The Harmonica Boys
There are some musicians that you want to kick yourself for not discovering earlier. And the desire to plant the sole of your shoe firmly on your own behind is intensified if the musician happened to have been right under your nose and yet you didn’t notice. Sugar Blue is one such musician that I wish I’d discovered much earlier than I did, which happened to be just a couple of weeks back. Sugar Blue plays the harmonica. In fact, he is dizzyingly good at it. But more about him in just a minute.
The harmonica was a key instrument for many musicians in the 1960s and 70s, particularly those whose rock oeuvre came with hues of the blues. Harmonica players such as Paul Butterfield and Jack Bruce (of Cream) and John Sebastian (Lovin’ Spoonful) put the instrument on the map in rock. Even guitar players such as Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and multi-instrumentalists such as John Mayall, complemented their performances and recordings by also playing the harmonica. But it was the blues harmonica players that really elevated the instrument as a dominant sound in their music. My list of favourite blues harmonica exponents includes Charlie Musselwhite, Junior Wells and Taj Mahal. And, of course, The Grateful Dead’s Ron “Pigpen” McKernan who died prematurely at 27.
Much, much later, I discovered the amped-up harmonica of John Popper whose electrifying sound combined with his singular vocal style made me an instant fan of his band, Blues Traveler. Popper’s harmonica solos, particularly on the Blues Traveler albums, are unforgettable: they are long and impossibly fast and furious, so much so that the band has often faced criticism for too much of harmonica. In recent years, Popper has mellowed but his talent is still evident: check out the The John Popper Project featuring DJ Logic, where he collaborates with the legendary turntablist to turn out an album that makes for compulsive listening.
As I said, although I’m a great fan of the harmonica (I even went and bought a Hohner that I cannot play anything on), I had completely missed out on Sugar Blue. I had heard him, of course, unknowingly, as most fans of The Rolling Stones must have. Remember Some Girls? That 1978 album by the Stones had a song called Miss You. The harmonica soloist on the track was Sugar Blue. Blue, according to some reports, was discovered by the band while he was busking in Paris. I’ve heard Some Girls and have it on a cassette somewhere but I didn’t know Sugar Blue had played on it.
Then, years later, a few weeks ago, I heard a version of Back Door Man on a podcast (The Bandana Blues podcast). It was a seven-minute plus version and the had a harmonica solo that seared and soared and pierced through everything. It was Sugar Blue. It was superb. Exploring further, I learnt that Blue was an atypical blues musician. He didn’t come from Chicago or Texas or Mississippi. He was a New Yorker—from Harlem actually and his blues are very different. His blues have a sleek, urban feel to them, his harmonica is electronically amplified and he has a voice to complement its sound. It’s the harmonica, though, that makes Sugar Blue’s (he was born James Whiting and is in his early 60s) music stand out. He’s been called “the Jimi Hendrix of the harmonica” and compared to the legendary saxophonist, Charlie Parker.
I managed to lay my hands on a couple of Sugar Blue albums—Code Blue (2007) and Blue Blazes (1994)—both worth seeking out. Last year, Sugar Blue released his latest album, Threshold, which has got good reviews and a quick listen via a website stream shows that he hasn’t lost even a bit of his virtuosity. I’m going to buy it.