Listen Up! (past recommendations)

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(Little) George Smith – “Harmonica Ace” – Ace

For those that aren’t “in the know”, George “Harmonica” Smith is one of the unsung heroes of blues harmonica playing and has influenced many of today’s top blues harmonica players. This collection brings together his earliest recordings as a leader, on the RPM label. There is some great stuff here to be sure, especially his groundbreaking 3rd position harp playing on both diatonic and chromatic harps…such as the classic “Telephone Blues”, “Rocking”, and the chromatic instrumental “Blues In The Dark”. Simply a MUST-HAVE!

Steve Guyger – “Keep It Moving” – Harpophone

Steve Guyger is another one of those well-kept secrets that I have been trying to tell the world about…one blues fan (or harp fan) at a time. He spent many years playing on & off with the great Jimmy Rogers – and as if that alone isn’t enough – he remains one of my favorite living blues harp players and singers anywhere. This guy is the real deal, Chicago stylist through-and-through. He re-visits many classic blues, as well as some originals in a traditional vein. There has been a lot of slack thrown the way of the “traditionalists” in recent years, but guys like Steve Guyger are true musicians and artists…and bring way more to the plate than mere imitators or flash-in-the-pan showboaters. Dig Mr. Guyger!

George “Harmonica” Smith – “Teardrops Are Falling” – Electro-Fi

George “Harmonica” Smith used to be one of the “unsung” heroes of blues harmonica. When I was learning harp, I got hip to George through listening to blues radio & reading about top players like Rod Piazza, William Clarke and Kim Wilson (George had directly influenced all of them). I got on a mission to promote George and how great he was, along with fellow performer/instructor Joe Filisko. We are glad now that many harp players are familiar with George and more of his recordings are coming to light nowadays, even though he had a limited recorded output as a bandleader in his heyday. This is a release of a live recording taken not long before George had passed, but he still has some fire and great tone & chops to spare. Getting backing from the Rocket 88’s (including harpist Bill Tarsha on a few cuts) George makes his way through classics such as “Key To The Highway“, “Goin’ Down Slow“, “Juke” and more.

Kim Wilson – “Lookin’ For Trouble” – MC

If you are a harp player alive nowadays, you should need no introduction to Kim Wilson. One of the top blues/roots players alive, Kim has also been guest artist on dozens of great recordings, and this is his most recent release with his blues band (non-Fabulous Thunderbirds). Some highlights are “Totured” (great chromatic playing from Kim on this one), “F Fat“, Jimmy Rogers’ “Money, Marbles, and Chalk“, and Kim’s 3rd position playing on “Hurt On Me“. Top playing by one of the best out there.

James Cotton – “Midnight Creeper” – Just A Memory
James Cotton is one of the last living legends of the post-war Chicago blues era. This 2-CD set of live recordings captures James Cotton at (where some would say is) his peak as a performer and harmonica player. With a band that includes Luther Tucker & Francis Clay, he tears through some blues classics such as “Mean Old World“, “Rock Me Baby“, “Rocket 88“, “It Ain’t Right“, “Mystery Train” and many more.  Check out some live Cotton in his prime!!

Jim Liban’s Blues Combo – “Blues For Shut-Ins” – Romies

Jim Liban is really one of those unsung (and unfortunately unheard-of) masters of traditional blues harmonica playing, with his own twist on things…and also happens to be a great songwriter and vocalist! Check out some great harp & singing on “Ain’t That Somethin’“, “Cryin’ For My Baby“, “Mean Old World“, and check out his uncanny tribute to Junior Wells on his “Blues For Amos“. Killer stuff!!!

Johnny Young – “Chicago Blues” – Arhoolie

Johnny Young is one of the greats of Chicago blues mandolin, guitar and vocals. This re-issue on CD takes two of his great LPs on the Arhoolie label, and pairs them together on one CD. One recording features James Cotton on harmonica, and the other recording features Big Walter Horton – you can’t lose! Some GREAT 1960’s Chicago blues with some of the best harp players in the business. James Cotton tears it up on heavily amplified harp, especially on “Wild, Wild Woman“, “I’m Having A Ball“, and the instrumental “Slam Hammer“. Big Walter blows strong and sensitive harp, especially on “Ring Around My Heart“, “Stockyard Blues” and another version of his “Walter’s Boogie“. CLASSIC stuff!

Anson Funderburgh & The Rockets feat. Sam Myers – “Sins” – Hepcat

Unfortunately, Sam Myers is no longer with us, but we have plenty of his music still…thanks to his partnership with great Texas guitarist Anson Funderburgh. This is my personal favorite release from this partnership, and they had a string of great albums on the Black Top and Bullseye record labels. This is finally back in print, and worth adding, especially with Sams strong vocals and harp chops taking the front seat on tracks like “Don’t Want No Leftovers“, “My Kind Of Baby” and a re-working of Sam’s classic “Sleeping In The Ground“.

Slim Harpo – “I’m A King Bee” – Ace

Slim Harpo is still one my favorites. He was never one of the most technical players on the harp, but his tone, timing, and sense of the groove were killer!! There is a reason he has influenced blues, country and rock acts equally. This great collection of some of his Excello sides includes classics like “I Got Love If You Want It“, “I’m A King Bee“, “Blues Hangover”, “Raining In My Heart” and many more. Get hip to Slim Harpo!

Little Charlie & The Nightcats – “Shadow Of The Blues” – Alligator

Yes, guitarist Little Charlie has now left and handed over the reigns to Rick Estrin to front the Nightcats now (as Rick Estrin & The Nightcats) but Rick was always the frontman/songwriter/vocalist/harmonicist for the band – and a GREAT entertainer. Many people get sidetracked by his sense of humor and forget (or don’t see) that he is one of the top traditional blues harmonica players anywhere. This was one of the more lowdown releases in their catalog of albums from Alligator. Be sure to check out the John Lee Williamson nod “You Don’t Love Me That Way“, the Chicago-style harp feature “Got It Good“, and his great 1st position on “I Don’t Drink Much” among others.

Snooky Pryor – “Snooky Pryor” (JOB recordings) – Paula

As you look back at the important players in Blues Harmonica History, Snooky Pryor’s name also pops up with the Walters and Sonny Boys, and he has been sort of neglected due to his lack of recordings from the heyday of post-war blues. This release brings to light some of his most important contributions to post-war harmonica blues. Of particular note is his recording “Boogie” which precedes Little Walter’s “Juke” by several years, but clearly inspired it. Other highlights include “Boogie Twist“, “Going Back On The Road” and “Real Fine Boogie“.

William Clarke – “Now That You’re Gone” – Watchdog

Losing William Clarke about 15 years ago was definitely a blow to the national blues scene for harmonica fans. I’ve had the chance to see him play dozens & dozens of times, and he always put on a great show, giving it his all. This posthumous release brings to light some great recordings William Clarke made prior to his signing with the Alligator label in 1990, some of which were from his old LP called “Can’t You Hear Me Calling” such as “Bite Again“, “She’s Dynamite“, “Give Me Mine Now” and the title track. Also of note is the great instrumental “Watson, I Presume”. More great blues from a contemporary player who is not soon forgotten.

John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson – “The Later Years” – JSP

Another essential CD set put out by JSP – this time covering the later recordings of the original Chicago Blues Harmonica Wizard, John Lee “Sonny Boy #1″ Williamson. This awesome 4-CD set has classics from Sonny Boy such as “Decoration Day Blues“, “New Early In The Morning Blues“, “Springtime Blues“, “Sonny Boy’s Jump” and more…but it doesn’t stop there! This set also has some great recordings of Sonny Boy as a sideman with Yank Rachell and Big Joe Williams as well. An essential set for all lover of blues harmonica and Chicago blues. Blues harmonica as we now know it started with John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, and this set has some of his best recordings.

Rod Piazza – “His Instrumentals” – Piazza

Rod Piazza not only has been playing harmonica as long as just about anyone else currently on the scene, but has proved again and again that he is one of the top players to ever pick up the instrument. His ability to build & release tension, arrange a song for maximum effect, and to swing harder than just about anyone has been showcased on many releases on his own and with his band The Mighty Flyers for years now. And let’s not forget his unmistakable sound & style on the chromatic harmonica, which stems from his mentor George “Harmonica” Smith and has deservedly created generations of his own followers (and imitators) as well. On this limited-edition release, Rod puts together some of his best instrumentals including “4811 Wadsworth (Blues For George)“, “Cold Chill“, “The Eliminator” and “Deep Fried“.  If you want to hear where the harmonica styles of Little Walter & George “Harmonica” Smith meet and move forward and hear some of the best modern blues harmonica, check this out.

Papa Lightfoot/Sam Myers – “Blues Harmonica Wizards” – Official

Alexander “Papa” Lightfoot is truly an unsung harmonica wizard! His awesome talent on just a handful of sides gains him a place in blues harmonica history. This CD captures all of his recordings (as a leader & sideman) that are available, aside from the only full LP he did (“Natchez Trace” – available on CD as well), and these are his best! Just dig the killer harp on tracks like “When The Saints Go Marching In”, “Wine Women & Whiskey”, and “Jump The Boogie”. In addition to the great “Papa” Lightfoot, you get some great early recordings by Sam Myers, including his classics “Sleeping In The Ground”, “My Love Is Here To Stay”, and “Poor Angel Child” (with Elmore James). Sam Myers laid down some classic stuff way before he joined forces with Anson Funderburgh & The Rockets, and some of his best tracks are on here.

Steve Guyger – “Live At The Dinosaur” – Remedy

I consider myself lucky that I live in New jersey. Aside from the fact that we have the best tomatoes, I’m close to NYC and close to the Philadelphia area where one of the top traditional Chicago style players resides – Steve Guyger. Steve spent many years backing up Chicago blues legend Jimmy Rogers on the road, and it is clear he feels every note he plays and sings. Steve just oozes coolness…that, and he is one of truest Chicago-style harp players anywhere! This live set (his debut) has him joined by his band which includes Steve Freund (guitar) and David Maxwell (piano). Covering songs from Sonny Boy Williamson #1, George “Harmonica” Smith and Jimmy Rogers, along with some of his own compositions.

Big Walter Horton – “Blues Harmonica Giant” – JSP

Talk about a CD set that should have been out LONG before now…! Finally JSP had the good sense to bring these recordings to light in a 3-CD set. Some of Big Walter’s earliest &  greatest recordings all together in one box set, plus the addition of a rare session with Carey Bell from the late 1960’s thrown in for good measure. His now-rare recordings for the Sun label are now finally available again here, and includes some alternate takes as well. Essential Harmonica Blues!

Kid Ramos - “Greasy Kid Stuff” - Evidence

This release by contemporary West Coast guitar great Kid Ramos features a long list of special guest harmonica stars such as Rick Estrin, Rod Piazza, Paul deLay, Charlie Musselwhite, and others. Dig Rick Estrin’s nod to Little Walter Jacobs entitled “Marion’s Mood” (for those not in the know, Walter’s real first name was Marion). Other gems include Paul deLay’s “Say What You Mean”, Rod Piazza’s chromatic workout “Devil’s Foot”, and Estrin & Musselwhite having a “Harmonica Hangover” together. You get a cool mix of harmonica greats with this West Coast guitarist on this CD…dig it!

Junior Wells – “Blues Hit Big Town” – Delmark

Back in the early 1950’s when recorded amplified harmonica was relatively new, there were very few players who could really give Little Walter a run for his money – one of them was the young Junior Wells. This disc includes his earliest recordings as a leader, and there is some KILLER stuff here! Back up musicians includes the Aces (Louis & Dave Myers w/Fred Below), Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Otis Spann, Elmore James and others. Classics abound on this release including – “HooDoo Man“, “Cut That Out“, “Tomorrow Night“, “Blues Hit Big Town” and his 1st position instrumental “Junior’s Wail“.  Essential Chicago Blues!

Jim Liban Blues Combo - “Live @ Romie’s” - Romie’s

I’ve spent many years telling people about this guy who is regarded as one of the best harp players out there by his generation…but not many people know of him since he hasn’t toured much the past two decades. This guy is the REAL DEAL! This was his first solo outing (he fronted the popular blues/roots outfit “Short Stuff” in the 1970’s) and is it awesome! Jim has absolute command of the harp, and of all the great styles of the past masters. Dig his Big Walter-style solo on Willie Dixon’s “29 Ways“, the Junior Wells-styled “Don’t Mess With The Messer” (you’ll think it’s Junior playing the solo), his great instrumental treatment of the Jimmy Reed classic “Take Out Some Insurance” and an awesome version of “Blues After Hours“. If you dig great traditional blues harmonica, you will LOVE Jim Liban.

Little Walter – “Complete Chess Masters” – Hip-O

Yes, this is IT! And it should go without saying that this is one of the most important sets to have if you like to play or listen to blues harmonica. Little Walter was THE master and no one playing any blues or American-roots style harmonica has been outside of his influence in many ways, directly & indirectly. From the great “Evan’s Shuffle” (with Muddy Waters), all the way to the tracks in the 1960’s with Bo Diddley’s band, this is THE set to get for your Little Walter fix! Really needs no explanation, just sit back, listen & learn. Some of Walter’s solos & licks may seem simplistic to the casual listener, but when you start to take them apart to see how to make them sound as he did and what made his style & approach “tick”, you’re in for an interesting journey. Essential!

Rick Estrin - “On The Harp Side” - Challis

Rick Estrin spent many years (several decades actually) playing harmonica, singing, songwriting and fronting the celebrated west coast blues band Little Charlie & the Nightcats. This release was recorded right before Charlie Baty left the scene (Rick now fronts the band on his own as Rick Estrin & the Nightcats). One listen to this and you will know why Rick is hailed as one of the top blues harmonica players of his generation, and why Muddy Waters himself called up Rick to play with him. From the acoustic styles of both Sonny Boy Williamsons, to the amplified harp stylings influenced by Little Walter & James Cotton, he covers a lot of bases here and does it all in style. Especially cool is his chromatic version of the classic “Harlem Nocturne”. Check out why Rick Estrin is one of my favorite blues harmonica players!

James Cotton – “Pure Cotton” – Lilith

James Cotton’s 2nd release on the Verve label was another classic (following his debut on Verve “The James Cotton Blues Band“). Few – if any – have matched Cotton’s combination of intensity with tasteful solos and incredible tone. Great tracks include “Heart Attack”, “She’s Murder” and also includes the classic version of his harp tour-de-force The Creeper. Finally out on CD as a full release.

Rod Piazza – “Harpburn” – Black Top

Actually recorded before Rod Piazza was singed to Black Top and originally issued on his Murray Bros. record label, this remains one of Rod Piazza’s most popular and instrumentally-satisfying releases. Great support from the likes of Miss Honey, Junior Watson, Hollywood Fats, Larry Taylor, Richard Innes and more. Highlights include his classic instrumental treatment of “Little Bitty Pretty One/Rockin’ Robin”, his “Tribute To George Smith”, and the chromatic workout title track…but really no filler here at all!

George “Harmonica” Smith – “Blowing The Blues” – El Segundo

In the 1990’s I started “The Committee To Promote George ‘Harmonica’ Smith”, with the purpose of spreading the word about how great George Smith was, especially since many of his recordings were hard to come by, and yet he had been such a big influence on today’s blues harp masters. This CD brings to light many of his early & very rare singles for labels such as $o-To-Play and Carolyn. Some real nice work on diatonic and chromatic here from George, and most of this stuff is unavailable elsewhere. Also includes two later tracks with the late William Clarke!

Kim Wilson – “Tigerman/That’s Life” – Retroworld

Another re-release of two of the best solo recordings from the frontman of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Kim is one of THE top harp players alive in blues, and these recordings show why. These discs have been out-of-print on the Antone’s label for years and now are available on 1 disc, thanks to Retroworld. You get Junior Watson, Rusty Zinn, Duke Robillard, Derek O’Brien, Gene Taylor, Larry Taylor & more backing up Kim on these recordings…great stuff by one of the best modern harp players anywhere.

Sonny Boy Williamson (#2) – “King Biscuit Time” – Arhoolie Records

This classic release on Arhoolie features recordings of Rice Miller (aka Sonny Boy Williamson #2) before he was on the Chess Records label. Many of these recordings are much more high-energy than his later Chess sides, and while not recorded with as much clarity (they had a much more limited budget then Chess) they are some of my favorite recordings of Rice Miller. Killer guitar accompaniment by Joe Willie Wilkins!

William Clarke – “Tip of the Top” – Watchdog Records

Actually a re-release of one of my favorite recordings from the late great William Clarke. Was issued on CD briefly years ago, and very hard-to-find. Now it’s finally out again, and definitely worth having if you dig great blues harmonica. His slow blues Tribute to George Smith is worth the price alone! Guests on the album include Ronnie Earl, Charlie Musselwhite, Junior Watson, and George “Harmonica” Smith himself.