Little is known for certain about the harp player who called himself Rhythm Willie1. He recorded just two sessions under this name, in 1940 and 1950. He is also almost certainly the harp player on some records by the pianists Lee Brown and Peetie Wheatstraw. 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 (who later became better known as Robert Nighthawk). Robert Lee McCoy did record some pieces with Peetie Wheatstraw, but his harp style is very different from Rhythm Willie.
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 1970s and still living in Chicago, but was considered "crazy" and had retired from music, claiming that nobody understood how to play his songs.
Willie's musical style is rather similar to harp players such as Blues Birdhead, but even more accomplished. Certainly there is a pronounced jazz flavour to his playing, showing a very definite Louis Armstrong influence in particular and this is underlined by his choice of material, particularly in his post-war recording of Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm". Willie's speciality is cleanly played first position harp. In all the recordings of him that I have located, there is nothing played in the cross harp style, but this appears to have been out of choice rather than any lack of skill with the harp.
I have transcribed the only example of Willie's work that isn't in first position. "Breathtakin' Blues" (from the album Harps, Jugs, Washboards and Kazoos2, also containing the rest of Willie's 1940 session, plus other good stuff) is a variation on "St. James Infirmary", played in the natural minor position - in this case the key of Gm on a Bb harp. Pay attention to his vibrato and his overall control of the harp, especially on the bent blow notes. Listen how he slides into those hole 10 blows towards the end of the piece. Think of jazz clarinet as you play in this style and remember, Howard Levy wasn't the first to try to play jazz on the 10-hole harp!
1. 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.
2. 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
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