And the Blues Survivors Feet to the Fire!!! By T.E. Mattox
f the old maxim holds true that 'the blues are good for what ails you,'
then let me introduce you to Dr. Feelgood and the current West Coast
version of Critical Care. In this case the good doctors' given name
is Mark Hummel and his specialty is in BaBH.* His well-travelled associates
are all masters in their respected fields (blues harp), and are revered
by both players and enthusiasts' the world over.
Now granted, Hummel would be the first to admit his
friends aren't 'angels of mercy,' but their legendary reputations have
preceded them. Individually, each has the capability of tearing out
your heart and showing it to you; then with great ceremony, and surgical
precision, they snatch you back with just a twist of a phrase or a sustained
note. But when the Blues Harmonica Blowout Series brings them all together,
they can, and will, drop you to your knees and there's not a 911 call
on the planet that will save you!
I know what you're thinking. How does a guy go
about producing shows with some of the most influential bluesmen of
our time? I'm way ahead of you.
Mark Hummel and fan at The Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, CA
In the early 1990's, after more
than a decade of playing in the celebrated Bay Area group known as the
Blues Survivors, Mark got a shot to battle it out on stage with some
of the world's most prominent harp slingers. That one-time opportunity
would have an unexpected impact.
"It was really kind of a fluke. I was
inspired to do these shows because there was a guy that did something
called the 'Battle of the Harps' in the Bay Area. He did them every
year and he had a lot of the big names, but he tended to have the same
people over and over. And he only had me on once. So I said, 'Well if
he's going to do that, I'll just start my own.' I was really just going
to do one, but it was enough of a success; I had Rick Estrin (NightCats)
as the headliner, we had about 150 people on a Sunday night and the
club owner was totally stoked and said let's do it again next year.
So we did and I added a couple of more dates and it just became this
thing and I got bigger and bigger names and added more dates. Now it's
an average of 10 dates for the California ones, and we've gone from
really small venues to 500 to 800 seat venues."
Blues fans were elated over the ability to see their favorite players
at the same time, on the same bill. So much so, they showed their appreciation
by packing theaters, clubs and most festivals with Standing Room Only
- Sold Out shows.
Charlie Musselwhite and his toolbox
And when Mark talks about 'big names,' he isn't kidding.
"There's a rotating cast of characters,
or one. You know, the chance to see (Charlie) Musselwhite and (John)
Mayall together, is pretty cool. And I've done lineups with Magic Dick
(J. Geils) and Lee Oscar, with Jerry Portnoy. Or Charlie Musselwhite,
myself and Kim Wilson. In 2007, I had Kim, Rod Piazza, Rick Estrin,
and Billy Boy Arnold; some pretty wild lineups in terms of the people
Hummel just smiles when he talks about
the organizational process and making it all come together. Everyone
knows the blues aren't always sunshine and rainbows, but he admits,
"It can be very difficult to put these on and come up with lineups
that are going to both draw, AND be new faces."
When it's all said and done, you get the feeling it's the 'blues' and the masters that play them, that keep Mark's lamp trimmed and burning. And Hummel truly has some very interesting friends….think of him as the Kevin Bacon of Blues. He has toured and recorded with literally, everyone. I'll start the list, but you'll have to finish it….Johnny Dyer, Lowell Fulson, Brownie McGhee, Dave Myers, Sue Foley, James Harman, Curtis Salgado, Gary Primich, James Cotton, and Carey Bell. Then there's Duke Robbilard, Rusty Zinn, Norton Buffalo, Paul deLay, Sam Myers, Anson Funderburgh, Lazy Lester, William Clarke, Billy Branch and Huey Lewis.
Mesmerizing, Mayall alone in the Spotlight
At last count, Hummel has a combined 14 vinyl albums
and CD's to his credit and between the Blues Survivors and Blues Harmonica
Blowout Series, tours like his hairs on fire. He is a blues journeyman
first and foremost. But when he sits down to talk about the music and
those who play, you immediately get a feel for Mark's genuine admiration
and respect that he maintains for the men and women who paved the way.
That was never more apparent than when he spoke of his late friend,
Charles Brown. The last piano track Brown ever recorded can be heard
on Hummel's 'Lowdown to Uptown' CD.
"He recorded something after that, on vocal
for Maria Muldaur before he died, but I think the last keyboard thing
he did was on my record. It was funny because, he goes, 'if you could
just give me a ride to the race track when I get done.' And I paid him
and he was wheeled into the race track in his wheelchair because he
had really bad swelling from whatever it was, he had; gout, I think.
He was a character; he spent all his money at the racetrack."
If you take into consideration how hard life in the blues and 'on the
road' can be, it really isn't difficult to see why it takes such a toll
on those who travel that highway. And remembering Snooky Pryor once
saying the majority of harp players are mostly, 'flat out nuts,' I guess
it's not that surprising.
Mark spent a lot of time playing with Snooky, knew him well, and laughed
out loud as he nodded in agreement.
"They can be. They definitely have a sense of humor, I'll say that.
A pretty warped sense of humor. I can think of quite a few nuts who
have either gone, or are still here. Unfortunately, a lot of blues people
don't always live the healthiest of lifestyles. Between drinking and
the way they eat and stuff like that, it's real easy to beat yourself
up pretty bad on the road."
Just a cursory glance at any picture of Little Walter and that gapping
seam stitched across his forehead should be proof positive for even
the most hardcore skeptic. But when it comes to the harp, and the mastery
of skills it takes to play, Mark doesn't think there was any one better
than . "Little Walter. When it comes right down to it,
its Little Walter because his playing was so fluid and swung so hard.
He was so inventive and such a masterful musician."
And Mark Hummel should know, because he's spent most of his life as
a student of the blues, honing his skills, and developing his own style
directly across the stage from some of the most notable blues musicians
that ever played. He continues to share his love of the genre with award-winning
Instructional Videos on Amplified Blues Harp, also in an impressive
collection of discography featuring both live and studio recordings,
and of course, every time he steps in front of an audience.
So the next time you need an infusion of blues or your mojo requires
a tune up let me recommend a new elective procedure called a 'Harpoonoplasty!'
It's a relatively simple out-patient treatment that Hummel and the Blues
Survivors continue to perfect and are readily assisted by a select few
of the most legendary and charismatic players touring today. But be
forewarned, it's not a show for the faint of heart, but more of a clinical
study in the Blues. Or better yet, group therapy with 700 of your newest
friends. So brace up, get there early and take your medicine, because
there's going to be a line .a very long line.
*Bad ass Blues Harp
Let Tim know what you think about his traveling adventure.
I was there at the Shrine to see Bob come in riding on
a baby elephant. He says in the interview it was either '68 or 69: it
was both it was New Year's Eve (See
"The Bear," an article on Bob Hite),
Debbie Hollier, Nevada City, CA
* * * *
Who else played with Canned Heat and Deep Purple at the
Shrine in '68?
I think the Shrine show on New Years in '68, where
Bob Hite rode out on the elephant, also featured Poco, Lee Michaels, Black
Pearl, Love Army and Sweetwater. Don't know that Deep Purple was booked
on that evening.
Bill, maybe you're thinking about the International
Pop Fest in San Francisco a few months earlier that featured these fine
folks... Procol Harum, Iron Butterfly, Jose Feliciano, Johnny Rivers,
Eric Burdon And The Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grass Roots,
The Chambers Brothers, Deep Purple, Fraternity of Man & Canned Heat
or possibly the following year in Jan of 1970 when Deep Purple appeared
with Canned Heat and Renaissance on a triple-bill in London at the Royal
One final note: The current Johnny
Otis piece didn't mention it, but it was Mr. Otis that took Canned
Heat into the studio the very first time to record in 1966. Small world,
Hello Tim, thank you so much for letting a huge Canned
Heat fan check out this interview
with the Bear. I really enjoyed it.
Rick Caldwell, Fairfield, Ohio
* * * *
I knew Bob Hite in the 60's. Canned Heat played at our
high school prom 1966 Rexford High. The Family Dog, Chet Helms, Skip Taylor.
Max Kalik, Los Angeles, CA
I just discovered you from an email I received from Preston
Smith disclosing his next event. I wanted to tap into his website Prestonsmithmusic
but it would not link from your site for some reason. I have to say Preston
really is a genius and I met him in Glendale at a jazz club about three
years ago, after a fatal accident. By chance, I was invited to spend time
hanging out with Preston and some friends after his gig. He is everything
you say and I will never forget his amazing creativity and his positive
influence in my life.
Janelle, Palm Springs, CA
Love the article! (on Lowell George) Lowell was
Forrest George, Warren, Vermont
This Bob Hite interview is the most interesting thing
I have read concerning Canned Heat. I have Fito's book, but I always was
interested in learning more about Bob Hite. You did it here my friend...great
Tony Musto - Pittston, PA
Hey Tim, Great article on Preston! I really enjoyed it
and you did your homework. I'll probably catch PS this weekend.
Dave - Northridge, CA
* * * *
Hello, what a great article on Preston Smith! I actually
met Preston one evening after an Acoustic set of my own at the Prestigeous
Carlton Hotel here in Atascadero, Ca. We were loading up and he happened
to be walking down the sidewalk and stop to say hello. I must say that
he is a truly interesting and talented man that NEVER forgets to let me
know when he is playing around the Central Coast where I live. It was
so fun to read about who he truly is...(as if you don't know him the first
time you meet him)! My adventures have only just begun as I recently returned
from Nashville recording my self titled debut EP. I can only hope that
my adventures down the road are as enlightening as Preston's and that
I have the honor of a great writer such as yourself to share them with
the world. Thank you for doing just that, sharing "Preston Smith"
with the world.
Amy Estrada - Atascadero, CA
My name is Bert, I'm from Italy and I'm a blues harmonica
player...I read your article and it reminded me of the two trips I made
in the Delta, in 2008 and 2009. I love Frank's music and I think it's
a shame people don't really know his work. It's important that people
like you write about him. Thank you! In the Delta I was only a "stupid"
tourist, but it was a great, unique experience I consider one of the most
important in my life: driving on the highways, Listening to the blues
everywhere, jamming in places like Red's and ground Zero in Clarksdale
or the Blues Bar in Greenville... are priceless things, something I will
keep in my heart for the rest of my life. I met a beautiful, lovely woman
there too (named Hope), but I behaved like a stupid kid and I lost her...
Alas! I will never forget that days and the chance I had to find happiness...Well,
I also wrote something about Frank on a website, but it's in Italian...
I give you the link of the first part (the second will be published in
the next weeks) anyway if you know some Italian or somebody who can understand
it... Even if I'm thinking of making a translation ...www.bluessummit.com
Bert - Pavia, Italy
I wanna be Tim!
Brent, Seattle, WA
* * *
Those pictures give you an idea of what the Rockin' Pneumonia
actually looks like and it looks BAD! But the man can still play! Enjoyed
the article - give us more TRAVELING BLUES BOY!
Steve Thomas - NA, INDIANA
* * *
Good Stuff, Tim. Having been a Johnny Winter fan since
the first time I heard Rock n Roll Hoochie Koo, it was great hearing his
take on some his highlight moments that defined his blues career. His
affiliation with Muddy Waters was particularly interesting. Kudos for
bringing that out. Thanks to your dedication to covering the blues scene,
this "one of a kind" music still lives for servicemen &
women around the world. Keep it Up!
Brandon Williams, Moreno Valley, CA
* * *
Impressive! What a legend and how cool that you got so
much time with him, Tim.
Don, Louisville, KY
Tim - Great article, enjoyed Little Feat/Lowell George
story, really brought me back in time. Did not know he was a fishin' man!
Wonder what surfaces out of the abyss of your memory next?
Steve Thomas, New Albany, IN
* * * *
I really liked your travel back in time with Lowell and
Little Feat. As a long time Feat fan (mostly the stuff with Lowell) it
was cool to read. I learned several of their songs back in the day and
they still stand up today when played live. Another singer I really liked
from back then is TimBuckley. Thanks for the article.
Chet Hogoboom, Arroyo Grande, CA
Loved your last issue of TB, especially the Mayall piece.
I want that guy's job!
Brent, Seattle, WA
This is a great write up. Has it been printed in any magazines? It's
better than a lot of things I read in my guitar magazines, so props for
Caejar, Moreno Valley, CA
I can tell that you have this passion for jazz. I wonder if you yourself
play any instrument. Or are you just a groupie like most of us?
I talked with a mid-aged flute jazz artist a few weeks ago and he lamented
that despite his talents (and he is extremely talented) he says that the industry
hasn't been kind to him. He said jobs are few and far between. He said
the music industry is combating piracy and competition due to technology
being readily available to private homes and that they are not as profitable
as before. So they are replacing live talent for synthesized or digital
Do you see the same trend in your relationships with your music network?