Last time we looked at some of the early harp players who were influenced by the jazz musicians of the time. Easily the most accomplished of these, was a rather obscure player who called himself (on record, at least) Rhythm Willie. Little is known for certain about him. He recorded just two sessions under this name, in 19401 and 1950. He is also almost certainly the harp player on some records by the pianists Lee Brown2 and Peetie Wheatstraw3. The harmonica on these pieces is often listed as by Lee McCoy. This could be Willie's real name, or it could be due to confusion with singer/guitarist/harp player Robert Lee McCoy (later Robert Nighthawk, he also worked as Lee McCoy and a variety of other aliases). Robert Lee McCoy did record some pieces with Peetie Wheatstraw4, but his harp style is very different. Willie had a very pronounced jazz influence, not only in his playing, but also in his choice of musicians (piano, bass and drums in 1940 and a full band with a sax section in 1950) and his choice of material (his 1950 session featured the Gershwin number "I Got Rhythm" and a version of "C-Jam Blues", renamed "Wailin' Willie"5.
With the exception of "Breathtakin' Blues" (a version of "St. James Infirmary" played in Gm on a Bb harp, the only pre-war example of 4th position I have found), all of Willie's work is in 1st position, or straight harp. As an example of his style, I've transcribed the first chorus of "Bedroom Stomp" from his 1940 session. This is played in the key of C minor on a C major harp!
I've also dotted out the start of a somewhat more sensible piece, "Boarding House Blues", this time on a Bb harp.
Unlike the Robert Cooksey solo we looked at last time, Willie does not play regular, even eighth notes, but phrases very loosely across the beat. For this reason, I must stress even more than usually, the need to hear the original recordings to get a feel for his phrasing. Also notice how he covers the full range of the harp and dig those beautifully controlled blow bends in the upper octave.
As you may be able to gather, Rhythm Willie is a favorite of mine. Paul Oliver has suggested that Willie may have been a white musician, but I am not aware of any evidence to support this. Eddie Taylor, longtime friend and partner of Jimmy Reed said that he knew Rhythm Willie. Taylor claimed that Willie was alive in the seventies and still living in Chicago, but was considered "crazy" and had retired from music, claiming that nobody understood how to play his songs. Does anybody out there know anything else about him6?
1. Reissued on 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
Willie's entire 1940 session is also available on Harmonica Blues 1929 - 1940 (Wolf Records WSE106). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
2. His tracks with Willie are reissued on Complete Recorded Works 1937-1940 (Document DOCD-5344). Click here or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
3. His tracks with Willie are reissued on Peetie Wheatstraw Vol.6 (Document DOCD-5246). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
4. His tracks with Robert Lee McCoy are reissued on Peetie Wheatstraw Vol.7 (Document DOCD-5247) Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
5. Reissued on Harmonica Blues Vol. 2 1946-1952 (Fremeaux FA5059). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
Also reissued on Blowing the Blues: A History of Blues Harmonica 1926-2002 ( Indigo IGOTD 2536). Click here for more details from Amazon.com or click here for more details from Amazon.co.uk
6. Since this article was written more than a decade and a half ago, more details about Rhythm Willie have been unearthed, mostly due to the research of Scott Dirks. For more about Willie, read this article.
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