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Muddy Waters' Harmonica Players

by Scott Dirks

The classic Muddy Waters band line-up of the early 1950s had one of the most influential sounds in blues in Chicago, and one of the key elements of the Muddy Waters band sound - after Muddy's inimitable vocals - was the harmonica. Muddy had featured Little Walter on harmonica in his band for several years before the change-wary Leonard Chess finally allowed Walter to join Muddy in the studio in late 1950. Once he finally did, the harmonica became so much a part of Muddy's signature sound that he used a harp man on almost every record he made for the remainder of his career. Even when Muddy laid down his guitar for several years, the harmonica remained more-or-less front and center in his band for three decades. According to Billy Boy Arnold, the brilliant harmonica of Little Walter was so much a part of Muddy's early '50s records that Chess started printing "Muddy Waters and his guitar" on the record labels as an indication to listeners that it wasn't Muddy himself playing the "lead" instrument on the records that bore his name.

Any discussion of Muddy Waters and his harp players must start by focusing on the fiery young harp pioneer Little Walter Jacobs. After brief periods with Little Johnny Jones (better known as a pianist) and Jimmy Rogers (better known as a guitarist) on harp, Walter held the harp seat in Muddy's regular performing band from around 1947 until 1952, and thereafter continued to appear on Muddy's recording sessions whenever he was able until shortly before his death in 1968. Although in reality Walter and Muddy were not even part of the same generation of bluesmen - Muddy was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta region fifteen years before Walter, who was from Louisiana Creole country - they shared a musical telepathy that has seldom been equaled. Walter's darting and swooping harmonica lines seamlessly intertwined with Muddy's music, adding elements of melody, harmony, and notably, a sense of swing that had previously not been heard in the raw delta funk of Muddy and his peers. Some of the greatest moments in Chicago Blues occurred when these two titans joined forces, so it's no wonder that both Muddy and Chess Records felt that the harmonica should continue to be a part of "the Muddy sound", even after the harp had fallen out of favor with so many other Chicago bands (not to mention the record buying public). After Little Walter left Muddy's band, his replacements were directed by both Muddy and Chess to accompany Muddy in the same way Walter had done. Little Walter had forged the blueprint for accompanying Muddy with a harp, and like it or not, the players who followed had to learn to play a reasonable facsimile of the Little Walter style in order to keep their jobs. Not only was it a certain "style" of playing that had to be emulated, but for a time Muddy even required that his harp players learn Little Walter's exact solos from Muddy's records and copy them when playing the songs on stage.

As a result, there has been a fair amount of discussion and debate over the years regarding who played harp on which Muddy records after Little Walter left in 1952 to pursue a solo career. There was precious little documentation of personnel kept at the time of these classic blues sessions, which has added to the confusion, but after much careful listening and stylistic comparisons by blues harmonica aficionados, most of the uncertainty has been cleared up. However a few inaccuracies still exist in the standard discographies; these will be addressed below. As the initial replacement for Walter in `52, Muddy recruited an even younger harp player, 18 year old Amos "Junior" Wells, who'd been making a name for himself around town fronting a band called The Aces, and sitting in with many of the older blues veterans, including Muddy. Wells was playing at his peak, with power, drive, and an "in your face" audacity that rivaled Little Walter's. Wells was in Muddy's band long enough to play on just one session in late 1952 before he was drafted into the military and forced to leave the band.

Next up was Walter "Shakey" Horton, a brilliant but frustratingly inconsistent player from the Memphis area. Horton had already made some recordings under his own name in Memphis, and was trying to get a toehold in the Chicago blues scene when he put his solo career aspirations on hold for a brief stint in Muddy's band in early 1953. Horton is recognized today as one of the all-time greats on his instrument, but like Wells, he was in Muddy's band long enough to appear on just one session, in early 1953, before being fired and replaced by Henry "Pot" Strong. Strong was a less-experienced but promising player who played in a style similar to Horton's (not surprisingly, since they both hailed from the Memphis area.) Sadly, Strong was murdered by a jealous girlfriend in June of '54 before he was able to record anything with Muddy.

Strong's replacement was George "Harmonica" Smith, a great, swinging player who, like Little Walter, emulated jazz horn players with his harp, although with results that were distinctly his own. Muddy recorded several sessions while Smith was in his performing band, but unfortunately Smith did not play on any of them, as Chess, fearful of changing a winning combination, continued to bring in Little Walter for Muddy's recordings. Possibly frustrated by this, and eager to front his own band, Smith moved on to Kansas City in 1955, before eventually settling on the West Coast. Junior Wells may have re-joined for a few gigs around this time (and probably played on the session that produced Muddy's "Mannish Boy", which was recorded while Little Walter was on the road and therefore unavailable), and an otherwise unknown player named Elgie "Little Sonny" Willis may have also filled in for a few gigs, but Muddy must have been getting tired of the revolving door at the harp position in his band. In 1956 he put in a call to James Cotton, whom he'd heard while passing through Memphis on a recent tour. Cotton was a young and eager disciple of Rice "Sonny Boy Williamson" Miller, and he readily moved to Chicago to join Muddy's band. Cotton would occupy the harp seat for a large part of the next decade. However during that time there were occasional periods during which Cotton was unavailable for Muddy's tours or sessions, and several other harp players did a few gigs here and there with Muddy, including Little Walter for a few one-offs. Among the others were Little Willie Anderson for about a month in 1959, George "Mojo" Buford, who would do a long run as Cotton's stand-in as needed beginning around 1960, George Smith returning for a brief spell around 1966, and Birmingham Jones briefly around 1968.

By 1968 Cotton was off pursuing his own solo career full time, and as a permanent replacement Muddy recruited the first Caucasian member of his band, young Paul Oscher from New York. Oscher stayed with the band steadily for tours and recordings until Muddy was sidelined for a lengthy period after a serious car accident in 1969. After Muddy was well enough to return to performing in 1970, Osher re-joined the line-up for a short time, but eventually left and moved back to New York. Carey Bell, who had closely studied both Little Walter and Big Walter, joined for a while in the early 1970s. Around the same time, Mojo Buford came back on board working gigs and sessions when neither Bell nor Cotton (who mainly toured with his own band but still did some session work with Muddy) was available. In 1974 Muddy shuffled the personnel in his band, and settled on a line-up that would carry him through the rest of the decade. On harmonica was Jerry Portnoy, who Muddy described as his best harp player since Little Walter. Although Muddy occasionally featured Cotton on guest appearances, and was reunited with Horton in the late `70s for the recording of Muddy's "I'm Ready" LP, Portnoy appears to have been the harmonica player who stayed with Muddy for the longest uninterrupted stretch since Little Walter. In 1980 Portnoy (and the rest of Muddy's late `70s line-up) left to form The Legendary Blues Band. Muddy's touring schedule slowed down due to illness in the early 1980s, but when he was working, the reliable Mojo Buford was his harp player of choice. Muddy passed away on April 30th, 1983, just six weeks before the first Chicago Blues Festival, which he would have headlined had he lived.

A complete "Muddy's Harp Players" discography is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, below is a list of corrections to the Muddy Waters listing in "Blues Records 1943 - 1970, Vol. 2, L to Z" by Leadbitter, Fancourt and Pelletier. These corrections are based on aural evidence, expert opinion, and Muddy's own comments. (In the book "Bossmen", Muddy confirms that Horton, who was credited in the discography as appearing on the September 1953 session, in fact only appeared on one session with him for Chess. The aural evidence - and the listing in "Blues Records" - indicate that this was the Muddy session that took place c. January 1953.)

September 24, 1953
U7551 Blow Wind Blow
U7552 Mad Love (I Want You To Love Me)
Little Walter, hca
8388 Live The Life I Love
8389 Rock Me
Little Walter, hca
c. April, 1967
15655 It's All Over
15656 County Jail
15657 Two Step Forward
15658 Blind Man
Little Walter, hca
c. June, 1967
15840 Find Yourself Another Fool
15842 Kinfolks Blues
Little Walter, hca

References: Bob Eagle, Living Blues magazine, Blues Records 1943 - 1970,
Vol. 2, L to Z by Leadbitter, Fancourt and Pelletier.

"Blues With A Feeling - The Little Walter Story"
by Tony Glover, Scott Dirks, and Ward Gaines, to be published by Routledge Press, Summer 2002.
Advance orders are now being taken at or reserve a copy today at Jazz Record Mart !