Various Artists

Legends of Harmonica

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No 20-track compilation can hope to cover more than a fraction of the most notable performers and styles associated with recordings featuring the harmonica. Within those limitations, though, Legends of Harmonica is a very good and fun survey of nifty recordings from 1927 to 2001 that put the harmonica at the forefront. In the minds of many listeners the harmonica is more strongly linked to the blues than to any other form, and while nearly half of these songs are blues or strongly related to the blues, one of the CD's strengths is that it showcases sterling use of the instrument in other genres. It is, for instance, used in classical music in John Sebastian Sr.'s "Romanian Rhapsody" (and yes, that's the father of the Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian). There are also virtuosos of the harmonica within jazz ("Lover Come Back to Me" by Larry Adler with Django Reinhardt and Toots Thielemans' "Fundamental Frequency"), mainstream pop ("Mack the Knife" by Jerry Murad's Harmonicats), funk (War's hit "Gypsy Man"), rock & roll (Bruce Channel's great 1962 chart-topper "Hey Baby," featuring Delbert McClinton), and folk-blues (Harry Belafonte's "The Midnight Special," with an obscure 1962 session appearance by Bob Dylan on harmonica). If it's blues you want, of course that's represented as well, by masters like Little Walter (the astonishing instrumental "Roller Coaster"), Jimmy Reed, and Charlie Musselwhite (whose "Christo Redemptor" is actually a superb adaptation of a jazz/classical composition by Duke Pearson). Some pretty obscure items that might well not be instantly familiar even to those with large record collections are the 1927 track "Narrow Gauge Blues" by El Watson, the raw mid-'50s Sun Records blues "Rockin' Chair Daddy" by Harmonica Frank, and Charlie McCoy's "Orange Blossom Special." Whether because of space or licensing restrictions, it's unfortunate that some other obvious contenders weren't included, whether one of the early Beatles tracks with John Lennon on harmonica, blues-influenced British Invasion bands like the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds, or early country harmonica whiz DeFord Bailey.

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