OBE: Eric Clapton once quipped that John Mayall has run a great school for musicians.
By Robert Feuer
T he harmonica was introduced to America in the mid-19th century. Abe Lincoln is said to have carried one in his pocket, and during the Civil War, soldiers used them to croon away long nights between battles. The list of early players includes Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid. The harmonica has often been called the "people's instrument," because it is inexpensive and easily portable. Thus it was often chosen by impoverished and migratory early blues and folk artists.
Times, of course, have changed, and on Jan. 24, a member of the Order of the British Empire graces the stage of a local saloon replete with a harmonica. John Mayall, who received the honor in 2005 at a Buckingham Palace ceremony, headlines Mark Hummel's annual Blues Harmonica Blowout at the Last Day Saloon. Also on the bill are Lazy Lester, Kenny Neal and Greg "Fingers" Taylor, all backed by Hummel's band, the Blues Survivors.
Hummel has been taking his Blues Harmonica Blowout on the road since 1991. It has been a revolving door of performers, including most of the greats of the past two decades. Speaking by phone from his Oakland home, he says his original motivation was his feeling that "guitar was getting so much more attention than harmonica." For him, the tour not only pays the bills but, he chuckles, "I get to hang out with friends of mine, people I've known for years and years."
Hummel ran into Mayall at the 2007 Blues Music Awards ceremony and reminded him of an unanswered e-mail inviting him on the harmonica tour. Mayall immediately climbed on board. "I was almost shocked when he said yes to the show. He's such a big name," Hummel says.
Mayall, 74, was born in England but has been living in the Los Angeles area since 1970. His career spans over 40 years and 56 albums.
In 1962, he formed his still-active band the Bluesbreakers, through which has passed some of the legends of rock and blues guitar, like Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor. Clapton once said, "John Mayall has actually led an incredibly great school for musicians."
In the '60s, the Bluesbreakers backed John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson and T-Bone Walker on their first tour of the English club scene.
"This is a new venture for me entirely," Mayall says, interviewed from his home in the L.A. area. Leaving his own band behind, he arrives in Santa Rosa, joining his fellow performers for the first time, on the afternoon of the show. He says the fact that he hasn't played with these guys before doesn't concern him because "musicians share a common language." Mayall has a unique style of singing and will be performing on keyboards as well as harmonica.
At an age when most would consider themselves past retirement, Mayall says, "My career just keeps on going. The greatest gift I've had is the freedom to create my own music and be accepted for it. You should always play something you can believe. Stick to your guns."
Lazy Lester, born 1933 in Louisiana, is known for a string of hits in the '50s and '60s for the classic Excello Records label. He won a W. C. Handy Award (now known as the Blues Music Award) in 1987, and in 2004 performed at the Radio City Music Hall all-star blues concert "Feel Like Going Home," produced and filmed by Martin Scorsese.
Legend has it that Lester's professional career began when he met Lightnin' Slim on a bus as Slim headed for an Excello recording session. Coincidentally, the regular harp player didn't appear and Lester took over. He once said he got his nickname because, "I was never in a hurry to do nothing." Indeed, his favorite hobby is fishing.
Mark Hummel's Blues Harmonica Blowout featuring John Mayall, Lazy Lester, Kenny Neal, 'Fingers' Taylor, local faves the Blues Survivors with Rusty Zinn, and Nathan James and Ben Hernandez puts its lips together and blows on Thursday, Jan. 24. Last Day Saloon, 120 Fifth St., Santa Rosa. 7:30pm. $30–$35. 707.545.2343.