Jiving With The Greats: Jerry Portnoy – Boston, 2.April 2009
…he, whose heart was that of a little child, had answered to his name, and stood in the presence of The Master. William Makepeace Thackeray
For anybody looking to master the art of Chicago and blues harmonica, look no further than Jerry Portnoy’s front porch. Study his Grammy Award winning work with the Muddy Waters Band. Update this by investing in his solo project Home Run Hitter. Then check out Down In The Mood Room – it’s predominantly, though not exclusively, jazz. Give it time if you’re a bloozer. You’ll soon understand what Jerry has to say. Then get yourself a copy of his instructional package – Blues Harmonica Masterclass. It’s not cheap, but you get every ounce of bang for your buck, plus it’s the real deal straight from one of Muddy Waters‘ monolithic harp dynasty.
Harp Surgery visitors and students will know that Jerry Portnoy‘s work is regularly mentioned on this website. It also features in our teaching sessions. Most recently we’ve been mastering his version of Misty from the 1995 Home Run Hitter album. One student in particluar, Rob Ryman, has also been working on Real Gone Guy (from the same record). These are just two of countless numbers that carry Mr Portnoy’s hallmarks of style, accuracy, tone and expression.
But enough of the commercials. The Good Doctor found himself at a loose end in Boston this week. Time to grab the old press card and track Jerry Portnoy down for a chatette… ‘I’m sure we can get it done in half an hour,’ he teases in his rich baritone, ‘I’m not all that interesting….!’ Yeah right.
I hope it’s not too early to talk?
No that’s fine, I’ve had my first cup of coffee and smoked a cigarette…
You mentioned you have a radio show later this morning
Like my local duo gig, I’ve been doing it for about seven weeks now. It goes out every week with help from the main DJ – I call it ‘Jerry’s Jukebox’. I play songs where I have some connection with the artist and I add commentary or some anecdotes. It’s fun and easy. I bring in a couple of CDs. Guys I’ve played with.
Who are you featuring today?
I have a few classics. Little Walter, both Sonny Boys, T-Bone Walker, Freddie King, Louis Armstrong and some Duke Robillard – I’ll be playing Time Is Short. [written by Portnoy].
I got into your music through the Home Run Hitter album. More recently you recorded Down In The Mood Room. What’s the story behind your excursion into jazz?
It was recorded in 2001 and released in 2002. “A bold appropriation of jazz for blues harmonica” Amazon.comIt was a project I wanted to do for a long time. It’s not the sort of thing you could record with straight blues guys – the extent of their musical bailiwick would not allow them to do it. I wanted to get something more out there; record with horns and harp, with the harp holding its own tonally and standing up against the horns. It’s music I love but never got the chance to play live. An eclectic account of American music.
There’s been a long running debate regarding the compatibility of harp and horns. One to which I don’t subscribe personally. William Clarke did it so beautifully. Lee Oskar played alongside a saxophonist in WAR..
It’s the way you handle it. On the track So Slow the harp is so huge with the horns strolling underneath. I am really very happy with the album. It was number one on the Living Blues Radio charts for two straight months.
Are you a trumpet wannabee?
Oh yeah! I love Louis Armstrong. In my next life I want to be a trumpet player.
How about the Jug Band Waltz track. It cuts against the thrust of the album?
It’s probably outside the rest of them. I just threw in a bunch of stuff – jazz standards like Sentimental Journey, Stormy Weather. Then there was this Memphis Jug Band number.
Tell me about Home Run Hitter..
It was more a showcase for my songwriting. There was some good harp stuff like Blues In A Dream that I wrote in my musical wheelhouse – slow blues was always my thing. The songwriting was very strong. Mood Room is more to show the range of what the harmonica could do from Jug Band music to Stormy Weather.
Is there a link between Charge It and Money – they follow a similar theme lyrically?
“…My credit card speaks Japanese.” Charge It
I’ve spent a lifetime being broke [he chuckles]. Money has Duke Robillard on vocals and was originally recorded on the Red Hot And Blue album with the Legendary Blues Band in 1993 when Calvin Jones sang it.
The lyrics sound like something Rick Estrin might produce..
Rick Estrin and I go back forty years. We’ve been the best of friends since 1968. He started writing songs after hearing mine. Money was one he was taken with. ‘I get a thrill when I feel cold cash.’ He wound up having a great gift for it. He’s a modern day Lieber and Stoller – some fabulous lines.
I was lucky enough to meet him in San Francisco last week..
He’s a terrific entertainer and raconteur. We talk like little old ladies a couple of times a month for an hour at a time. ‘Tighter than frog booty – and that’s waterproof’, as Muddy would have said.
On the Home Run Hitter track Can’t Remember To Forget, there’s an impossible note around the five draw. Did you use a special tuning?
To get the five draw note I tuned it up half a step. They make them commercially. I can’t remember the name of them. I think Lee Oskar makes them [Lee Oskar Melody Maker]. I just took the cover plates off and filed the reed myself. You can still bend it down to the regular tone, so you don’t really lose anything.
And on Real Gone Guy there seems to be an octave midway which you maintain as you move from the draw, to the draw bend and then the blow note on the four hole?
Ooh I can’t remember. But email me the time code for where it appears on the track and I’ll let you know. [It cuts in at the 1:05 mark]
[As to the mystery effect you hear on Real Gone Guy – it is so faint to my ears as to be almost completely imperceptible. I don’t hear an octave. It may just be a point in the song when I happened to adjust my grip on the mic and harp as I was playing and there is a resultant “tic” in the recording. Certainly nothing intentional and definitely not worth any further scrutiny. Jerry Portnoy]
Tell me about Big Walter Horton
I still miss him. I was in Europe when I found out he died. “I still miss him. I was in Europe when I found out he died. It really hurt me”.It really hurt me. I was really close to Big Walter. Do you have my instructional package? There’s some information on there. I used to go to his rooming home with a bottle of VO whisky folded under my jacket like a gun because it was a rough neighbourhood. To hear him natural just in a room is irreplaceable.
I would hear other player’s tone and attack and ask Big Walter how they did it. He would just say, ‘It goes like this.’ He wouldn’t break it down. I would capture it in my head and figure out how to reproduce it later. There are chat rooms that talk about tubes, mics and so on he may have used. The whole thing is ridiculous. Learn how to play the thing – dynamics, big tone. Play it properly and it won’t matter what equipment you play it on. I heard Big Walter play on cheap amps, tape recorder mics, big amps, little amps….
Is it true he was an enigmatic character?
He was a semi-withdrawn guy with a certain crusty exterior. But once he accepted you and trusted you, he could relax and he’d warm to you. He was a warm guy.
How about that famous Muddy Waters call – the one every harp player dreams of?
It is indelibly imprinted in my consciousness. It’s something I will never forget. I used to play with Johnny Young – a great guitarist and mandolin player. His playing was very simple, but what a beat. Physically, he looked kinda like a bowling ball. He was round and black. He stood five foot three and weighed three hundred pounds. It was funny to see him with a mandolin way up on his chest. You should check out Johnny Young, Chicago Blues, featuring James Cotton and Otis Spann [..and others, including Walter Horton. Arhoolie 1968]. There are some mandolin and piano duets with him and Spann that are out of this world.
Johnny was my first band leader – I was there with Johnny, Fred Below, Dave Myers, Louis Myers and Bob Riedy. It was basically The Aces plus Bob Riedy. I played with him a couple of years and then he passed away. There was a family benefit in Chicago and I went along after work at the Cook County Jail with two harps in my pocket. I walked in and it was packed. I almost turned around and walked out it was so crowded.
I looked across the room and saw Muddy on the bandstand. “Muddy, wherever you want me to be in this world, just tell me and I’ll be there!”.He was obviously looking at me and he motioned me to come over and play. Muddy dug it and asked for my number. He told his manager to take my number. I thought he was just trying to make me feel good. I waited outside in the rain to thank him afterwards. When he came out he said, ‘Boy, can you travel?’ I said, ‘Muddy, wherever you want me to be in this world, just tell me and I’ll be there!’ He looked at me and said, ‘You gonna hear from me.’ This was on a Tuesday night.
Friday, six or seven o’clock, the phone rang. It was Muddy’s manager telling me to call him. I was speechless. I only knew one reason why Muddy wanted me to call – I could hardly contemplate it! So I rang and he said, ‘We’re going to Indianapolis May 25th; playing a big baseball stadium. Go down and make yourself familiar with the band.’ May 25th it was ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the Muddy Waters Blues Band!’
It was the greatest thrill I have ever had in music. It’s a one off. The analogy would be like playing centre field for the New York Yankees – a premier glamour job! For blues harmonica that’s the pinnacle.
What are your plans now?
Well I’m semi-retired. I don’t tour anymore. I go to Europe a couple of times a year. I’m hoping for dates in Italy in July 2009 and France in October. I will also be a judge at the World Harmonica Championships in Trossingen, Germany, in late October.
For about seven weeks I’ve been doing a regular Sunday afternoon gig at the British Beer Company pub/restaurant out here on Cape Cod – me and a guitar player [Rick Russell]. It’s great. You can get Sunday brunch and listen to live music. I really enjoy the two piece format. I have a very good time and it gives me a chance to play! Keeping my chops up is a struggle. You have to play consistently to keep up to a specific skill level; the small muscles in your mouth, the mask around your lips and your tongue action. Otherwise you can’t execute with the same clarity and crispness of attack. When I was younger and playing regularly I’d sit down for hours. At this stage in my life I just want to play live in front of an audience.
Do you ever go back to Chicago?
Not really. My dad used to have a store on Maxwell Street Market – Max Portnoy and Son, King of Carpets. Contrary to common assumptions, the name Portnoy is not French – Port Noir – but Russian. It’s from the Ukraine. Kiev.
I was in Chicago last week and met Billy Branch
Billy Branch? He used to come and see me play. He was a college boy – now he’s a hipster!
Billy asked me a question; ‘Why do white folks like the blues?’ Why do you like the blues Jerry?
I grew up around it. “..it’s one of the great cultural touchstones”.It was the incidental sound track to my childhood. Perhaps a better question would be, ‘Why do black folks turn their back on the blues?’ Perhaps it reminds them of poverty and a time of ignorance. So they got slick. Along came Motown and Soul. Blues was basically an embarrassment. It’s a shame because it’s one of the great cultural touchstones.
So there you have it. A moment with one of the greats from a very select lineage of harp greats. Jerry was lucid, personable and humourous. We could have carried on talking like two little old ladies for another hour. Probably longer. But I had to remind him he had a radio show to do. ‘Oh no problem,’ he replied ‘I’ll call them and tell them I’ll be a little late.’
As a final note, if there are any promoters in the UK interested in inviting Jerry to come and play – he mentioned Colne and the 100 Club – he would be a very happy visitor. As long as he gets to fly Virgin Atlantic. Apparently the only way he likes to travel across the pond…
7 thoughts on “Jiving With The Greats: Jerry Portnoy – Boston, 2.April 2009”
Great article, really interesting about the need to play consistently to keep skill levels up there! A salutary lesson for us aspiring harpists from a real master.
Nice one on his choice of airline!!
Thanks Brian. It took a while to get hold of him, but once we got going he was so comfortable to chat with – an interviewer’s dream. I couldn’t help but notice his careful use of English as we spoke too. Like his harp playing, it was precise, crafted and loaded with expression! And it came packaged in that lovely deep baritone with a worldly sense of humour and wisdom to hold it all in place. See you for your lesson on Wednesday and we can chat some more.
nice interview, but mr. portnoy is incorrect when he said black people turned their back on the blues because it reminded them of poverty. there is a long list of black music genre that is no longer popular amongst black people. swing, r&b, doo wop,jazz, soul jazz, motown, memphis soul, funk, at james brown`s death he was playing to white audiences, new jack soul, disco, dance music.rap is king now but there are many rappers who are now passe. i am black and old now but i developed a love for blues and jazz in the late 1960`s.ironically in the us the white audience for the blues has aged considerabily and there are fewer young white kids interested in the blues.
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Billy Branch? He used to come and see me play. He was a college boy – now he’s a hipster!
I met and talked briefly with Jerry Portnoy in 1979 when the Muddy Waters Blues Band was performing at a relatively small venue in Louisville, KY. He was somewhat annoyed with my ‘one drink over the line’ pronunciation of his surname. However, he lossened up a bit when I told him unabashedly proclaimed my love for Muddy Waters. Portnoy’s feeling, tone and phrasing are unsurpassed. I’ve been into the blues since the mid 50’s and haven’t heard anyone whose talent exceeds the virtuosity of Jerry Portnoy.
You’re a lucky man Dave.