Lonnie Donegan was the King of Skiffle. In the 1950s he played some great country blues songs like Rock Island Line, Stewball, Midnight Special, Mule Skinner Blues… but he never had the chance to play with a blues harp player.
30 years later Lonnie got more recognition for what he has achieved and made a tribute album with Rory Gallagher, Elton John, Brian May Ringo Starr and Leo Sayer on blues harp.
One of my favourite Donegan recordings is one called “I’m a Roving Rambler” and earlier this year I was playing this track for my friend , Marty McFly, who was over from Chicago. I said I thought it was crying out for a bit of blues harp.
Here is how it starts….
Marty was playing around with his valve amplifier at the time and suddenly there was a blue flash and some white smoke and he disappeared. The clock was about to strike midnight so I sorted out the amplifier. I plugged it back in and it sparked, crackled back to life and the valves (tubes) started to glow.
Suddenly Marty reappeared looking all excited. He said that when the smoke cleared after the explosion he had found himself in the studio with Lonnie Donegan, back in 1956. And then, just as they finished recording a take of Roving Rambler, he had a blackout and when he woke up, he was back in the UK with me again in 2020.
It did not make any sense to me or my other friend, “Doc“ Brown. Then I noticed that there was an alternative, previously unreleased take on the CD I was listening to. I played the track and I began to wonder if it might have been true. Have a listen….
Who do you think is playing harp on the recording?
The answer is at the end.
It wasn’t Michael J. Fox!
More Skiffle information.
I have been through a few hundred Skiffle tracks from the 1950s from the UK, in the last few weeks, looking for any bands that featured the harmonica with little success. What I found was that the only person playing anything like blues harp at this time was Cyril Davies.
Cyril recorded sessions with Beryl Bryden and his own group with Alexis Korner which played at the Skiffle, and the Barrelhouse and Blues Club at the Round House Club in Soho. Cyril eventually became the friends with Sonny Terry and James Cotton on their trips to the UK and he moved to amplified harp and in 1962 he and Alexis recorded the ground breaking “R&B at the Marquee” which helped to launch the British Blues Boom.
Other examples of harmonica in Skiffle bands include Chris Barber on the “Backstairs Session” and some melodic chromatic solos by John Wadley Original Barnstormers Spasm Band. In the mid 1960s the blues music scene split into pop music and a more traditional blues scene in the folk clubs where many good blues harp players could be heard.
Skiffle came out of the British interest in US country blues and traditional jazz. The interest in American music of the people went back before the Second World War and was heightened during the war period with the mixing of American servicemen, coloured and white, and their music and recordings, with the British people. One attraction was the associated dances. After the war, British traditional jazz bands were formed and regular venues were established where you could listen, dance and even get to play.
By the early 1950s this had become very popular and the bands of Ken Colyer, Humphrey Littleton, Sandy Brown and Chris Barber were well established. It was quite normal to have a beer break and in this interval, some of the musicians would get together and play songs by Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, the Jug Bands, and other country blues numbers. The instrumentation was very basic – guitars, a wash-tub bass and maybe a suitcase for percussion. As the Chris Barber Band started to play concerts in the big theatres they included some of their interval “skiffle” music into their performances. These songs were led by their banjo player, Lonnie Donegan, who played guitar on these songs. It was the unexpected success of their recording of their concert version of Leadbelly’s “The Rock Island Line” which launched Skiffle as a mainstream music style.
The success of the recordings by professional bands led to the proliferation of skiffle bands in youth groups, church groups, scouts and schools. They were the sort people who had previously started harmonica groups.
The Pioneer Skiffle Group of Sidcup, Kent. The Harmonica is an ideal instrument for taking the melody line with the usual skiffle backing of guitar, bass, drums and piano. The instrument is regularly featured by the popular Pioneer Skiffle Group, shown in this photograph sent to us by Mr. K. S. B. Clark of Sidcup. From Harmonica News, December 1957
The fire of the Skiffle movement burned brightly for three or four years but it became much more of a pop music style. Out of the ashes of Skiffle came many young people who had got a taste for performing and playing guitars and they started to make their own Rock and Roll and Blues music, the Beatles, the Shadows, Jimmy Page …
Skiffle still lives on. There is a band called The Lonegans who play around the South East of England and raise money for the MIND Charity. Lonnie Donegan’s son Peter is a well known musician and singer of Country Music.
The harp player on the Lonnie Donegan track is Joe (one-take) Filisko – www.joefilisko.com !
John Sebastian Sr Biography – On Wikipedia Video – No videos are available. Audio – There are audio tracks on YouTube, and his recordings appear on eBay. 78s, vinyl and a CD – John Sebastian Plays Bach , A Harmonica Recital, Profile of John Sebastian, and John Sebastian Plays Villa-Lobos/ Tcherepnin Concertos for Harmonica.
Born in Kiev, Russia, November 5, 1902 [real name Borah Minjevic]. At the age of ten, Borrah’s family immigrated to the United States. Because of ill health father Minevitch was refused an entry permit, and had to return home almost immediately. However a short time later the family was reunited, but not for long though, Minevitch Sr. passed away very suddenly. Mrs. Minevitch now had to raise the family, two boys and five girls, all by herself. She turned their home into a guesthouse to support all of them.
After school, Borrah sold newspapers, studied the violin, and practiced his harmonica. Against the wish of the family, he left for New York when he turned 18. He went on to study at the City College, and worked in a greengrocer’s store, a shoe store and a kindergarten to earn his living. For his graduation thesis subject he chose the harmonica and called it ” The History and Shortcomings of the Harmonica as a musical instrument .” A harmonica manufacturer sold 50.000 copies.
The Half-tone Harmonica
His biggest wish was to own a Half Tone Harmonica, so that he would be able to play real music. The firm that manufactured these had stopped production because of low sales. During one of his habitual strolls, he saw one in a music shop for five dollars. He could not afford it but asked the salesman if he could try it at a deposit of ten cents. Several times a week he used to hop into the store to play it and pay his ten cents. Not having sold one in three years the salesman must have found him a bit strange. When one of his sisters came to visit, she wanted to treat Borrah to a show and dinner, instead he asked her to buy the chromatic. She didn’t like the idea but eventually gave in. He mentioned to the man in the shop that it looked rather worn and should come down in price, he refused at first but let it go for 3 dollars and twenty-five cents, he was frightened that it would be in the window for another three years. A few weeks later, the instrument became faulty. Borrah then went to see the manufacturer and asked the man in charge for a refund. The man told him that he was crazy to ask for a refund on a ten-year-old instrument. Borrah apologized and started to play a tune which left the man so surprised that he gave him a brand new one.
The Band It was in 1925 when Minevitch formed his first group. In 1926, when playing as a soloist in a charity show at the famous Carnegie Hall, he told the public that he had a surprise in mind. When the curtain opened, the public saw a group some thirty boys, formally dressed and looking like serious musicians, sitting with harmonica in hand. They played ‘Deep River’ and received an enormous ovation and requested for more, which left them satisfied and yet embarrassed because it was the only piece they had studied. Buoyed up by the success with the first harmonica band at the famous Carnegie Hall, it was clear to him that there could be more success with a harmonica band in Vaudeville theaters. The time was right for a professional approach.
The first invitation for the Symphonic Harmonica Ensemble came in 1927. Because of the classical touch to the name, the public expected them to play classical music. Minevitch probably tried what Edwin Frank Goldman had done for the brass band, making it exceptable for concert halls. The vaudeville public was bored stiff and Minevitch dropped the act.
The Harmonica Rascals
During a show at the Hebrew Orphans Asylum (H.O.A.), a Daily News photographer had shot Lou Delin with three boys, one on each arm and one on his shoulder. They wore W.W.1 uniforms and all four-played harmonica; the photograph was published nation wide. This picture gave Borrah the idea of a new vaudeville group. A few weeks later he visited H.O.A. and met Lou and the leader of the mouth-organ orchestra of Charles Snow. He was introduced to the band members, one of them was Ben Dansky who together with Lou was invited to join Minevitch.
“Borrah Minevitch and his Harmonica Rascals” became very popular despite rivals like; Charlie Snow’s Broadway Pirates; Charles Bennington’s N.Y. Newsboys Harmonica Band; Cappy Barras Harmonica Ensemble; Johnny O’Brien’s Harmonica Hi-Hats; Murray Lane’s Harmonica Scamps, and many, many more. Almost every city in the United States had one or more harmonica groups during the “Harmonica Madness.” Minevitch assembled well over 100 quality players over the years. Best known are undoubtedly; Ernie Morris (his tone still has to be equalled), Louis ‘Fuzzy’ Feldman ( Borrah’s favourite called the chugger), Johnny Puleo (the shortest with the largest harmonica of that time).
Borrah’s Rascals had become immensely popular, they had success after success. It was a big shock when, in June 1932, an article appeared in all major newspapers, “Borrah Minevitch feared drowned” when two days overdue in Tunis. In a telegram to S. Jay Kaufman, Mrs. Minevitch reported that her husband had already been missing for four days, and that she was extremely worried because he had not arrived in Corsica. Borrah had been on his way to Abbessinia, Ethiopia, to go hunting, to pay his debt from a gambling spree. He sailed on his schooner “Lydia”, named after his daughter. On June 2, 1932, the New York Times announced his safety; his Corsican crew had kidnapped him.
Hollywood and Europe
A New York newspaper announced in 1934, under the heading “Borrah Minevitch auditions” the following message: “The famous harmonica virtuoso Borrah Minevitch will hold auditions on Friday next from 17.00-19.00 hours, for harmonica players in the age group 16-30, for American and European groups at Malin Studios on 225 w, 26th Street. This was a natural progression of what started in 1933, when the Rascals appeared on the screen in many so-called “shorts”. Borrah, as a soloist, featured in the 1935 movie “Dreamland” with Eddie Cantor. Their big success came in 1936 when they featured in “One in a Million” with Sonja Henie and Don Ameche. There was no end to their success, 1937, ” Love under Fire ” with John Carradine and Frances Drake, 1938, “Rascals ” with Jane Withers and Robert Wilcox, Hit Parade of 1941 ” with Phil Silver, also in 1941 ” Always in my Heart ” with Walter Houston and Kay Francis, 1942, “Tramp, tramp, tramp”, and “Top Man” in 1943 with Donald O’Connor. The 1935 European tour was a tremendous success. It was in Amsterdam, when a Dutch harmonica group went to see the “Harmonica Rascal Show”, that Borrah took the time to listen to these five players. Borrah said, ” You’re not musicians! You’re Hotchas “. From then on they called themselves “The 5 Hotchas”. The concert in “Queens Hall”, London, on Sunday Feb. 16, 1936 was a memorable performance. Although mentioned on the program as an orchestra of 12 virtuosi. The photograph, taken during the show, only shows 10 performers. The list of players on page 7 of the program also only mentions ten. A puzzle indeed. Borrah Minevitch and His Symphonic Harmonicas Harold Liechtenstein Leo Diamond Ernest Morris Abe Diamond John Puleo Al Furbish Irvin Crane Alex Novelle Louis Feldman James Kenneth The repertoire on page 4-5 of the program: 1. Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov 2. The Bumble Bee by Rimsky-Korsakov 3. St. Louis Blues by W. S. Handy 4. Mississippi Suite by Grofé (a) Fathers of Waters (b) Huckleberry Finn (c) Old Creole Days (d) Mardi Gras 5. Suite Philharmonica by Minevitch-Diamond 6. Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin 7. First Composition by “Pastoral” (aged 15) Eric Coates 8. Tango Land by …arr. Minevitch 9. Retrospections by Forsyth 10. Bolero by Ravel
Pete ‘n Jerry
It was in Chicago, where Pete Pedersen, and some of his friends, were rehearsing in the park (The Park Harmonica Band), when he was trying to get an impossible note from his harmonica. They played the song faultless, except for that single note, when suddenly a man appeared. The man was at least six years older than Pete, who was 15 at the time, was. The man showed him a chromatic harmonica, and Pete was allowed to try it. Immediately he got the impossible note. Pete.. “I never let him out of my sight”. The man….was Jerry Murad. Shortly after, Jerry and his brother, Pete Pedersen, Al Fiore, and the Hadamik brothers had formed a band, and when the Rascals came to Chicago, they visited them “back stage”, where they were playing when suddenly “Mr. Harmonica” appeared in the doorway. They stood perplexed, standing eye to eye with “The Maestro”, and they were not dreaming. Minevitch asked them to play something, and then he asked Pete, who was the youngest, if his parents would allow him to join the Rascals. Pete didn’t hesitate a second, and said…”Yes!” Even if his parents would not agree, he would go anyway. He walked around, head in the clouds, but….no word from Minevitch. He had already put it out of his head as just one of those things, when, just before Christmas, a telegram and a train ticket arrived with the request to join the group in Los Angeles. Jerry Murad had received the same, and together they went into the big world of entertainment.
During the period that Pete and Jerry joined, Richard ‘Dick’ Hayman asked Hugh ‘Pud’ McKaskey if he wanted to join Johnny Puleo’s group. Johnny had left Minevitch about a contract problem, and wanted to set up his own group. Pud grabbed the opportunity, because the “Stagg McMann Trio” had dissolved. His two friends, Paul Steigerwald and Mannie Smith, joined the army. The complete group lived at Johnny’s parents home, in the basement to be correct, where they also rehearsed. This episode only lasted a little while, Borrah had soon found Johnny’s whereabouts. Johnny had no option as to return. His contract was for life! This is one of the reasons for the so-called ‘second group’. Insiders talk of the East and West Coast groups. The other reason, Borrah had contracted Sammy Ross to replace Johnny while he was in hiding. It was Sammy who performed in the movie short “The Borrah Minevitch Harmonica School”. Other players were: Dave Doucette, Carl Ford, Ben Burley, Ernie Morris, Hugh MacKaskey, Etto Manieiri, Pat Marquis and Frank Marquis. Other movie shorts that were enjoyed in many movie theaters were: “My Shawl”, “Boxcar Rhapsody”, “Camping”, and “New York Radio”, all with the so-called “Leo Diamond group”. Borrah went into semi-retirement in 1949, and gave the scepter over to Johnny, afterwards he was seldom seen. He died of a stroke in Paris, France on June 26, 1955. He was 52 years old.
Borrah´s gravestone at the Paris Cemetry photograph by René Haboyan René cleaned the grave in 2002 with the above result
Johnny Puleo Harmonica Gang
Johnny was under the impression that, “Harmonica Rascals” was a registered trademark owned by Minevitch. Johnny changed from ‘Rascals’ to ‘Gang’, and stayed successful with ex-Rascals like Eddie Gordon, Al Smith, and Dave Doucette. New Gang members were, Bill McLean, George Whitcombe, Hal Harmon. During the “Gang” period, seven LPs were recorded. Johnny is also mentioned on a double LP “Johnny Puleo and the Chimes Family”, re-released on CD “Harmonica Gold.”
Lydia Minevitch Harmonica Rascals
In 1959, Lydia Minevitch tried to revive the “Harmonica Rascals” with Alex Novelle as the leader, Bobby Dimler became the new ‘comedian’. On August 7, 1959 ‘Variety’ wrote, ” Borrah Minevitch Harmonica Rascals – Instrumental Comedy – 20 minutes – Black Orchids”. The critics however were not mild. “The world wasn’t waiting for another ‘Johnny Puleo Harmonica Gang’.”
Paul Baron Harmonica Rascals
When Paul Baron realized that the ‘Harmonica Rascals’ was not a registered trademark, he made it his own. Together with Bob Bauer – ? Bonden – Bruce Broglie – Gene Broglie – Michael Burton – Pat Candelorie – Pete Candelorie – Don Cardie – Peg Carter – Debbie Dell – Bobby Dimmler [diminitive] – Monti Dowdy – John Duffy – Al Duffy – Nick Fashenbauer – Joe Fresna – Eddie Gordon – Henry Graham – Frank Groven – Phil Gula – Kim Gutin – Hal Harmon – Arnold Lundberg – Kearney, Bill – Kerner, Nick – Kibber, Jack – Koss, Ed – LeFever, Robert – Levine, Howard – Levine, Harriet – Little, Tiny – Bill McLean – Richie Miller – Ralph Mindo – Dick Mobley – Charlie Moll – Charlie Newman – Tom O’Brien – Ralph Orsello – Andy Paskas – Vito Patierno – Don Powell – Bobby Pursell – Paul Reel – ? Rico – Bob Rudd – Roy Rumfelt – Tom Scerbo – Mike Sheppard – ? Smith – Larry Stutz – Bob Stutz – Tubby Tee – Ernie Terino – George Wagner – Greg Walker – Frank Warner – Paul West – Gary Wheeler – Danny Wilson – Willie Wolfschmidt and Dave Zaval he revived the ‘Harmonica Rascals’.
Larry Adler, the President of the NHL, passed away peacefully, surrounded by his family, in St Thomas Hospital, London, aged 87, on 6 August , 2001. He was born 10 February, 1914.
He was the torch bearer who lit the way for many aspiring chromatic players who were inspired by his style, technique and musicality. More than just the best mouth organ player, he was the consummate professional entertainer and performer to the end. He opened many doors through which others have since passed. There can never be another.
Here is a Press Release issued on the Centenary of Larry Adler’s birth 10/02/2014.
The Fishko Files, a NPR broadcast from New York on 30 January 2014, about the life and contributions of Larry Adler
This page has been be left as it was before Larry went into hospital, where he died, to give a feeling of his desire to keep working up to the end and not to let down his fans everywhere. First, here are some links to news of his death. Let me know of any others I should add.
Larry continued to perform up to his death, aged 87, despite severe problems with gout in his fingers. His stories and jokes were as vivid as ever.
If you want to know more about Larry’s life, there are two books written in his own inimitable style. “It ain’t necessarily so“, his first autobiography written in 1987 is out of print, but I found a copy via the remainders book merchants. The more recent “Me and my big mouth” was written in 1994 and includes the making of the all star Gershwin recording session with George Martin, as well as stories from the rest of his life. It is a paperback and costs around £5.
Larry Live in Australia 1997, is currently my favourite CDs (and one of Larry’s) as it contains all the jokes and conversation. Try eBay…