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 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…

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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.

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English Traditional Harmonica Players

Whilst there is a lot of information on the use of the harmonica in Scottish and Irish Traditional music, little has been written about its use in England. This reflects the lower profile of traditional music in England and the relative isolation of most of the harmonica/mouth organ players. Musicians usually use tremolo or diatonic harmonicas. Here is a brief summary of what we could find. More details will follow about specific players from England. This is work in progress.

This review was written by Roger Trobridge with the help of Katie Howson. Thanks also to Jane Bird and others for their input.

Northumberland shares a border and many cultural links with Scotland, especially musical ones. It’s mainly rural location in the North of England has helped it to retain its musical traditions when other regions have struggled to do so.

The Northumberland Moothie Tradition

Will Atkinson (1908-2003) from Northumberland is the best known English traditional harmonica player. Will came from a musical family and was a shepherd for most of his life. He played mouthorgan and melodeon as a child before moving to the accordion and playing in a local group. Later in his life he returned to the tremolo harmonica. Will knew and played with many of the musicians like Jimmy Shand at musical festivals in the Scottish Borders. His repertoire included a very large number of local and Scottish tunes and he was renowned for precision of his playing. There are several CDs of him playing solo or with The Shepherds (Joe Hutton and Willie Taylor).

Ernie Gordon (The Geordie Jock) from Alnwick was a friend of Will’s and spent a lot of time with him, learning many of Will’s tunes. He is a fine musician who also plays the pipes and drums as well as music from countries like Greece where he lived for a few years. Ernie has been a big supporter of HarmonicaUK for 20 years which has help to raise the profile of the moothie. He has recorded one CD. You can see many videos of Ernie Gordon and Will Atkinson here.

Roy Hugman is another Geordie moothie player from Morpeth, who has promoted music from Northumberland and taught tremolo for HarmonicaUK is . He plays locally with his band and has an active YouTube and Facebook page.

Jimmy Little is a prominent moothie player from the Alnwick area who has released a couple of CDs.

Jimmy Hunter was recorded by collector Peter Kennedy in 1954 at his home at Haydon Bridge, Northumberland, England, when Kennedy was working for the BBC’s Folk Music & Dialect Recording Scheme.

Other Geordie moothie players include Anita James and Rob Say.

Other Regional Traditional Players

Some other areas, particularly East Anglia and the West Country also held onto their traditional music, including harmonica players. Here are some who have been picked up by collectors and local clubs.

Jim Small (1913-n.d.) Learned to play from his father and played for folkdancing at school as a teenager, growing up near the Mendips in Somerset. He was involved in national radio broadcasts from 1938 to the mid 1950s, playing mostly folk dance music, and was then rediscovered by the revivalists of English traditional music in the 1970s. He was featured on a cassette / CD on Peter Kennedy’s Folktrax label, which sadly, no longer exists.

Alfie Butler was a Gloucestershire gypsy who played harmonica as well as piano accordion.

Bill Elsom and Jasper Smith were Travellers recorded in southern England; the latter can be heard on the CD “My Father’s the King of the Gypsies” on the Topic label.

Peter Roud, from Hampshire, was the subject of an article in EDS Spring 2011. He made a few recordings which are held by his family.

Sam Bond, again in Hampshire, played polkas, step dances, marches, singalong tunes etc, and recorded a cassette on the Forest Tracks label.

Stan Seaman was, a Hampshire melodeon player who also plays harmonica who made some recordings.

Dave Williams (1934-1997) was a harmonica, melodeon and banjo player in the New Forest area, who performed with Stan Seaman on many occasions, and was part of the Forest Tracks record label which recorded both Stan and Sam Bond.

Two more Hampshire players, Jimmy Dixon and Ron Whatmore can be heard on the Topic CD: “Rig-A-Jig-Jig – Dance Music of the South of England”.

John Cole played chromatic with a few of the folk song and skiffle groups in the London area in the 1950s before moving to Spain.

Bill Train of Teignmouth recorded a selection of old song tunes, polkas hornpipes and a nice jig.

The musical and dance traditions from the Dartmoor area have been well documented through the twentieth century.

Jack Rice (1915-1994) and Les Rice (1912-1996), cousins from Chagford, Dartmoor, played harmonica, concertina and accordion in the pubs, and for dancing. There is a CD of their playing available, called “Merrymaking” on Veteran (VT144CD).

Bill Murch played in the Dartmoor Pixie Band from 1973 to 1992 and can be heard on their CD “A Dartmoor Country Dance Party – VT113.

Mike Bond (1943-2014) was a real enthusiast and inspired everyone he met, and there’s a nice interview with him here:

The county of Suffolk has been well covered by folk music collectors throughout the course of the 20th century and just a cursory scan of the sources produces: Albert Smith, Tom Thurston, Harry Fleet, Charlie Philpots, Fred Pearce and George Ling in the coastal village: some of these can be read about on the “Sing Say and Play” pages on the Musical Traditions website – . In Mid Suffolk there are even more names to be found including George Wade, Glyn Griffiths, Clemmie Pearson, Tom Williams, Lubbidy Rice, Jack Pearson, Bill Smith and Reg Pyett, who are all featured on the double CD “Many A Good Horseman” on the Veteran label. Others including fiddler Fred Whiting, melodeon players Walter Read and Fred List were known to play the harmonica as well. Most of these men played in the their local pubs on a Saturday night and for outings with darts and quoits teams, and their repertoire would include sing-a-long songs as well as hornpipes and polkas for stepdancing.

Harold Covill (1910-1993) from March in Cambridgeshire started by playing his father’s mouthorgan and played all his life for local entertainments and dances. In later life he featured on Topic Records’ 1974 LP “English Country Music from East Anglia”. He also taught children through a local youth club.

Jack Hyde played for Abingdon Traditional Morris Dancers (now Oxfordshire, but then Berkshire). There are tracks of him on two CDs on the Topic label: “You Lazy Lot of Boneshakers” and “Rig-A-Jig-Jig – Dance Music of the South of England”.

Players In English Ceilidh Bands etc.

Martin Brinsford (b. 1947) started playing drums in 1962 and then discovered traditional English dance and music and took up playing tremolo harmonica. He was a founder member of Old Swan Band, England’s premier country dance band, and Brass Monkey with Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick. He has played in many other bands and recording sessions He plays a wide range of music drawn from around the world as well as England. currently plays vintage Québécois dance music with The Pigeon Swing. He has played at HarmonicaUK festivals. You can read more here.

Terry Potter (b. 1935) is another tremolo player who has been active since the 1960s with the modern tradition musicians like Ashley Hutchings (‘The Compleat Dancing Master‘, ‘Kicking Up The Sawdust‘) as well as playing with the Etchingham Steam Band, Potters Wheel and his family group, Cousins and Sons. You can read more here.

John Tams (b.1949) is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, composer and actor. He is known locally in Derbyshire for his work with the Derbyshire Volunteers, but is known worldwide as the driving force behind such hugely influential groups such as Home Service and the Albion Band and also for his creative input into productions such as “War Horse” and “Lark Rise to Candleford” at the National Theatre, and for composing TV and film music including “Sharpe”.

Katie Howson (b.1956) is known mainly for playing the English melodeon/ diatonic accordion but has in fact played tremolo harmonica for nearly as long. A member of several English ceilidh bands, including PolkaWorks, whose 2014 CD “Borrowed Shoes” features her harmonica playing.

Chris Taylor (b.1946) from Kent, played in the Oyster Ceilidh BandGas Mark V and PolkabillyGas Mark V released a number of recordings featuring his harmonica playing.

Simon Booth (b.1955) from Lancashire, plays tremolo harmonica and recorded with the Ran Tan Band.

Barry Parkes (b.1952) from Cheshire, plays tremolo harmonica and recorded with Dr Sunshine’s Pavement ShowAll Blacked Up and The Ironmasters.

Des Miller whilst living in Norfolk played and recorded with the Old Hat Concert Party and Rig-a-Jig, both bands specialising in localised repertoire.

Jaime Gill was featured in “Harmonica World” playing his large Hohner “683” double sider with the Clog Morris Band. He plays in “The Bicton Inn” in Exmouth.

Steve Harrison played mouth organ (and melodeon) in a couple of barn dance bands around Halifax (Yorkshire) and occasionally further afield. He was a member of HarmonicaUK and played tremolo and later, diatonic, until his death in 2018.

Eddie Upton took up harmonica more seriously in the 1970s. He played and recorded with The Pump and Pluck Band and toured Internationally. He set up Folk South West in 1992 and he appeared at a HarmonicaUK festival.

Ted Crum (1947-2020) from Coventry played blues style harp to accompany folk songs with Somerville Gentlemen’s Band, and driving dance music with “rock ceilidh band” Peeping Tom and jazz-influenced Steamchicken.

Jon Fletcher plays diatonic, chromatic and tremolo harmonicas and is a guitarist and singer, performing both solo and with the band Magpie Lane.

Keith Holloway plays tremolo harmonica, although he better known as a melodeon and bass player in bands iincluding Random, The Old Chapel Band & Bosun Higgs.

The New Generation

Traditional music never stands still and young musicians will always find a way to keep it fresh and relevant for the new generation. Two in particular are very talented, original International performers who include traditional music in their compositions and performances, but in very different ways.

Will Pound comes from a folk music family and he has worked with other musicians like Dan Walsh (banjo) to develop his own style and repertoire. He has been nominated for the BBC Folk Awards ‘Musician of the Year’ and has released six varied CDs. You can find out more about him here and on his website.

Phillip Henry is one of the UK’s top guitarists as well as a harmonica player who has developed his own style of beatboxing and diatonic harmonica playing. He has been nominated for Instrumentalist of the Year in the FATEA Awards and has released several CDs alone and with collaborators like Hannah Martin (Edgelarks). You can read more about Phillip here and on his website.

Sean Spicer and Simon Joy are two younger players who are continuing in the tradition. Sean played in the National Youth Folk Ensemble and at Twickfolk and Simon looks after traditional music within HarmonicaUK.

Jane Bird plays diatonic and tremolo harmonicas, mainly in sessions. She also plays anglo concertina and is probably more widely known as a dance caller and event organiser.

Scottish Traditional Harmonica Players

Nigel Gatherer has a list of Scottish traditional recordings and musicians including moothie players

George Current has more background on the Scottish moothie players.

Irish Traditional Harmonica Players

Don Meade has written a very detailed document about The Harmonica and Irish Traditional Music which includes an Irish/Scottish/Quebecois Harmonica Discography.

Geoff Wallis’ The Irish Music Review has a slightly updated version of the list of players.

Dave Hynes has assembled a large gallery of images of Irish traditional harmonica players, as well as a list of the All Ireland Champions and BDs and DVDs of harmonica music.Additional Information

Additional Information

Will Atkinson – 3 CDs (2 were LPs) have been released – Mouth Organ (Solo), Harthorpe Burn (Joe Hutton, Willy Taylor and Will Atkinson), An Audience with the Shepherds (Joe Hutton, Willy Taylor and Will Atkinson). Will also plays on several CDs of Northumberland Traditional music. Here is a video from a concert at Morpeth Town Hall.

Martin Brinsford – He has recorded one CD under his own name, Next Slide Please (Keith Ryan with Gareth Kiddier) and he is present on several recordings with Brass Monkey. He has several videos on YouTube from the HarmonicaUK festivals.

Ernie Gordon – He has a privately recorded CD, The Geordie Jock and several YouTube videos including this Tribute to Will Atkinson from an HarmonicaUK concert in 2003. You can see many other videos of Ernie Gordon and Will on my Vimeo site.

Roy Hugman – Has several videos on Youtube including a moothie workshop for HarmonicaUK.