George “Harmonica” Smith: West Coast Legend pt1

George “Harmonica” Smith: West Coast Legend was a series of articles written by Dennis Gruenling for the American Harmonica Newsletter starting back in 1997, written with the purpose of trying to get more recognition in the harmonica and blues field for one it’s most influential harmonica figures. I’ve taken these articles and done my best to edit and update them accordingly, and will be including links relating to topics mentioned within in the near future.

Part 1: West Coast Legend

Wailing, amplified harmonica. This is one of the first things that come to mind when people think of the blues. There are four pioneering fathers of traditional blues harmonica, the two “Sonny Boy”s, and the two “Walter”s.

John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson was really the first true originator of what’s now known as Chicago-style harmonica playing, and was a true pioneer with the harmonica, utilizing it as a single note & lead instrument in blues like none other before him. “Sonny Boy Williamson II” aka Rice Miller (who recorded for the Trumpet & Chess labels) was also very pioneering in his approach to the harmonica as well as his songwriting skills. “Little Walter” Jacobs and “Big Walter” Horton are both widely recognized for their contributions to the blues world and their place in blues harmonica history as well. Little Walter being recognized as the king of amplified Chicago-style harmonica, with his wildly imaginative approach to improvising and his masterful songwriting skills. Big Walter is recognized for his massive tone, great use of dynamics, and rock solid tongue-blocking techniques.

The next generation brought the likes of Junior Wells, James Cotton, Carey Bell, Charlie Musselwhite and Paul Butterfield, among many others. All of them gaining popularity with the general blues audience. However, there is one player not mentioned above, whose name continues to pop up in conversation when present-day masters such as Rod Piazza, Kim Wilson, Steve Guyger, and Mark Hummel (and other modern but now deceased masters such as William Clarke & Paul deLay) talk about their influences. This player is George “Harmonica” Smith.

Allen George Smith was born on April 22, 1924 in West Helena, Arkansas. His family moved to Cairo, Illinois soon afterward, where he was raised. As he told it, he first put harp to mouth at the tender age of four years old under the tutelage of his mother. Young George started playing professionally at local parties, juke joints, and on the street within a year or two. By his teens, he had moved away from home and travelled through the south. He spent most of 1943 singing and traveling with the Jackson Jubilee Singers, who were based in Jackson, Mississippi. With this group he incorporated his harp playing occasionally.

The year 1949 saw george moving back up north to Chicago. He soon started working with a young Otis Rush, who was then playing a style of blues similar to that of Muddy Waters at the time. After Henry Strong (Muddy Waters’ then harp player) was killed in 1953, George was asked to replace him in Muddy’s band. The band went on tour throughout the south, and upon returning to Chicago, worked clubs like the Zanzibar Lounge on a regular basis.

George’s recording debut occurred in October of 1954, backing up Otis Spann (along with Muddy Waters, B.B. King and others) on his Checker single “It Must Have Been The Devil”. The real breakthrough, however, came later that year at his next session in Kansas City. Under the name “Little” George Smith, the songs “Blues In The Dark” and “Telephone Blues” were released on the RPM label. Both recordings are masterpieces of blues harmonica. “Blues In The Dark” with it’s fat-toned chromatic work, and “Telephone Blues” with George’s trademark tremolo’d octave introduction, seem to set a new standard…not only for their phrasing and tone, but for his playing in what is known to harmonica players as “third position” (playing in a key a whole step up from the key of the harmonica). In fact, on almost half of the titles he recorded for RPM, he was playing in third position: “Blues In The Dark”, “Oopin’ Doopin’, Doopin’” & “Down In New Orleans” all on chromatic harp, and “Telephone Blues”, “Blues Stay Away”, & “Rockin’” on the smaller diatonic harp. George had not only mastered third position, but created a whole new approach for this on the harmonica, especially the chromatic.

Little Walter had used the chromatic harmonica before in a blues context, backing up Muddy Waters (“I Just Want To Make Love To You”, I’m Ready” & “Smokestack Lightnin’”  in 1954), and even prior to that on his own recordings (“Lights Out” & “Fast large One” from 1953 and “Blue Light” from 1954, in addition to a few other then-unreleased tunes). However George had his own unmistakable sound & voice on the chromatic, full of fat tones, chords and octaves. Other chromatic gems George recorded later on include his backing of Sunnyland Slim on “Got To Get To My Baby” (from Slim’s album Slim’s Got His Thing Goin’ On for World Pacific) and two other personal favorites: “Hot Rolls” (on Lapel) and “Tight Dress” (on Sotoplay).

Even though he apparently spent a lot of time playing the chromatic, as far as to even learn some standards on the instrument such as “Misty”, Summertime” and “Peg o’My Heart”, it certainly did not take away from his diatonic second position playing. Fine examples of this playing style can be heard in “California Blues” (on RPM), “Blowing The Blues” (on Carolyn), “Loose Skrews” (on Sotoplay), and one of the most over-looked blues harmonica classics – “Sharp Harp” (with Champion Jack Dupree on King).

One of the techniques George used on diatonic as well as chromatic that made his style & sound stand out, was his use of “octaves”. Using the tongue-blocking technique, he play two notes (an octave apart) on either side of his tongue. Done correctly, this makes for a BIG sound, especially when coupled with a throat tremolo, as George sometimes did to great effect. In other instances he would get a beating or vibrating sound playing an “octave”, caused by by one of the notes being slightly out of tune with the other. He also had a great talent for building up a solo, and knew just when to release the tension musically, sometimes with a big, intense, vibrating octave.

His instrumental “Juicy Harmonica” (from the album …Of The Blues) comes to mind immediately. During the first three choruses he las down some nice wailing harp. By the fourth chorus, he starts to build up the tension, which peaks in the last four bars when hit repeatedly hits an octave on the downbeat. This climaxes and releases tension in the fifth chorus which he starts with an even higher octave, and gets that awesome vibrating sound, which really grabs the listener.

Another thing George really had a knack for was building tension by repetition, no to be confused with repetition for the lack of knowing what else to do! He would play a theme for a while, then play it, come back to it, then twist it around until you were on the edge of your seat! As the late Paul deLay would describe it – “You’ve got to stick with  an idea or theme long enough to let your audience enjoy it with you. The all-time champ of that would have to be George “Harmonica” Smith. He could play something simple and keep it coming at you until you didn’t want it to stop. It’s probably the most satisfying and effective playing I’ve ever heard.”

After his initial recordings for RPM, George traveled and performed as part of a Universal Attractions touring revue that also included Margie Evans, Little Willie John, Champion Jack Dupree, and Hal Singer & his orchestra. When the tour died down and wound up in California, George decided to stay and make L.A. his home, which it remained for the rest of his life.

The mid-late 1960’s were a very busy period for George. Muddy Waters asked him to join his band again in 1966, after James Cotton left. George toured and recorded with this band for a year, although the recordings did not feature Muddy himself, then left for home again. In 1968 he teamed up with a young harp player named Rod Piazza. Soon they started playing and recording together with their band, Bacon Fat. During the next few years, George recorded a handful of albums, some with the members of Bacon Fat, and also recorded as a sideman with various artists.

All of this slowed down in the 1970’s. Recording opportunities were minimal, and when he did record, it was mainly as a sideman. In 1977, George met another young harp player. who would wind up being of his most celebrated students and also helped with his career. This player was the late William Clarke.

Throughout the remainder of his life (he died of heart disease, October 2, 1983), George and William Clarke were close friends. They performed together whenever they could, and recorded together in the early 1980’s.

Although Rod Piazza and William Clarke were the two younger players who had the greatest impact (and vice-versa) on George’s career, his influence fell over many of the younger players of the time. He was willing to help anyone who was in need of guidance. There are many stories of him asking younger harp players to perform or travel with him that emphasize what giving and generous player and person George “Harmonica” Smith really was.

(see Part 2)