’ve got the ‘Mannish Boy’ and ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ riffs on display, we’ve got the fierce James Cotton wail, the sleek, deft sidemanship of a young Jerry Portnoy, and eloquent, horn-like performances from Big Walter that showed there was life in the old ram yet.

It also gave me a taste for a variety of playing styles. There are a handful of stellar 1st position tracks, including James Cotton on ‘I Want To Be Loved’, Big Walter Horton on ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ (trading licks with Jerry Portnoy’s amplified 2nd position harp), and a fantastic showcase solo from Portnoy on the upper octave on ‘Too Young To Know’.

Third position also gets a cameo, with Portnoy giving a blistering 3rd position performance on amplified chromatic on ‘I’m Ready’ (backed up here by Big Walter playing acoustic 2nd position).

I still find myself listening to tracks like ‘Deep Down in Florida’ and ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ (Portnoy ripping a new hole into that song) and wondering how the hell they got so good. Maybe it’s God, protecting me from hubris.

Even beyond the harp, the albums that supplied these tracks are superb, especially Hard Again and I’m Ready. Fun, feisty and powerfully produced by Johnny Winter, they see Muddy return to his absolute best, bouncing out of the bargain bins and back into the spotlight – and washing away some of the taste left by that psychedelic flop, Electric Mud. These days, you can buy them in a box set, with a few bonus tracks and great liner notes from Bob Margolin on the stories behind the albums.

Best part: Swaggering through the streets of Welwyn Garden City wearing my headphones, smiling at all the middle-aged dads and soccer moms while James Cotton was tearing a new mindhole between my ears.

Only regret: Listening to the album while shopping for groceries. Never try to accomplish anything to the rhythm of a slow blues like Deep Down in Florida. It’ll take you forever.

Advice for first-timers: This is a compilation not an album, and it features THREE harmonica players – not just one dude with a schizoid sound. It took me years to figure that out.

What album got you hooked? Let us know in the comments. And stay tuned for upcoming album posts from the rest of the Harp Surgery team.

Find Muddy Waters albums at Amazon UK and Amazon US

12 thoughts on “Our First-Ever Blues Harp Albums (Part 1)

  • April 13, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    Being as I dont own a CD player and rely upon MP3s its rare that I get to listen to whole Albums these days. I tend to hunt down tracks with good Harp licks. Started by listening to Zep ( Nobodys fool, When the Levee breaks etc) I know this makes some of you shudder but it works for me. I then found Muddy Waters live – Mannish Boy, Champagne and Reefer just blows me away. Then I hear The guy who plays with Joe Bonamassa on “Burning Hell”. Lots of good stuff out there. Ive only been playing this last 16 months so still getting started and setting my references really but I do find that Im hearing Harp for the first time in songs Ive listened to for years -decades. I watched that film “Control” about Ian Curtis from Joy Division the other night. There was a scene where he was listening to Jean Jeanie – Id never heard the harp in that before – but there it was loud and clear!

  • July 22, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    It was not any one album it was a sound, Ray Jackson of Lindisfarne. It was a backwards journey, what/were did his sound come from, which led backwards to SonnyBoy, Little Walter and sidewards to Tony Little Sun Glover and then on to Mark Feltham, Jason Ricci and Adam Gussow.Taking up the harp at 50 is a bit daunting but a one man harp band seems a real blast its a little bit of theory plenty of listening and a whole lot of blowing. No such proposition as cannot do that but an awful lot of how do i work out how to do that again. Of the later listening the albums that have pushed me on are The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Nine Below Zero`s On The Road Again. for the future I cannot wait for Adam Gussows One Man Band offering

  • July 24, 2010 at 8:41 am

    Does any one know who plays Harp on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Graveyard Train” off their Bayou Country album? I think this might be my new projct.

  • July 24, 2010 at 10:33 pm

    Wikipedia has it as John Fogerty himself. I don’t know for sure, but it’s likely due to his multi-instrumentalism (Blue Ridge Rangers, Centerfield etc), isn’t it?

  • July 24, 2010 at 10:54 pm

    I don’t know the song but I do know John Fogerty played serviceable harp. Well, serviceable for a guy who grabs a harp in the right key and turns a song into a 12-minute live chug-fest.

  • March 9, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    Well… in my case the reccord that hooked me on the harp was Paul Buterfield Blues Band’s Incense, Herbs, Oils. Bought it three years ago on 180g vinyl reedit. On that same day I must have listened to that record some 50 times in a row. The day after I went and bought a cheap harp in the key of C and started to try and imitate Paul’s killer licks, and that tone… That’s true harp tone!!! 3 months later I accidentally bumped into a friend who happened to be playing the blues with a guitar and joined him playing we jammed as hell that night!… not long after, together we started an R&B band and we still going to this day. I play the harp every day since I met Mr. Butterfield’s music… That’s how I met this fantastic instrument that I’ll be learning to the day I die, the diatonic harmonica.

  • April 8, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    You were very lucky to be of that special era… I have grown to appreciate the impact Mr Butterfield must have had. Right time, right place.

  • December 30, 2014 at 3:08 pm

    the album the raw harmonica of charlie sayles is a good starting point and I have the original vinyl.

  • September 28, 2015 at 5:14 am

    Does anybody know who plays harp for the movie, “A Walk in the Woods”?

  • November 13, 2015 at 12:10 pm

    Hi John, is it in any particular part of the film? Here’s the soundtrack list:
    1. Mud – Nathan Larson
    2. Dead End Street – Blake Mills
    3. The Birds Are Singing At Night – Lord Huron
    4. Tickin’ Bomb – Shovels & Rope
    5. Crop Comes In – Chatham County Line
    6. The Lake – Tim Grimm
    7. The Ghost On The Shore – Lord Huron
    8. I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me) – Dwight Yoakam
    9. Kissed Me Like Thunder – Friends Of Lola
    10. She Lit A Fire – Lord Huron
    11. Think That You Might Be Wrong – Great Lake Swimmers
    12. So Many Stars – Nathan Larson
    13. Brother (Last Ride) – Lord Huron
    14. Ends Of The Earth – Lord Huron

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