The harmonica draws people with a unique combination of traits: one must be a showman and great listener, but formal music training is strictly optional. It’s no longer a common instrument, but it seems to inspire great dedication among the men — and they all seem to be men, at least around Springfield — keeping it alive.
It’s Friday night on the north end of Springfield, and harmonica specialist “Bad” Bill Robinson is the master of his domain.
Robinson, Kevin “Hipbone Sam” Hawkins, Jimmy Bonefeste and Dale Canham are playing red, white and blue pop tunes to a packed house at Weebles, on Peoria Road.
Robinson plays with a wireless microphone, so he can make full use of the small area that passes for a stage. Every now and then, he squeezes among the people packing the narrow space around the bar.
The harmonica draws people with a unique combination of traits: one must be a showman and great listener, but formal music training is strictly optional.
It’s no longer a common instrument, but it seems to inspire great dedication among the men — and they all seem to be men, at least around Springfield — keeping it alive.
To many, Robinson is the dean of that local community. He’s been playing for more than three decades.
“I was overseas in 1978, in England and I was shopping at a record store, and I really liked Magic Dick from J. Geils Band,” Robinson said during a recent telephone interview.
He spotted a case of harmonicas, also known as “harps,” on the wall.
“I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to take up harmonica.’
“I bought a B-flat Blues Harp and an old Echovamper, which they don’t make in the States anymore — I wish they still had that sucker.”
Like a lot of harp players, Robinson had no formal training.
“I was self-taught, so my teacher sucked,” he said. “So I really didn’t get a good sound for about 10 years. I played in bands anyway, but I just didn’t have that full, ballsy sound that I have now.”
Robinson says his mentor was Doc Hughes, whom he first heard at the former Wooden Nickel in downtown Springfield in the mid-1980s.
They were getting along famously, as Robinson tells it, when Hughes shook him one day in 1988, saying, “Until you quit playing like a wimp, you’re never going to get the sound you want.”
“He crushed me, dude,” Robinson said. “But it was the best advice I ever got. Ever since then, I started playing balls-to-the-wall.”
His current philosophy: “If it’s worth playing, it’s worth playing hard. If you’re going to make a bad note, make it hard, know what I mean?”
Getting that swell sound
Indeed, Robinson has a unique quality to his playing. It’s not necessarily the most technically virtuosic, but it’s a big sound that’s impossible to ignore.
Earlier this month at a Blue Monday performance, the Illinois Central Blues Club’s weekly music night at the Alamo, Robinson played with the Mojo Cats on a few numbers.
He adopted a wide stance and a slight squat, like a weightlifter about to heft a barbell over his head.
Rather than moving the harp around his mouth, Robinson’s head bobs from side to side around the instrument.
Then there’s the sound.
An unamplified harmonica has a thin, reedy timbre, even when played loudly. It’s a Western-movie cliche — picture a cowboy sitting outside a saloon, his feet propped up on a
railing, playing a sad, sad song.
But playing blues by harmonica, like the rest of the genre, is largely dependent on technology.
Harp players frequently use what’s called a bullet microphone, so named because of its shape. (Picture the top of an old-fashioned police dispatcher’s mic, a la “Car 54 Where Are You?”)
The design of a bullet mic, which is held cupped in the hands directly in front of the harp, boosts the midrange frequencies. Ideally, the sound then passes through an old-style tube amplifier, which further distorts the notes.
The difference between an acoustic harmonica and one that’s properly amplified is like the difference between a Vespa and a Harley.
The former is light and breathy; the latter has a sound like the rusty chrome on your grandfather’s pickup truck.
But technology can only carry you so far.
“I use my throat an awful lot,” Robinson said. “You get that air in your throat … if you watch me, man, you’ll see my veins almost pop in my neck. It’s just a lot of throat, it’s diaphragm, and it’s just playing hard.
“It’s not limping around it thinking I might make a mistake. It’s just knowing what you want to do and do it,” Robinson said.
Keep your harp handy
Harmonicas comprise five basic parts: metal top and bottom cover plates, brass top and bottom reed plates (which respectively produce sound when drawing or blowing air) and the comb, which can be made from wood, plastic or metal.
The most common type of harmonica used in rock ’n’ roll and blues music is known as diatonic, a word that refers to the notes in a scale. That’s as opposed to a chromatic harmonica, which also includes sharps and flats. (In the key of C, diatonic notes are played on just the white keys of a piano, while chromatic notes include both white and black.)
That means diatonic harmonicas come in specific keys — C, G, A and so forth — so harpists often carry instruments in more than one key.
John Popper, who as front man for Blues Traveler was arguably the most prominent harmonica player in the world during the group’s mid-1990s heyday, is said to have worn a custom set of suspenders so he would always have all 12 keys on stage with him and could switch mid-song.
When Robinson plans to sit in for only a few numbers, he’ll sometimes show up wearing his harp belt under his shirt.
“You’re kind of incognito; nobody knows you’ve really got it. But when it’s time to play, you’ve got eight axes on you,” Robinson said.
Robinson said he prefers the Hohner Special 20 model, a diatonic with a plastic comb that retails for about $30.
He’s tried other brands but found some cannot accommodate his big-air playing style.
“When I play it out and I play hard, it chokes out on me. And I think it’s because I don’t know how to really put my air through it,” Robinson said.
He said he’s never choked out on a Special 20, though he has had other problems related to his all-or-nothing technique.
A decade ago, for example, Robinson tried to track how much he spent on harmonicas: $1,104 in 1999, and that’s just based on the receipts he remembered to save.
“I’ve blown out. I’ve sucked reeds down my throat,” Robinson said. It was an F harp, the No. 4 hole, and it happened two weeks in a row.
When opportunity knocks …
During a break at a Tuesday open-mic night at the Blue Moon Saloon in Dawson, veteran area musician Roger Whitsell approaches Tim “Hawkeye” Kane. Whitsell says he forgot to bring the harmonica rig he wears around his neck to hold the instrument, keeping his hands free to play guitar at the same time (picture Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen).
“Last Dance With Mary Jane,” Whitsell said, referring to the Tom Petty hit.
“I can do it,” Kane shot back immediately. “I got a G harp.”
“And also, let’s see … oh, ‘Out on the Weekend.’ That’s with an A,” Whitsell said.
Kane said he had the A harp but no rig to lend, so Whitsell played him through the song.
“I can do that, absolutely,” Kane said.
A readiness to jump in on a moment’s notice is key to making one’s way as a harp player.
Since many are not associated with a band, they have to pay dues before they’re invited to begin playing regularly.
“When I was first starting and trying to sit in with people, you’d have to wait all night and maybe play the last song,” Robinson said. “And then, as you get better — around here, of course, I can go sit in with anybody and walk in, and they ask me up right away, because I’m old, people know me.
“But when you go to another town, you have to present yourself in a way that they know you know what you’re talking about.”
Early on, Robinson played with a Rolling Stones cover band; he also spent two years playing with the Groove Daddies in the late 1990s.
“The whole band is just total talent, so I learned a whole lot in there,” Robinson said.
“There’s a sax player in that band named Brian Moore. One of the things that I had trouble with — you’ll see a lot of harp players have — they don’t know exactly when to play and when not to play and they play over people when they shouldn’t.
“They play over singers, they play over guitar players — harmonica players just tend to think, ‘I should play all the time,’” Robinson said.
“Well this sax player … I’d look over at him and when he wasn’t playing, he’d just be standing there, holding a cigarette. And I’d go, ‘You just really think you’re cool, don’t you?’
“He’d go, ‘Damn, I am cool.’ So then I start thinking, you know, sometimes the best note is the one you don’t play.
“Now, you’ll see that I’m very tasty. I don’t jump on people. I play when I’m supposed to,” Robinson said.
Robinson himself has inspired at least two other musicians in town: Brad Hessing of the Mojo Cats and Kane, who jumped at the chance to play at the Blue Moon.
At the Mojo Cats’ Blue Monday performance earlier this month — in which both Robinson and
Kane sat in — Hessing had a case with harmonicas sitting open on a stool in front of him.
He started playing the instrument when another band he was in folded. Hessing’s sister gave him a harmonica — he said it was a cheap harp, the sort of thing you’d get at Cracker Barrel, “a $3 special, made in China.”
He soon began buying additional keys and adding German-made harmonicas to his collection. (Hohner is based in Germany.)
After a few weeks, he started sitting in with other musicians.
Hessing used to play piano and trombone, but has had no formal training on the harmonica.
“You just pick it up. You can’t see the notes on it … it’s certainly an instrument to play by ear,” he said.
For his part, Kane regards Robinson as the best player in the area and looks to him as a mentor.
He seems to relish how few people play his instrument.
“There was a time in America when — say in World War II — there was a guy in every unit who had a harmonica,” Kane said. “Today, it’s become one of the more obscure instruments, and it’s really a shame.”
Brian Mackey can be reached at (217) 747-9587 or firstname.lastname@example.org.