When I first became interested in blues harp, my favorite players and chief influences were the usual ones: Little Walter, Rice (Sonny Boy Williamson II) Miller, Sonny Terry, etc. I still listen to these players regularly and the impressions they made upon me can still be heard in my own harp style, even when I'm not playing the blues. After I'd been listening to blues harp for a while, though, I started to develop a taste for the more obscure players, with unusual styles, players such as Gwen Foster, Alfred Lewis, Blues Birdhead, etc. But my favorite out of all these guys was the harp player who recorded as Rhythm Willie. When I first heard of him, next to nothing was known about him. He had recorded two sessions under his own name, as well as playing on recordings by Peetie Wheatstraw and Lee Brown, although in the discographies the harp player on these cuts was usually listed as being either Lee McCoy, or Robert Lee McCoy, causing confusion with the singer/guitarist/harp player later to achieve fame as Robert Nighthawk. For years, me and my buddies speculated on who this amazing player might be. He had certainly listened to a lot of jazz, especially Louis Armstrong and he seemed to have strong ties with Chicago. There were also rumours about him still being alive in the Windy City, but retired from music and half crazy. Thankfully, I was not the only one who wondered who this underrated musician was - Scott Dirks (whose name will be familiar to many of you) went out looking for him and came back with quite a lot of information. Scott is planning on writing his own piece about Willie, so I'll leave you to look forward to that, but in the meantime, here is my own small tribute to one of my favorite blues harp obscurities.
Willie Hood, known as Rhythm Willie the Harmonica Wizard, was a popular entertainer in Chicago, up until his death in 1954. His repertoire consisted of jazz-tinged blues and, apparently, pop standards of the time. Here, I have transcribed the opening measures to three of the tunes he recorded at a 1940 session, issued under the name "Rhythm Willie and his Gang". These tracks have been reissued on "Harps, Jugs, Washboards and Kazoos 1926-1940" (RST Records Jazz Perspectives JPCD-1505-21). "Boarding House Blues" is a typical example of Willie's first position jazz style (everything he recorded, with the exception of "Breathtakin' Blues" was played in first position, or straight harp), played here on a G harp. Upper octave first position is often referred to as "Jimmy Reed style", but Willie was playing in this style in the 30s (or maybe even earlier) with a degree of sophistication that Jimmy Reed never achieved.
"Bedroom Stomp" is something of an oddity. Again in first position, this time he is using a C major harp to play in the key of C minor! If you work on this one, pay attention to the blow bends - if you don't get them right, the tune will sound horrible.
Another minor key tune, "Breathtakin' Blues", is the only pre-war harp recording I have found played in fourth position - in this case, G minor on a Bb harp. Fourth position is the relative minor to first position, so Willie may have been more familiar with this position, than players whose specialty was cross harp. The tune itself is basically "St. James Infirmary", a favorite tune of early jazz musicians - this just goes to show that Howard Levy was not the first to try to play jazz on the 10-hole! It sounds to me like Willie had listened to a lot of jazz clarinet players - listen to that pure tone, that controlled vibrato and those trills, turns and bent notes.
Willie is, in my opinion, one of the most neglected of early blues musicians. I for one, can't wait to see what else Scott Dirks has found out about him2.
1. Harps, Jugs, Washboards and Kazoos (RST Records JPCD-1505-2). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
2. Scott's article was published in 1992 in Blues & Rhythm #127. The text of the article is avaiable as a .pdf file here
More information about Rhythm Willie can be found on this page about Premium Records.
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