By Art M. Daane
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
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’.