I got started on the harmonica in 1976, at the late age of 20. It was a concert by the legendary blues duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, in Christchurch, New Zealand, that got me hooked.
By that stage, both were old men and had been touring together for decades. Obviously something evil had gone down between them in the past, because you could tell they disliked each other intensely. The show was in a big theatre with a wide stage; Brownie was at one end and Sonny at the other, and they didn't look at each other once all night. They didn't speak to each other either, apart from a few snide asides to the audience.
But the music! What a sound, what swing, what empathy. Sonny's harp playing just took me by the throat and drew me in. It was raw and primitive, yet highly sophisticated at the same time, and it really moved me. I came out exhilarated.
Brendan in Christchurch, New Zealand (1978)
I was a couple of years into a general university arts degree, and had never played any musical instrument. My parents had some classical and Irish folk records that I'd enjoyed as a kid, but I was more into tramping and canoeing in New Zealand's rugged mountain ranges. My musical understanding was zilch and I only owned one pop record: The Beatles' Abbey Road.
Hearing raw authentic blues for the first time, and particularly the blues harp, was a total revelation! I decided instinctively on the spot that I wanted to make sounds like those Sonny was coaxing from that little harmonica - an instrument you couldn't even see behind his hands when he played.
So, like countless others before and since, I went off next day and bought a harmonica. Sonny should have been getting commission for all the harmonicas he inspired people to buy! Luckily the shop assistant was roughly familiar with the type I needed, and I didn't get given a tremelo or chromatic; I came home with a shiny new Hohner Marine Band (the 10 hole single reed diatonic harmonica that's inextricably entwined with the history of the blues) - and started in.
It wasn't as easy as it looked! After a day or two of fruitless puffing and blowing, I realised I needed some records to listen to for ideas, and asked at the local record shop for one with harmonica on it. He told me about this bloke called Bob Dylan who played harmonica, and I bought Blood on the Tracks. It was a great album, but Bob's harmonica, while it worked fine for his music, just did not sound anything like what I was after.
In a more enlightened shop I did find a Sonny and Brownie album - but really struck gold with the fabulous double album Sonny Boy Williamson: This is My Story. I loved his huge, earthy tone even more than Sonny Terry's, and his style seemed simpler to a total beginner. "Seemed" was the operative word! I adored everything about his playing, but just couldn't figure out how he got those notes to bend, and had no idea even about what key harps he was playing, let alone the concepts of cross harp and different positions. I was so ignorant about music theory, it took me months to grasp the 12 bar structure of a basic blues. About the best I could manage was to get tunes like 'Oh Susannah' happening from the instructional sheet that came with the harp, but only by rolling my tongue like a tube to select the holes.
After about a year of frustratingly slow progress, I eventually started to grasp the concept of playing in different modes (or 'positions' as they are called by harp players). 2nd Position seemed to be the real juicy one, with all those bluesy wailing sounds. However, I still couldn't bend notes, and realised I must be doing something wrong with my mouth. Then one day I tried putting my lips directly to the harp without the tongue in the way - and after a short period of readjustment, got my first bend.
That was it! From then on, I played probably 6-8 hours a day, driving my flatmates demented in the process. Somehow I fitted in the study for a couple of university degrees, but interest in academia was losing out rapidly to the obsession with blues harmonica. I discovered Little Walter; hearing his iconic instrumental Juke for the first time was as powerful a revelation as hearing Sonny Terry - except by now, I had half an idea of what was going on. I bought a mic and a cheap valve amp, and now it was the neighbours who were complaining! Anything of Little Walter's I could get my hands on I did, as well as by the other great Chicago players: Big Walter Horton, James Cotton, Junior Wells. The only white guys I heard that seemed to come close were Jerry Portnoy and Paul Butterfield - but I preferred the originators. I was a confirmed blues purist of the most intolerant kind.
Christchurch at that time had a healthy folk scene, and after a couple of years playing in my bedroom I met up with a theology student called Peter Charlton-Jones, who played a mean blues guitar. We got together, stole the name Howling Mudbelly & Blind Boy Grunt from somewhere, and did our first gig at the University Folk Club. Amazingly, people liked us, and we started to gig sporadically at other folk venues.
While playing at them, I got exposed to bush band music, a peculiarly antipodean hybrid of skiffle and Irish music which was very popular in Christchurch at that time. The bands played mostly Irish tunes and songs, using fiddle, whistle etc as the lead instruments, but backed up by the guitar and a powerful acoustic rhythm section consisting of washtub bass and lagerphone (basically, a broomstick with lager bottletops nailed to it, that the player alternately bashed on the floor on the on beat, and scraped with a serrated piece of wood on the off. It's got to be heard to be believed!). They often played for big dances, with callers instructing people on how to step. The student dances were great: lots of beer, plenty of flirting, and everyone in an exuberant mood.
In the midst of cavorting around I started to listen to the music, and it was the tunes that grabbed me. I remembered those Irish records from home, and started trying to teach myself a few traditional tunes on the harmonica. The blues style didn't seem to work, but first and third position did, and learning the Irish tunes certainly was good for getting to know the layout of the harp better. However, it was hard to play at speed with bends in the bottom octave, so venturing into the top octave seemed the only option, despite its confusing scale layout (the blow/draw pattern is reversed).
Then I found a bargain bin record by this cheesy-looking, plump little bloke in a white suit, holding an outsize harmonica and surrounded by half-clothed women with huge hairdos. It didn't look promising but the price was ridiculous, so I bought it and took it home. The first few tunes confirmed my suspicions: syrupy Nashville ballads dripping with strings, pedal steels and other uncool (as I thought at the time) sounds. The harp player seemed competent, but too clean and unbluesy for my taste.
Then suddenly this incredible instrumental started up, with harmonica playing I couldn't believe. Fast! I'd never heard the harp played at a pace like that, and in such an attractive style. It seemed to mix Celtic phrases with a blues scale, and funky offbeat rhythms. The other players were fantastic too, and before I knew it I was hooked on bluegrass and Charlie McCoy. What a great player and, more than that, a real stylistic innovator.
At first I couldn't even fathom the first few notes of his blindingly fast licks, and laboriously moved the needle back and forth on the record trying to catch them as they flew by. It seemed hopeless - until I noticed the 16rpm button on my old turntable. I flicked it, and suddenly Charlie started to play at a pace that seemed half human (though an octave lower in pitch). Even at half speed it wasn't easy to master his style, as the scale he used was different to the standard blues scale I'd got used to, and the rhythm was different to the shuffles I was by now familiar with - but after a bit of time I started to absorb the main elements. It was several months before I could keep up with the records at full speed, but when that happened, I really felt I was starting to make progress.
There was one track of Charlie's I couldn't work out though, because there seemed to be a note in there that wasn't on my harp. I knew he was playing crossed style, but there was a note between 5 draw and 6 blow he was getting that I couldn't. I realized his harp must be tuned differently, and wondered how that was done. I got a few pointers off an accordion repair man about the basic concepts, took the covers off, and tried filing the end of that 5 draw reed up a semitone. Within a few seconds I'd filed right through it, and had to throw the harp away! However, after a bit more practice I got it right, and then started to try and get a handle on this weird sounding new tuning. It was only one note different from a standard instrument, but what a change it made to the mood and feeling of the music. You could play sweeter, more lyrical stuff, but still with the expressiveness of the cross harp position, with all its juicy draw bends.
That really opened a can of worms, and soon I was inside those harps tinkering away with all kinds of modifications. I didn't like the way the draw reeds always seemed louder than the blows down the bottom end of the harp, and borrowed an idea from the chromatic harmonica to try and balance up the volume while still allowing natural draw bends. I had a chrom, but never played it, so cannibalised some of its windsaver valves and glued them on the inside of the draw reedplate. At first it felt strange, but my technique soon adjusted to the lower breath pressure required, and I found they made the harp far more expressive. Not only did they balance up the volume, but you could bend those bottom six blow notes, and put vibrato on them.
That was in 1978. Without realising it, I had invented a new kind of harmonica: the half-valved diatonic. From then to now I've still playedhalf-valved harps pretty much exclusively.
I finished my university studies at the end of 1979. By this stage, I was well hooked on music, but had yet to consider it as a career. However, from playing around the odd bluegrass venue in Christchurch, I got asked to record on the debut album of a country singer called Patsy Riggir. The session was in Wellington in 1980, and it was enough of a draw to make me move there. I dossed in an old flat with a few other poverty-stricken musicians and a far more well-off prostitute, and kept practicing. I remember I was especially into the fiddle styles of players like Byron Berline, Vassar Clements, and Johhny Gimble.
Eventually the recording session happened. It was my first time in a studio and I was very green, but the style of music was familiar by now, and I put all my Charlie McCoy licks to good use. Everyone was happy, and I got paid! I walked out the door with a big smile on my face, feeling ten foot tall! That was it: I was going to be a professional musician, no matter what.
The guitarist on the session was a nice bloke called Red McKelvy, who told me that if I came to Auckland he'd be able to recommend me for session work on TV jingles etc. So in '81 I moved there, dossing on friends' sofas initially. I started to get a bit of paid music work, from sessions and playing in country and blues bands. However, it was a hand-to-mouth existence much of the time, and stayed that way through most of the 80's.
Murray Grindley, New Zealand's 'King of the Jingles', told me that if I could play chromatic I'd get more sessions. I dusted off the unused one or two I'd bought back in Christchurch, and started to try and get a half decent sound out of them. The way you couldn't bend the notes as on a diatonic really frustrated me, as did the scale layout. However, I loved the sound great players like Stevie Wonder, Toots Thielemans, and Tommy Reilly made on chromatics, and knew it was worth sussing out the instrument for myself.
By now, I was pretty clued up on tuning and other modifications, and had a whole set of home made half-valved 11 hole diatonics, with a major seventh 'Country' Tuning. I realised that if I tuned the chromatic to something similar, I could half-valve it too, and bend those draw notes. That made quite a bit of difference, although the chrom is a lot harder to get airtight and sounding crisp. I still favoured the diatonic, but at least now had a chromatic that was more user-friendly to my style of playing, and slowly got more and more comfortable with it. I'd invented a new harmonica in the process: the half-valved bendable chromatic.
Using my customised chromatics, I could start to play along with slightly more complex forms of improvised music. Early Duke Ellington really appealed to me, as did the fluid New Orleans clarinet of Pete Fountain. I also tried to catch ideas from soulful saxophone players like Johnny Hodges, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and David Sanborn. However, the chromatic could never replace the diatonic for many situations. Each had its limitations, and I kept on trying new tunings and modifications on both types to make them more versatile. I enjoy tinkering with harps almost as much as playing them, but it's a different, more introspective kind of pleasure.
I recorded my first album Country Harmonica
in 1984. It has a story in itself, you can read it here.
The acoustic scene was thriving in Auckland in the 1980s, with some brilliant songwriters taking their first steps: Kath Tait, Wayne Gillespie, Julian McKean, Phil Powers, Sieffe laTrobe... I joined a new folk band called Acoustic Confusion, which proved quite influential. Under the direction of band founder Chris Priestley we recorded an album called Hazy Days in 198(?). I still love the sound of that record; you can hear clips here
Along with the folk scene I was starting to play in Auckland Blues and Rock bands. I was honoured to be the harp player in the band of the legendary Maori blues singer/guitarist Sonny Day. Sonny was an incredibly charismatic person and performer; he had what the Maori call Mana in spades, and I learned a lot about life and music being around him.
I was also playing Bluegrass & Country Rock with two well-known Auckland bands in the 1980s, 'Gentle Annie' and 'Hillman Hunter and the Roots Group', the latter fronted by Al Hunter, a wonderfully warm singer/songwriter and human being.
I'd started composing in the mid-1980s. My first tune was a Celtic-inspired instrumental called Jig Jazz, which has stood the test of time: I still play it on most gigs today. Other original tunes followed, and in 1989 I felt experienced and confident enough to want to record my first solo album.
I recruited the services of Steve Garden to record and co-produce. With him I got two for the price of one: he was one of NZ's best rock drummers and a brilliant, innovative sound engineer. Steve is one of those people you either love or hate: he's a strong personality and very opinionated, which can rub some up the wrong way. However I like working with smart, passionate people like Steve: you can have great arguments!
In addition to Steve I booked some of Auckland's most exciting young musical talent to play on the album, many who have gone on to make substantial names for themselves in the New Zealand scene. The material, mostly originals in a wide range of styles, came out sounding fantastic, and I think it still stands up today for the quality of overall musicianship and recording.
I sent the finished tapes out to various record companies and got a positive response from James Moss, owner of the independent label Jayrem Records. James thought my talents could be put to good use playing more mass-market MOR sounds, so made me a deal: he would release my originals album if I would record an Easy Listening album for him afterwards. I agreed, and State of the Harp came out in 1990. It received good reviews and set me on my solo career.
After some touring I went back into the studio the same year and recorded Harmonica Nights
for James. Though the music wasn't my personal choice his commercial instincts were spot on; the album was soon licensed to overseas labels and has easily outsold any other albums I've ever made!
In 1991 I did another eclectic album of original material for Jayrem called Digging In
. The title indicated that I felt I was here to stay as a recording artist, and it has some of my favourite recordings. However, the widely differing styles featured meant that music shops didn't know where to put it, and it wasn't a great commercial success.
At the end of that year I headed for the UK and have continued to record and play professionally to this day. Much of the story from then can be read in other parts of the website. Since moving to Europe I've been lucky to play and record with household names and big Hollywood movies, but whatever success I've had all came from the wonderfully free and diverse nourishment of my New Zealand musical beginnings.