John Bryan Harmonica Collector

John Bryan – Collecting before the Internet

Based on my article in Harmonica World April 2015

Ronald Victor John Bryan – Born 8th September 1924 – Died 14th September 2014, in Southampton.

John amassed what is probably the best collection of harmonica media ever – audio and video recordings, magazines, and photographs- everything but harmonicas. He did this without the benefits of modern methods of communication – he never used email or searched the Internet.

How did he do it?

John was born in Portsmouth. He and Nora married young and had a son who went to live in the USA.

John worked as a fitter for Ford for most of his life and never lived far from the Ford factory in Southampton, apart from a two year spell in Australia, which did not suit them. He was a successful middle-weight weightlifter and he took part in competitions as far away as Germany. He loved his motor cycle, an AJS Matchless Twin, until he had a serious crash. He survived a cancer scare in the 1980s and was active until his death in 2014.

John was a quiet man who kept himself to himself but was quite adventurous. He built up a large network of harmonica contacts. This cutting from the NHL magazine from 1962 shows how he set about doing it..

When I took over as Chairman of the NHL in 2000, I was interested in the history of the organisation back to the 1920s. It soon became clear that I should talk to John.

I met John at the International Harmonica Festival (IHO) in Bournemouth in 2000, along with two others people with similar interests – Art Daane and Brian Holland. All three had been involved in collecting information and recordings by the early harmonica groups and chromatic soloists. They contributed a lot to what has been preserved.

It was not easy to write the story of John’s harmonica journey as he outlived most of his friends. Fortunately I had asked John about it and I have the letters he wrote to me about the collection. Here is the story in his own words.

The History of my Collection by John Bryan

My interest in the harmonica started during the mid 1930s when I saw a music hall performance by the Borrah Minevitch Rascals in my home town of Portsmouth. Ten years later I started buying 78s by Larry Adler, Ronald Chesney, Max Geldray, Tommy Reilly, and the BM Rascals, but little else was known of such records in other countries.

In the early 1950s I saw a copy of Harmonica News, joined the NHL and got their magazine. I learned of recordings in other countries. I sent details of my record collection to the NHL and SPAH magazines, and then made the offer on the opposite page, in an effort to make contact with other collectors in other countries and to work out a Record Exchange System between us.

One of the first to respond was Andy Paskas, the technician at Hohner (New York) and a one time bass player with for the Paul Baron and Johnny Puleo Groups. He was really a collector like no other and he really got me going.

I made many pen-friendships and set up extensive record exchanges between us. This let me get copies of harmonica records not available here- from the USA, Argentina, Canada, Brazil, South Africa, France, Holland, Spain, Portugal, Germany, France, Israel, Austria, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia, Czechoslovakia, and Singapore.

Without friendships from those countries my collection would not exist! My visits to harmonica events in the USA (SPAH in Detroit 1979) and other European venues also brought me into contact with many of the greats of the harmonica world and invitations to their homes – Harry Feinberg, Bill Fox, Alan Pogdon, Norm Dobson, Andy Paskas, Charlie Leighton, Jerry Murad, Stagg McMann, Hal Weiss, Al Smith and Gene Finney.

I will be forever grateful to the harmonica for making all this possible.

John Bryan

Here are two collections of harmonica group favourites put together by John Bryan

Harmonica Favourites – Part One – Quartets, Trios, Duos and Soloists

Harmonica Favourites – Part Two – Quartets, Trios, Duos and Soloists

Norm Dobson (1929 to 2019) harmonica player

Norman R. Dobson Jr., or Norm, as he was known to all his harmonica friends everywhere, was the US Vice President of the National Harmonica League from 1982 until his death, aged 90. He lived in Peabody, near Boston, and for many years he looked after the interests of NHL members who lived in the USA. He was also a VP for SPAH in the 1990s.

Norm played harmonica as a child but his musical life changed when he heard Peg O’ My Heart being played on the radio in 1947. He bought the 78rpm record and 16 hole chromatic harmonica. He was in the Marines but when he came out of the Services in 1950 he found two friends, Bill Mackay (chord) and Jack Malaquias (bass) who joined him in a harmonica trio, The Harmonichords. They performed together for 38 years and helped with the important charity work Norm did with other ex-Marines in his home town.


Norm always had an interest in the harmonica which went worldwide and he attended many national festivals, becoming a member of many harmonica associations around the world. This is how he came to build a special relationship with the National Harmonica League. John Walton invited him onto the committee in 1982, about the time Hohner bestowed the title World Ambassador of the Harmonica on him. He hosted NHL members on their trips to the USA and he helped to run the World Championship Festival in Jersey, 1987, organised by Jim Hughes. You can see him at work in the first five minutes of this video. Here is another video of him in the concert with Alan Pogson and Earl Williams.

After the festival Norm stayed on to visit his friends in the UK. He remained in touch with the NHL and was pleased to be a part of its success. He was also a VP of SPAH for a time in the 1990s.

Norm was most proud of becoming the first and only harmonica player to be elected as the head of a district Musicians Union. Until 1947 the harmonica was regarded as a toy, but, following the success of The Harmonicats’ recordings, harmonica players were finally accepted as members of the Union. Norm was President of the Local 126 Northshore Musicians of America Federation of Musicians for many years until his death.

Harmonichords keep Trossingen tradition
by EDWARD T. MEANEY – (Extract)

One who will argue that the mouth organ is still alive and well is a Peabody man, Norman (Norm) Dobson, the lead player for a harmonica trio, “Harmonichords,” which has entertained throughout this area and is in Europe. Yes, even Trossingen.

Norm’s companions are: Bill Mackey of Seabrook, N.H., formerly of Hamilton, chord rhythm and har- monetta player, and Jack Malaquias of Danvers, bass vocalist, who does thesinging as he plays his bass guitar.

The “Harmonichords’’ have been operating seven years, being born after Norm placed an advertisement appealing to harmonica advocates to join him. Ever since, the trio has been playing at dances, weddings, anniversaries, and socials of various types.

Norm said “our trio has done very little show playing and we don’t regard ourselves as a show harmonica trio. We play everything from rock ‘n roll to modern commercial music, one of our latest favorites being the Barry Manilow hit, ‘I Write the Songs’.”

In 1974, the Dobson trio went to Germany, appeared on TV, and moved along to Holland. “The reason we went,” Norm went on, “was to meet the world champion harmonica trio of Gladbeck, West Germany, ‘The Blizza Harmonica Trio.’ We joined them in performing at several night clubs and parties.

The biggest event for the “Harmonichords’’ in Germany came when they appeared on the stage of the Sports Hall in Trossingen in the heart of the Black Forest, The two harmonica units played before an audience in excess of 5,000. Tapes were filmed for television and later there were feature stories in WAZ, one of Germany’s leading newspapers. Germany, of course, is the world leader in harmonica music.

In 1975, the “Harmonichords” submitted a tape recording to the competition sponsored by the International Harmonica Association in Germany, one of several hundred submitted by groups throughout Western Europe and several parts of the United States. Norm’s trio came up with a certificate from the Federation Internationale de la Harmonica (FIH), putting together a 12th place finish.

“One of the highlights of the trip to Germany came when Georg Armbruster, then general manager of the Hohner factory in Trossingen, presented me with sterling silver lapel pins and certificates, making our trio the only American group to become members of the Deutscher Harmonika Verband ( DHV).”

“The Blizza Harmonica Trio” also came to this country in 1975, appearing at King’s Grant Motor Inn and Restaurant in Danvers. Norm, himself, made another trip to Germany in 1977, helping “The Blizza Harmonica Trio” to celebrate its 25th year in the world of harmonica entertainment. On that occasion, he represented the U. S. Harmonica Club, SPAH.

Norm is also an honorary member of the oldest harmonica club in the world, Harmonica Orchester Edelweiss of Wuppertal, West Germany and an honorary member of the Harmonica Orchester Bergisch Echo in Leichlingen, West Germany.

“There are no ‘name trios’ other than our group in this part of New EnglandAt least, they aren’t registered with SPAH. In New York and New Jersey, several harmonica trios are going strong”

“I don’t feel the harmonica has reached its peak. Many think it is a thing of the past, a reminder of ‘the good old days.’ On the contrary, it’s coming more into its own in all phases of music, the symphony, Boston Pops, and other musical groups.

“Richard Hayman, who currently arranges music with the Boston Pops, is a featured harmonica soloist and another, Larry Adler, was in this area not too long ago for a concert.”

Here are a couple of local obituaries – The Salem News and the CCB Funeral Home

Steve Jennings – Feb 1954 to Nov 2019 – a tribute

With contributions from Steve’s wife Josie, and his friends – Tom Hunter, Steve Jones, Rowena Millar, Johnny Mars, ‘Pip’ Rowland, and Paul Gillings.

Harmonica World

Stephen John Jennings or ‘Steve’ as he was universally known was one of the small group of volunteers who are responsible for the survival and success of the National Harmonica League (NHL) as we know it.

He joined the NHL in 1986, a few years after it separated from Hohner in 1981. Steve first started writing blues harp reviews for Harmonica World early in 1987 and by December that year he was editing the magazine, which he did until 1995. He was back on the committee as treasurer from 1998 to 2003 before stepping down to qualify as a Reader in his local Anglican church.

He attended NHL festivals in Bristol, with his wife Josie, as long as his deteriorating health would allow. He would talk long into the night, sitting on a stool in the hotel lounge.


Steve was born in London and attended Whitgift School in Croydon where he developed the sense of civic responsibility which he maintained all his life. In his early 20s, he enrolled at Rose Bruford College in London and gained a BA in Theatre Arts.

Steve, Josie and David
Steve, Josie and David

Steve was a musical child and played organ in church but blues harp became his chosen instrument in his twenties. London had lots of harp driven bands at that time and Steve was a regular at pub gigs by Shakey Vic, Johnny Mars and Lee Brilleaux of Dr. Feelgood. He was a fast learner and gained valuable experience playing with them and other harp players like Steve Baker, Paul Rowan and Alan Glen.

By now Steve was married with a son and working as a systems analyst. He had joined the NHL and wanted to share his enthusiasm and knowledge. Becoming editor in 1987 gave him a great opportunity to do this and he transformed the magazine. Living in London gave him great access to visiting players and he interviewed many of them.

In autumn1991 he took a new job with Travis Perkins near Northampton and moved with his family to Rothersthorpe. Harmonica players were always welcome there. He remained as editor until 1995.

Steve learned chromatic and performed in a duo with his wife, Josie, who played a vineta (small chord). Over the years he regularly acted as a competition judge and organiser.

Following the retirement of Hohner’s harmonica technician, Willi Dannecker, Steve taught himself to maintain and repair harmonicas and carried out work for many top players, including Les Henry (Cedric) from The Three Monarchs. Steve also made and sold custom harmonica cases.

Sharp Dressed Man

In the early1990s Steve helped to teach blues to the Harp Start Children’s program in Great Yarmouth and developed the Blue Saturday events with Norman Ives and David Priestley, which enabled many players to improve their knowledge and performance of blues music. The workshops usually ended with a jam session with Steve’s blues band, Straight Eight, with guitarist Eric Sweetland (Tom Hunter) or Double or Quits with Dave Arrowsmith on guitar. When he performed, Steve was always smartly and snappily dressed and, unusually for a musician, punctual to a tee.

In addition to the Blue Saturday event, Steve produced a series of Blues Harp Breakdown cassette tapes under the name “Sonny Jay” each of which was dedicated to teaching a well-known instrumental like “Easy” by Walter Horton. He also produced some cassettes of backing and play-along tracks.

In 1991 he wrote a book with his friend Ken Howell for advanced players of the chromatic and blues harp called The Practical Harmonica Player. Its objective was to increase fluency in all keys.

He wrote a couple of books of Blues and R&B music arranged for harmonica which were published by Wise Publications (Music Sales) as well as a tuition book for beginners. The demands for a TAB version of the sheet music in books led Steve and Pat Missin to develop and publish SuperTAB. It is an attempt to bring some order to the way TAB is being constantly being reinvented by everyone. You can find more about SuperTAB here.

In the 1990s Steve was part of an attempt to develop a process to assess the ability of harmonica teachers – HTAB (Harmonica Teacher Accreditation Board). Unfortunately the project was never completed.

Steve was very interested in the chord harmonica family of instruments and about 10 years ago he wrote a detailed article about the history and development of the many types of chord instruments, which was published in the April/May and Oct/Nov 2012 issues of Harmonica World.

Even as his health was failing, Steve continued to play as a duo, The Junkyard Crew, with Bob Coombs on guitar.

Steve had lots of experience and memories of the history of the harmonica. At the time of his death I was digitising his favourite VHS tape of the NHL festival concert in Shirley, Birmingham, in 1988.

Steve the Reader

One of the last things Steve did was to apply to Sarum College, Salisbury, to study for an MA in Christian Liturgy. It has just been awarded to him, posthumously. Steve got the funeral he wanted. In addition to the church hymns and plainsong, the service included Hoochie Coocjie Man by Muddy Waters, Down at the Doctors by Dr Feelgood and Free as a Bird by John Lennon.

Steve got the funeral he wanted. In addition to the church hymns and plainsong, the service included Hoochie Coochie Man by Muddy Waters, Down at the Doctors by Dr Feelgood and Free as a Bird by John Lennon.

When God made Steve he threw away the mould. He was an educated and determined man with an impish sense of humour who gave strength and support to the NHL for over 30 years, for which we are very grateful. I will miss his enthusiasm and support.