The History of HarmonicaUK (Part 8, from 2000)

HarmonicaUK started life as a Hohner marketing activity in 1935 and remained so until it was handed over to the members in 1981. It was first called the Hohner National Song Band League (SBL), then the National Harmonica League (NHL) in 1982 and finally HarmonicaUK in 2021.

Roger Trobridge takes over from Colin Mort and John Walton

The new millennium, 2000, brought about a rebirth of the National Harmonica League. John Walton and then Colin Mort had created and kept the now independent NHL running since 1981, but at a personal cost to themselves. The membership of about 300 was not growing and many of the members who had helped to run and inspire it had stood down or died.

The friction between the John and Colin and their respective organisations, the IHO and the NHL, was not helping. The successful International Millennium Festival in Bournemouth run by John Walton marked the end of the IHO and Colin asked me to take over as Chairman of the NHL. Apparently my experience developing Mars/Dove ice cream made up for my inability to play the harmonica. Larry Adler died in 2001 and Paul Jones agreed to take over as President.

Moving into the digital age

Times had changed and I was familiar with the (then) new world of the Internet and I had already started integrating our activities into a website packed with information about what we did, plus educational resources and forums to bring the membership together. The improved communication by Skype and email also meant that meetings no longer had to be held face to face and documents could be shared instantly rather than sent by post. Another effect was that the committee could now function with members based in their home. Administration costs almost disappeared.

Other things had changed. The older members had been mainly chromatic players but younger diatonic blues players were getting involved. I am a researcher at heart and it was apparent that there was no archive of what had been achieved so I set about collecting what I could from previous Chairmen (John Tyler, John Walton and Colin Mort) as well as Steve Proctor (Sutherland Trading) who was part of Hohner at that time, and collectors like John Bryan and Brian Holland. These showed that the tremolo and traditional music, particularly English music, were not really represented in the NHL. A meeting with Ernie Gordon and his friendship with Will Atkinson was instrumental in remedying this.

The expanded annual festivals

In 2001, I attended the SPAH Convention in Denver and the World Harmonica Festival (WHF/Hohner) in Trossingen, Germany.

Both of them lasted for four days and showed the value of “total immersion” festivals.

The contacts I made with artists, enthusiasts and administrators turned out to be vital as the NHL began to evolve and grow its range of activities.

We needed to find a way to do the same and we were very fortunate that Ben Hewlett was teaching at the Folk House, in Bristol. In 2001 we convinced them to hire out the whole building to us from Friday night to Sunday afternoon and we established a long running, tolerant, agreement with Jurys (The Bristol Hotel), and as they say, the rest is history.

Taking part in the official side of the SPAH and WHF festivals showed that we were a member of the international harmonica community.

We became more outward looking both in the magazine and the many overseas artists we invited to our annual festivals, including a young Greg Szlap and Rachelle Plas, and established artists like Joe Filisko, Willi Berger, Will Galison, Pete ‘Madcat’ Ruth, Fata Morgana and Antonio Serrano. Howard Levy gave a workshop and concert in London.

The new committee members

Colin Mort and Frank Eatwell stayed on to help the new committee which was fortunate to pick up some very useful members. Pete Wheat had great contacts with the European Blues Association, Gerry Ezard combined a business background with a lifetime playing chromatic at the highest level. Phil Leiwy kept a tight grip on the finances and Dave Hambley modernised the membership systems. Barbara Tate looked after our IT needs. Many others helped where they could especially at the annual festival which Ben Hewlett organised. The membership rose steadily to over 600.

The Chromatic Weekend and Blue Saturdays

By 2005 it was clear that we needed to provide support for chromatic players as we had been doing with Blue Saturday tuition days for diatonic players.

We decided to run a weekend residential course in Birmingham partly for the location but also to be near to Jim Hughes and Philip Achille. The Chromatic Weekend started up in June in 2006 and following work by Gerry Ezard, Steve Dooley, Colin Mort, Neil Warren, David Hambley, Davina Brazier, and Hilvert Scheper. It is still running and is now located at the Hillscourt Hotel.

The NHL becomes a Charity

The NHL had wanted to be officially recognised as a charity like many other similar organisations, for a long time. In 2009 the NHL was granted Charity Status in recognition of the work it does. This had financial implications but it also is a public record of status of the organisation.

Ben Hewlett takes over as Chairman

I stood down as Chairman in 2012 and Ben Hewlett took over.

This the end of the history as I need to tell it.

I stayed on as editor of the magazine which I had edited since 2002 and continued its development as the modern, international magazine that it had become.

Pete Hewitt becomes Chairman

Ben kept the NHL moving and tackled the three major problems he inherited. How to find a new editor for the magazine as I was long past retirement age, what to do about the name of the organisation, and to find successor to run the organisation? Dave Taylor took over as editor in 2019. The name change took a few years to happen but finally he solved his biggest problem when he persuaded Pete Hewitt to take over as Chairman in 2020.

Pete has revolutionised and reinvigorated the organisation using his management and people skills to find and entrap many new volunteers. The responsibilities are now spread more broadly making the organisation more resilient, as shown by its reaction to Covid restrictions. A series of On-line Festivals, regular workshops and a coffee morning were established to expand the contact with members. Barry Elms, Dave Colclough and Steve Pardue brought a totally professional approach to the magazine.

Working with Richard Taylor, Pete oversaw an impressive brand relaunch program which has resulted in the official change in name to HarmonicaUK. A set of brand images and core values which have been applied to the new web site, the magazine and all other activities like the Outreach programme.

Into the Future with Barry Elms and Dave Colclough

HarmonicaUK has a secure and developing future, building on it’s deep roots in harmonica history.

Barry Elms took over as Chairman in 2022 and Dave Colclough succeeded him in 2023.

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The History of HarmonicaUK (Part 7, 1986-2000)

HarmonicaUK started life as a Hohner marketing activity in 1935 and remained so until it was handed over to the members in 1981. It was first called the Hohner National Song Band League (SBL), then the National Harmonica League (NHL) in 1982 and finally HarmonicaUK in 2021.

In the Part 6, John Walton stood down as President of the National Harmonica League having tried to build up a sustainable organisation. His move to a more International, monthly A4 magazine in 1986 had resulted in both his personal company, Able Music Ltd, and the NHL becoming unprofitable. Colin Mort agreed to take over as President in 1987, and he began a series of loans needed to keep the NHL running. John Walton became the Secretary, Treasure and Magazine Editor.

Colin needed to make more fundamental changes to the organisation to help it break even. John’s A4 glossy magazine was soon replaced by a much simpler and cheaper A5 version. Larry Adler agreed to become President of the NHL with Norm Dobson remaining as Vice President. Colin became Chairman and he invited more people onto the committee to share the load and make it more democratic. Dave Beckford, David Michelsen Pat Missin, Jim Hughes, Victor Brooks, Tony Perry, and Ken Howell are just some of the ones who helped over the years. Steve Jennings edited the magazine until 1995 when Colin took it over. John Walton became more involved with the International Harmonica Organisation (IHO) and when its President, Peter Janssen, died in 1993, John replaced him.

The winners of the 1987 Open Competition took part in The First Harmonica World Championships organised and run in Jersey by Jim Hughes with support from some NHL members.

The NHL settled into an annual cycle of events with a small informal Spring Hoolie, an Open National Harmonica Championships and a weekend Convention/AGM. This broke down after a dispute at the 1994 Open Championships when the judges decided that none of the chromatic players reached the standard expected of a National Champion and the prizes were not awarded. The competition restarted two years later but as a best on the day event rolled into the annual festival and AGM.

Mike Sadler ran courses in the Victoria Adult Education Centre in Gravesend using his own method to teach harmonica and he formed a group called The Blowhards. Derek Yorke and Dave Bedford were members. The only recent UK quartet, Four in Accord, started there. Colin Mort set up Southern Harmonics for players in the Hampshire area.

About the same time, 1989, Norman Ives was introducing the scouts in the 5th St Mary’s Group in Great Yarmouth to all types of harmonica. David Michelsen joined to provide more teaching and with financial support from NHL members and its own magazine, Kiddin’ Around.

This group of children progressed over the next 6 years from beginners to performing at Glastonbury, playing for Disney in the USA and appearing at numerous festivals and TV shows. Known as Harp Start, they achieved a very high standard of solo and group playing, including winning World Championships in Trossingen, Germany in 1993. Unfortunately the activity had to stop.

Norman Ives ran the best known harmonica shop in the UK with the tag line – You can get one of
those from Norman
. Along with David Michelsen he held a popular series of Residential Blues Tuition Weekends in Caister from 1994-96. David then worked with Steve Jennings and later, Pat Missin, to develop a one day event which could be held anywhere. This was called a Blue Saturday and the first one took place in Corby in July 1996, They continued up to 1999 and Johnny Mars and Colin Mort assisted at some of them. The experiences learned from the Blue Saturday events led to similar events being run by other players around the country. Another off-shoot of this activity was the attempt to provide certification for harmonica teachers, The Harmonica Teachers Accreditation Board (HTAB). This is no longer active.

After 1995 Colin found himself short of volunteers and he was doing much of the committee work himself. I joined the committee in 1999 as Colin tried to find a way to pass on the control to someone else. My role was to build an Internet presence for the NHL which we did very successfully that year, with the website (now and an email based forum for members. Volunteers were found for some of the other roles.

There had always been a strained relationship between the IHO and the NHL despite there having been a shared Hoolie festival in 1994. Some players were members of both organisations. Things came to a head when the IHO decided to hold an International Centennial Festival in Bournemouth in 2000. John Walton wanted to run it with financial support from the NHL, but Colin had worked hard to make the NHL sustainable and he wanted assurances about financial liabilities.

Colin did not get them so John Walton went ahead alone. John pulled it off but both he and Colin were worn out. The IHO organisation had also run out of steam and when Colin asked me if I would take over as Chairman said I would do the job if the infighting stopped.

Next time we will see what the new century would bring.

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The History of HarmonicaUK (Part 6, 1981-1986)

HarmonicaUK started life as a Hohner marketing activity in 1935 and remained so until it was handed over to the members in 1981. It was first called the Hohner National Song Band League (SBL), then the National Harmonica League (NHL) in 1982 and finally HarmonicaUK in 2021.

Life after Hohner

We left Part 5 in our history at the point where Hohner had enlisted a prominent NHL member, John Tyler, to reinvigorate their organisation, the NHL. Things came to a head in 1980 when John Tyler felt he had done all he could and the Hohner management decided that they could not continue to promote the NHL in the way they had done for the previous 50 years. They needed a way forward.

John Walton was born in South Africa in 1940. He was a successful chromatic harmonica player and entertainer who had met many of the top performers.

John had worked in Variety and on cruise ships before moving to the UK in 1978. He settled in Bournemouth with his family and immediately got involved with the NHL.

John Walton was born in South Africa in 1940. He was a successful chromatic harmonica player and entertainer who had met many of the top performers. John had worked in Variety and on cruise ships before moving to the UK in 1978. He settled in Bournemouth with his family and immediately got involved with the NHL.

In 1981 John had meetings with John Tyler who had decided to step down and dedicate more time to his job as a headmaster. John Walton agreed to take over as Director in 1982. He had always wanted to start a harmonica club – now he had one and he set out to make it successful. A new membership card and a lapel badge was produced.

At the time of the handover, the membership of the NHL was over 2000 but the majority of them had paid £1 to receive the magazine. Once Hohner decided to withdraw its financial support for the NHL, John had to raise the membership fee to £6 to cover the forecast running costs, and the membership fell to a couple of hundred.

Initially Hohner continued to edit, print and distribute Harmonica News and John Walton provided the content. John became frustrated when Hohner edited his writing and controlled some non-Hohner content.

By the time of John’s first NHL event, The Convention, at the Guildhall in Southampton in Nov 1982 he had decided on some major changes. At the AGM it was agreed that the name of the magazine would be changed to Harmonica World because Harmonica News was registered to Hohner. Operating costs had to be brought under control so they reduced the magazine size from A4 to A5, and the Walton family printed and posted out the magazine themselves.

The NHL was fully independent of Hohner but controlled by John Walton. John became President with his wife Jeanette as Secretary. Norm Dobson (US) was appointed as Chairman and Area Secretaries were set up to encourage local activities.

The Convention became the NHL’s main annual event with the 1983 event being held in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Stratford upon Avon. John held a competition for the Young Harmonica Player of the Year, which was won in 1982 and 1983 by Rowena Gelling (now Millar). She was awarded the Fred Southern Trophy. Many familiar names were members at this time – Frank Eatwell, Colin Mort, Jim Hughes, Doug Tate, Ken Howell, Jimmy English, Alf Clay, Windsor Carlisle and a future Chairman, Pete Hewitt.

The Convention became the NHL’s main annual event with the 1983 event being held in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Stratford upon Avon. John held a competition for the Young Harmonica Player of the Year, which was won in 1982 and 1983 by Rowena Gelling (now Millar). She was awarded the Fred Southern Trophy. Many familiar names were members at this time – Frank Eatwell, Colin Mort, Jim Hughes, Doug Tate, Ken Howell, Jimmy English, Alf Clay, Windsor Carlisle and the current Chairman, Pete Hewitt.

Subsequent Conventions were held in Westcliff-on-Sea (1984), Blenheim Palace (1985), Bournemouth (1986) and Western-Super-Mare (1987).

An additional event was added to the calendar in 1986 when Frank Eatwell held the Open Harmonica Championship in Banbury. Jim Hughes organised a similar British Harmonica Championship and Gala Concert in Shirley, Birmingham in 1987. Later that year, Jim produced the first genuine World Championships in Jersey (Channel Islands) which was the template on which the subsequent Hohner four yearly festivals were based.

John Walton always wanted the NHL to be an international organisation and he travelled to many overseas harmonica events. In 1984 he visited SPAH with this family harmonica group, the Harmonaires, and in 1985 he took a party of NHL members, including Jim Hughes, to a week long HarmonicaFest run jointly with the renowned chromatic player, Cham’ber Huang, in Silver Bay in Upstate New York.

Towards the end of 1985 John Walton made a big decision. He changed the focus of Harmonica World and renamed it Harmonica World International. The simple, quarterly A5, personally printed magazine became a new glossy, monthly A4, international harmonica magazine printed by his family company, Able Music. John continued to feature NHL News but he opened it up to all harmonica clubs around the world. He had wanted to build a world wide harmonica magazine with up to date news, but he was about thirty years too soon. It would need the Internet and live, online digital magazines before this could be done profitably.

At the same time that John changed the magazine he became a founder member and Treasurer of the new International Harmonica Organisation (IHO) set up by Peter Janssen from Holland. The IHO decided to use Harmonica World International as their official organ. NHL members were encouraged to join both organisations.

John Walton stepped down as President at the AGM at the end of 1986, having agreed that Colin Mort would take over. John stayed on as Treasurer/Secretary. He had achieved a lot in his 5 years in charge, raising standards and building up the organisation, but a new approach was needed. The losses incurred by the new magazine had become too great and the 18th issue in June 1987 was the final one.

The next part of our history will cover the move to a true members’ organisation and the recovery of the NHL finances.

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The History of HarmonicaUK (Part 5, 1975-1981)

HarmonicaUK started life as a Hohner marketing activity in 1935 and remained so until it was handed over to the members in 1981. It was first called the Hohner National Song Band League (SBL), then the National Harmonica League (NHL) in 1982 and finally HarmonicaUK in 2021.

Hohner’s final attempt to keep the organisation going

The decline in Hohner’s financial and marketing support for harmonicas and accordions in the UK came to a head with the breaking of links with the NAO, the National Accordion Organisation, and the halt to the production of the magazine “Accordion Times incorporating Harmonica News”, in 1974. From 1959 the NAO and the magazine had been the “home” for the National Harmonica League (NHL). It included a harmonica competition in its annual Accordion Day. Now there was no harmonica magazine to capture its history.

In 1974, the Accordion Day was held in Brighton. The harmonica competition was mainly for chromatic players and the winner was 16 year old Ivan Richards from West Heath, Birmingham, a pupil of Jim Hughes. In 1975 the event was held in Scarborough and the Larry Adler Challenge Cup was again won by Ivan, only this time he was the only contestant. Interest was waning.

Later that year, Hohner invited several blues harp players to take part in a competition sponsored by Hohner and “Sounds” magazine in the Kings Road Theatre, Chelsea which was judged by Steve Rye and Judd Proctor. Six were chosen and asked to travel as a team to the World Championships in Offenburg, Germany. They were the first blues harp players to take part in the World Championships. They included Steve Smith, Paul Lamb and Chris Turner and they won the Group Contest. Chris also won the diatonic competition. The other member of the British team was Ivan Richards and he won the Chromatic competition at the age of 17. He had been fourth in Ypres, Belgium in 1973.

Here is an image of “The Magnificent Seven” who took part in the Championship.

Britain’s harmonica heroes

(from left): Chris Taylor (winner of Diatonic Harmonica Championship, Antony Grant, Paul Lamb, Spitfire” Andrew Walton, Peter Hopewell. Centre: Ivan Richards (winner of Chromatic Harmonica Championship). Front: Steve Smith. Except Ivan Richards, all players formed a new harp group called “Blowjob” which also came away with the top prize in their group section (Sounds)

There is little information from 1976 but there was a chromatic championship in Weston-Super-Mare, which was won by Paul Templar. He had been a performer in the 1960s and was recovering from a serious lung disease.

He released a four track EP, Harmonica Magic.

Hohner’s last throw of the dice

At the end of 1976, Derek Kirk was Marketing Manager at Hohner under their Managing Director, Dirk Kommer. With their PR man, Les Stewart, he invited John Tyler, a headmaster from Essex, to become the Director of a relaunched NHL organisation which would be supported by Hohner. John had been a prominent member of the NHL and an accomplished chromatic player since the end of the 1950s. He accepted the challenge and set about opening up the organisation to all styles of harmonica, especially the popular blues harmonica players.

There was a strong membership drive with a small annual charge which included the new magazine – still called Harmonica News – and the circular NHL logo was born. The membership was about 1000 in 1977 and rose to over 2,500 by the end of 1979.

John’s big idea was to hold Get Together concerts in London, Birmingham and Manchester. The London ones were held in Cecil Sharp House in 1977 and 1979, and the other two were held in 1978. These concerts included many top players including Steve Smith, Harry Pitch, Paul Jones, Johnny Mars, Steve Rye, Paul Rowan, Jimmy Andrews, Carol Axford, Paul Templar, Brian Chaplin, Fred Southern …

If anyone has any programmes or tape recordings from these events, please let me know.

Alongside this activity the new “Harmonica News” (A4 size) was a huge improvement. Probably one of the best the NHL has produced.

It was full of topical news, articles, images and interviews with top touring players like Toots, Charlie McCoy and Sonny Terry as well as British artists.

By the end of 1979 it had become obvious that all this great work was not being rewarded by a growing and paying membership. The NHL had always had an international appeal and in 1980 they decided to make the magazine more colourful and broaden its appeal. It became the “International Harmonica Magazine incorporating Harmonica News”.

They published a couple of issues of the new magazine in 1980/81 before Hohner finally decided to call it a day. One of the main drivers, Derek Kirk, had moved on and John Tyler had done all he could.

Where did the NHL go next? South Africa?

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The History of HarmonicaUK (Part 4, 1959-1974)

HarmonicaUK started life as a Hohner marketing activity in 1935 and remained so until it was handed over to the members in 1981. It was first called the Hohner National Song Band League (SBL), then the National Harmonica League (NHL) in 1982 and finally HarmonicaUK in 2021.

After the Golden Age

The 1950s was the “Golden Age” of the harmonica on Radio, TV and the Theatre, but the decreasing enthusiasm for the harmonica bands and the increasing popularity of the guitar meant that Hohner could no longer continue to support the National Harmonica League as a separate organisation after 1958. Their solution was to move the harmonica into the much bigger National Accordion Association (NAO).

Prominent harmonica players like Douglas Tate, Brian Chaplin and John Tyler took up senior positions on the NAO committee. The change meant that harmonica meetings and competitions could continue alongside those for the accordion. The Accordion Day had been running as a national event since 1935.

The annual Harmonica Championships continued as before but as a part Accordion Day, initially in a major London venue and later in the De Montfort Hall in Leicester. The successful players continued to represent the UK in the FIH World Championships.

Harmonica News was also discontinued and some harmonica content was included into Accordion Times from January 1959. It was not much but it covered the National and International Championships. As before the majority of harmonica content was related to chromatic performers and harmonica groups. There was some tuition material and the Three Monarchs had a regular column There was little mention of the British Blues Boom apart from a piece about Manfred Mann: 5-4-3-2-1.

1967 was a significant year.

Dr Otto Meyer, who had set up and run the Hohner UK offices and teaching organisations since the early 1930s, retired,

Douglas Tate won the FIH World Championship in Karlsruhe, and Jim Hughes, Brian Chaplin, John Tyler and Carol Axford (Bloxham) all did well.

Much of the success in the late 1960s came from teaching led by Tommy Reilly. He was disappointed by what was happening and he produced a teaching course for beginners which was sold as a booklet with 2xLPs or a tape cassette. He also established the Tommy Reilly International Club, (TRIC), to raise the standards. This was really for top players and was outside of the NAO organisation.

Tommy bought a 14 bedroom house, Hammonds Wood, in Frencham, Surrey, which is where the teaching was carried out. Lessons were one to one and also residential. There is a great video by Norwegian Television of a musical weekend at the house with the Reilly family, Sigmund Groven. Jim Hughes, Carol Axford, Brian Chaplin and James Moody.

Chromatic players from around the world became members of TRIC and visited Hammonds Wood. Unfortunately TRIC was not sustainable and ended in 1972.

From the late 60s The Accordion Day was held at venues around the UK, and continued to send harmonica players to the FIH World Championships until the last one in Brighton in 1974. Hohner could no longer sustain its support for the Accordion Times and it ceased publication in the same year leaving harmonica players with no magazine or functioning organisation. Accordion Day continues to this day and Accordion Times was restarted in 1981 for accordionists by Francis Wright.

Blues harp players take over

Hohner did not encourage blues and folk music in the NAO organisation during this period but the Beatles had featured harmonica on their recordings and the UK Blues Boom was underway. Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner moved from acoustic blues at the Round House pub in London’s Soho to the launch their electric Blues Incorporated band on an unsuspecting public in Ealing Club opposite Ealing Broadway Tube Station, in London in March, 1962. This lit the fuse for the take-off of The Rolling Stones, Manfred Mann, Savoy Brown, The Pretty Things … all featuring harmonica players. Cyril’s 1963 harmonica instrumental “Country Line Special” introduced the UK’s R&B scene to a wider pop audience.

Hohner featured these harmonica players in many advertisements in the popular music press. The biggest harmonica instrumental was the crossover hit, Groovin’ with Mr Bloe by the late Harry Pitch in 1970.

As the decade came to a close, another acoustic scene was developing in the folk clubs. Country blues and Jug Band music was becoming popular and several well known blues harp players, like Steve Rye and Duster Bennett, got their start in them.

Things were to change markedly in the next few years but you will have to wait for Part 5 to find out exactly what that was.

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The History of HarmonicaUK (Part 3, 1950-1959)

HarmonicaUK started life as a Hohner marketing activity in 1935 and remained so until it was handed over to the members in 1981. It was first called the Hohner Song Band League, then the National Harmonica League and finally HarmonicaUK.

The Golden Age of the Harmonica

The end of WW2 produced major changes in society. Soldiers returning home wanted change and they returned to a different Britain. One part of the change was the rebuilding of the Entertainment Industry as musicians and artists looking for work as the rebuilding of the country got underway. We will see the secondary effect of the opening up of education when we get to the 1960s.

The 1950s saw the high point for the harmonica. The soloists (Ronald Chesney, Larry Adler, Tommy Reilly and Max Geldray) gained National and International status and the harmonica groups (The Three Monarchs and The Morton Fraser Harmonica Gang) enjoyed lots of success in Music Hall, initially on BBC Radio and then TV brought them into homes all over the country.

Ronald Chesney had demonstrated the potential of the chromatic harmonica when he gave a solo performance in the Royal Albert Hall in 1946. Larry Adler had toured the world, stared in films and composers began to write music for the harmonica. In 1952 Larry performed the ‘Romance in D flat for Harmonica’, composed for him by Ralph Vaughan Williams, in the BBC Proms. Tommy Reilly moved from the Music Hall to the concert stage with compositions by Spivakovsky, Gordon Jacobs and his long term accompanist, James Moody. Max Geldray continued in the jazz clubs and Variety.

The format of the early radio shows opened up many opportunities for entertainers. Shows like ‘Variety Bandbox’ and ‘Workers Playtime’ on the BBC Light Programme provided spots for soloists and the groups but the popular long running comedy programmes like “The Goon Show” and “Educating Archie” featured musical breaks in the story which were filled by Max Geldray and Ronald Chesney respectively. Ronald went on to write the scripts for Educating Archie.

Harmonicas also turned up on themes for radio programs and films.

Tommy Reilly can be heard on Dixon of Dock Green and The Navy Lark.

Larry Adler had a big success with his music for the film “Genevieve”.

Ronald Chesney appeared on Educating Archie.

In addition to the home grown talent, the Harmonicats’ recording of “Peg O’ My Heart” was proving very popular and Borrah Minevitch had moved ‘The Harmonica Rascals’ to France. Interest in the harmonica was at its peak.

The National Harmonica League restarts

Hohner had started rebuilding their organisation after the war and in 1949 they established the National Accordion Organisation (NAO) and relaunched their magazine, “Accordion Times”.

In 1951, Hohner restarted the Hohner National Song Band League (HNSBL) and began the publication of Harmonica News.

This was in part a reaction to the increase in popularity of the harmonica in the UK, but also a result of Hohner setting up the Federation Internationale de l’Harmonica (FIH) with Dr Otto Meyer (GB) as President. This was an umbrella organisation covering most European countries and S Africa which went on to organise the World Harmonica Championships starting in Duisbourg in 1953 and then moving around European cities in subsequent years.

The new organisation had Ronald Chesney as its President and Larry Adler, The Three Monarchs and Tommy Reilly were active in events and writing for the magazine. At the start of 1953 Hohner changed the name of the organisation to the National Harmonica League (NHL). This was less of a mouthful and reflected the increased emphasis on individual players, not bands.

Competition for the NHL Championship was fierce, with regional heats and then a final which was held in the Central Hall, Westminster in London. The three winners then took part in the FIH World Championships. As the event developed, competition classes were held for chromatic soloists, groups and diatonic harmonicas (not blues harp!).

Several of the winners of these early competitions have been active in the NHL in recent years. Douglas Tate, Jim Hughes, Gerry Ezard and Dave Beckford are probably the best known, but even more went on to join the Morton Fraser Harmonica Rascals. Local harmonica bands and groups continued into the 1950s, but the increasing popularity of the guitar based rock and skiffle groups led to a steady decline in their numbers.

The peak of the NHL’s success was in the mid 1950s but by 1958 the interest was waning and Hohner could no longer afford to support the magazine. In 1959, Harmonica News ceased publication and harmonica items were moved into the Accordion Times. The Council of the National Harmonica League agreed to transfer its activities into the larger and more active National Accordion Organisation (NAO). The activities of the NHL continued under the wing of the NAO.

Away from these organisations something was stirring.

Deep in Soho in The Round House pub on Wardour Street, Cyril Davies (harmonica) and Alexis Korner (guitar) were running a club which was progressing from playing early country blues, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly music, to barrel house and blues.

Touring American blues musicians visited the club and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee were the club Presidents. Following Muddy Waters visit to the club in 1958, the move to electric Chicago blues music was underway, but that has to wait for the next part of the story…

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The History of HarmonicaUK (Part 2, 1939-1950)

HarmonicaUK started life as a Hohner marketing activity in 1935 and remained so until it was handed over to the members in 1981. It was first called the Hohner Song Band League, then the National Harmonica League and finally HarmonicaUK.

We left 1939 with a young pair of chromatic harmonica players, Ronald Chesney and Tommy Reilly, just starting their careers and Larry Adler enjoying world wide fame as a World War was breaking out.

The Hohner Song Band League stopped officially at the start of the Second World War and did not really get going again as a club until 1951. Despite this, these years turned out to be an important time for the harmonica.

The social changes brought about by the mixing of service men and women from all sections of society and all over the country and in foreign places led to a need for entertainment, and portable instruments like the harmonica were in great demand. Ronald Chesney led a campaign to collect harmonicas to send to the soldiers.

After the war things came together for the harmonica. This is illustrated in the programme notes for a concert of classical music performed by Ronald Chesney in the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in 1947, just after the end of WW2. It was the first solo concert held there by any harmonica player.

Ronald Chesney’s Programme Notes from the Royal Albert Hall

Finding that his musical ability did not advance beyond the “party-piece” stage, Ronald Chesney’s lessons on the piano terminated at the age of twelve. Freed from the grind of five-finger exercises his natural love of music came to the surface, however, and nine years ago, at the age of seventeen, his studies were resumed. Discovering by chance the possibilities of the mouth-organ, he chose this surprising instrument for serious study and within two years had made his broadcasting debut with instantaneous success.

After appearances in many of the B.B.C.’s major programmes, his own feature, “Teaching the Allied Forces how to play the Harmonica,” commenced and brought him a fan mail running into many thousands of letters. Averaging nearly a hundred a day, Chesney took pride that the majority of these letters came from servicemen, stationed in all parts of the world – from the desert and from the lonely arctic circle, where the pocket- sized mouth organ was a substitute for full-sized symphony orchestra or swing band, depending on the musical tastes of the player’s comrades. To these men his programmes of instruction and music were a link with home.

His virtuosity on such a small instrument attracted the attention of concert impresario Harold Fielding, who has during recent years presented him in concerts throughout Great Britain, including a musical festival at Sadler’s Wells. Still a bachelor at twenty six and a young man of simple tastes, Ronald Chesney spends most of his time in a workshop at home, improving the mechanical aspect of the harmonica to keep pace with his musical progress. He believes the instrument capable of great improvement and considers he has only just begun to discover its vast musical possibilities.”

The harmonica was being taken seriously at last!

The chromatic harmonica moves into the spotlight

Larry Adler had been playing in America entertaining US troops at home and then in Europe.

Ronald and Larry both went to the Hohner factory in Trossingen as soon as the war ended to get more instruments.

Lots of things were on the move.

Ronald Chesney was touring the country with top musical artists, and Larry Adler was performing in the USA and around the world. He did his own concert at the Royal Albert Hall just after Ronald Chesney.

Tommy Reilly had been interned in a prisoner of war camp at the start of the war, when he was studying violin in Germany.

He spent time developing his technique on the chromatic harmonica. He returned when the war was over and started playing harmonica in Music Hall and on the BBC.

Tommy Reilly had been interned in a prisoner of war camp at the start of the war, when he was studying violin in Germany. He spent time developing his technique on the chromatic harmonica. He returned when the war was over and started playing harmonica in Music Hall and on the BBC.

Max Geldray had escaped to the UK from Holland at the start of the war and joined the Dutch Brigade of the British Army. He began playing in London jazz clubs in his spare time and even played in a concert for the Queen at Windsor in 1942. After the war he continued to find some work in clubs but his big break was just round the corner.

After the war Morton Fraser advertised for harmonica players and started the Morton Fraser Harmonica Gang with demobbed soldiers.

Eric York, Jimmy Prescott and Henry Leslie (aka Cedric/Les Henry) got together after leaving the Army and formed the Monarchs (later The Three Monarchs), initially as a straight act. The comedy came later.

Larry Adler blacklisted in the USA

The clouds were gathering for Larry Adler. He was blacklisted by the US House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947 along with many others in show business. This prevented him from working in America, which led to him moving with his family to live in the UK where he was much more appreciated.

The Golden Age of the Harmonica was about to start…

Back to History of HarmonicaUK home index page.

Forward to The History of HarmonicaUK – Part 3

The History of HarmonicaUK (Part 1, 1930-1947)

HarmonicaUK started life as a Hohner marketing activity in 1935 and remained so until it was handed over to the members in 1981. It was first called the Hohner National Song Band League (SBL), then the National Harmonica League (NHL) in 1982 and finally HarmonicaUK in 2021.

Hohner set up in London

Hohner harmonicas had been sold in the UK for a long time but they set up their first representative, M. Michaelson, in the mid 1870s. This arrangement continued with moderate success either side of WW1 until 1929 when Hohner decided that they needed to a bigger presence and they set up Hohner Concessionaires Ltd. in London They brought in their own people to help run the business which was located first in Farringdon Road and then 21 Bedford Street, Strand, London, but it was still not successful enough

In 1930, Dr Otto Meyer was moved from the Hohner Hamburg Export office to reorganise the new company. He was a British National born in Bradford with an English mother and a German father. It was an inspired choice. In the next few years Dr Meyer encouraged the formation of accordion clubs and he realised the need for more tuition and music for the accordion and harmonica. He brought in specialists to provide this. Initially the concentration was on the accordion.

The birth of the Hohner Song Band League.

In 1935, Charles Millard was asked to create the National Harmonica Song Bands League (HSB) with the objective of the promoting the setting up of Song Bands among the youth organisations of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State.

Tremolo, diatonic and, increasingly, chromatic harmonicas were the main instruments sold at that time.

Players were urged to join the League, get their membership card and then buy their HSB Harmonica and Song-Books.

Soon 100’s of harmonica bands had joined the membership.

Hohner began to publish a magazine “Accordion Times and Harmonica News” later that year. Jimmy Black became the editor.

The development of the teaching side

Dr Meyer had two pieces of luck at this time.

1 – Captain James Reilly, the father of Tommy Reilly, returned from teaching orchestral and harmonica band music in Canada and he accepted the position of Musical Director of the USB.

He wrote articles for the magazine and produced some of the best known tuition books for the harmonica.

2 – Larry Adler was brought from New York in 1934 by C B Cochran to star in his review ‘Streamline’ on the London stage, By 1935, interest in the chromatic was growing fast and Hohner brought out the “Larry Adler” model. Larry toured Britain playing in the main theatres and presenting prizes to players like the young Harry Pitch who won talent contests in local halls. Hohner’s biggest turnover came in1936.

Regional competitions took place and harmonica bands were set up in churches, schools, scouts and youth groups… Books on how to play the chromatic, and how to organise bands and perform in concerts were produced by the new Hohner Concessionaires.

The bands promoted by Hohner used HSB branded tremolos with orchestral, tenor and standard tunings plus vinetas for harmony. Drums and an accordion were sometimes included.

Chromatic soloists like Ronald Chesney and Morton Fraser were starting to emerge, but the HSB and the magazine, Accordion Times, closed down with the start of WW2 in1939. Hohner was regarded as a German Company although it had become a part of Hohner Inc. in New York. Dr Meyer was arrested but released about four months later after an appeal. He had built up stocks so Hohner managed to keep going through the war period.

It took quite a few years after the end of the war to get the business working normally again, but Dr Meyer had more plans for the HSB.

Back to History of HarmonicaUK home index page.

Forward to The History of HarmonicaUK – Part 2

The History of HarmonicaUK Home Page (1930-Present)

HarmonicaUK started life as a Hohner marketing activity in 1935 and remained so until it was handed over to the members in 1981. It was first called the Hohner National Song Band League (SBL), then the National Harmonica League (NHL) in 1982 and finally HarmonicaUK in 2021. (Work in progress)

This multi-part history was published in Harmonica World, the magazine which is distributed to members of HarmonicaUK, between 2020 and 2021. It is in 8 parts.

Midnight Cowboy – Toots Thielemans or Tommy Reilly – solved!

The theme from Midnight Cowboy is one of the best known pieces of music played on harmonica.

This is the version from the Soundtrack Album of John Barry’s music for the Jerome Hellman – John Schlesinger film Midnight Cowboy.

Everyone knows who played it, don’t they…
It was Toots, wasn’t it???

I stumbled over this question when someone told me it wasn’t Toots Thielemans, it was the British harmonica soloist, Tommy Reilly. It turned out to be more complicated than this.

The making of Midnight Cowboy

John Schlesinger began filming Midnight Cowboy in Florida, Texas and New York in 1968 and during 6 months of post production he realised that he needs some contemporary music for the film. John Barry had written music for Bond films and had also been involved with the UK popular music scene in the 60s as the leader of the John Barry Seven, and an arranger for pop singers, so he was asked to supervise the music for the film.

Some of the music had already been chosen, like Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin‘, sung by Harry Nillson, but more, dramatic music was needed – something which was to become as famous as Everybody’s Talkin‘. A lonely harmonica tune that almost anyone could play.

The recording of the harmonica soundtrack with Toots Thielemans

John Barry said, “I wrote the harmonica theme, in which the counter melody is more important than the melody, giving a general repetitive feeling like going nowhere, to reflect the underbelly of New York. For the actual melody, I wanted something very unsophisticated, that any guy sitting outside a gas station in Texas could play. “

“We kept the instrumentation very simple, 12 string guitars, a rhythm section and the harmonica, so that the theme of Midnight Cowboy in the score would fit in with the musical language of the Nillson song.”

Toots Thielemans was living near New York at that time and his chromatic harmonica brought great tenderness and longing to the theme. He also can be heard on some of the re-recorded Nielsen pieces in the earlier part of the film. All the harmonica heard during the film is played by Toots.

The recording of the Film Music Album with Tommy Reilly

The commercial release of music from the film Midnight Cowboy is a bit more complicated. Eight of the twelve tracks on the sound track LP, called the Original Motion Picture Score released by United Artists Records (Liberty 1A 054-90639), were from the New York film soundtrack recordings, but the other four tracks, including Midnight Cowboy and Joe Buck rides again, were recorded in London in June 1969. This time the harmonica on Midnight Cowboy and Joe Buck rides again was played by Tommy Reilly. Any other harmonica heard on this album is by Toots.

The release of the single versions of the Midnight Cowboy Theme

Following the release of the LP soundtrack album, Toots and John Barry released a 7″ single (45rpm) of Midnight Cowboy on Columbia and Tommy Reilly and The John Scott Orchestra released a 7″ single (45rpm) version on Polydor.

Toots Thielemans and John Barry
Tommy Reilly and John Scott

These recordings show that it was Tommy’s idea to bend the notes in the main theme. Tommy always thought that that Toots was perfect for the movie and did a fantastic job.

The double CD “Midnight Cowboy – Expanded Original MGM Motion Picture Score

Much of this information comes from the CD notes of the excellent and comprehensive double CD “Midnight Cowboy – Expanded Original MGM Motion Picture Score“. [Quartet Records – QR434, MGM Records – QR434, Universal – QR434].

CD1 has the original LP tracks and some bonus tracks, including alternate versions of Toots playing Midnight Cowboy. CD2 has the music from the original film score. The CD booklet does not say Joe Buck rides again was played by Tommy Reilly.

Background to the John Barry recordings in London

Tommy Reilly’s manager, Sigmund Groven, added more background to the reason for the London re-recording of Midnight Cowboy. “John Barry had worked with Tommy several times before, including on the 1966 Marlon Brando film “The Chase” (soundtrack on CD: Varese Sarabande VSD-5229), and he wanted to feature Tommy in the Midnight Cowboy score.

As it happened Tommy was unavailable; he was on tour in Australia at the time, so John Barry asked Toots to play in the film. However, when Tommy was home after his Australian tour, John Barry was very pleased to be able to use him on the London sessions for the album.”

There are some great videos of Tommy and Toots playing Midnight Cowboy.

Toots plays Midnight Cowboy at 90 years old
Tommy Reilly plays Midnight Cowboy on Dutch TV

Extra Information.

1 – There are two recordings of the theme from Midnight Cowboy recorded by Toots Thielemans and John Barry after the release of the film. The commercial 45rpm version (above) has a “fattened” harmonica sound (flanger?) and the alternative take, which is also on the double CD, sounds like a straight mono recording.

2 – Popular concerts of John Barry’s music (including Midnight Cowboy and Dancing with Wolves) provided regular work for harmonica players. In the UK this has included Jim Hughes and Harry Pitch when Tommy Morgan could not make it from California. Phil Hopkins was once summoned to John Barry’s house in London as there were problems with Tommy Morgan’s UK visa.

Phil auditioned successfully and returned home to practice hard for the concert at the Albert Hall. Just before the performance he got a message that the visa had arrived and Tommy would do the gig. Phil got a cancellation fee and acknowledged that the audience got a better deal hearing Tommy Morgan play the harmonica themes.

3 – Shortly after the London recordings for the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack album Tommy had a telephone call from Polydor Hamburg where he had already made two commercially very successful albums with Kai Warner: Melody Fair and Latin Harmonica. He flew over the next day. They played him a recording from a new film score and asked him if he could play the harmonica exactly the same as the uncredited player on the LP.

The first take was perfect. The producer said: “You are a genius”, and Tommy started to laugh. The producer said: “What are you laughing for?” and Tommy admitted: “That’s me playing on the original record!” The single (Polydor NH 59323), with John Scott as musical director, and with Tommy credited this time (!), climbed the charts in many countries. (Sigmund Groven)

4 – Despite the success of the two recordings by Toots Thielemans and Tommy Reilly, the version recorded by two pianists, Ferrante & Teicher, was nominated for the 1969 Grammy in the category Best Contemporary Instrumental Performance. I don’t think John Barry was very pleased either.