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Posts Tagged ‘harmonica

“I daydream about a high school where everybody plays the harmonica”*…

Lee Oskar, seen here performing with WAR in 1970, was so frustrated with the quality of Hohner’s harmonicas at the time that he eventually founded his own harmonica company

In the late 1960s, as the general manager of Don Wehr’s Music City in San Francisco, Reese Marin sold guitars, drums, keyboards, and amps to the biggest psychedelic rock bands of the late 1960s. His customers ranged from Big Brother and the Holding Company and Quicksilver Messenger Service to Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead. Guitarists as musically diverse as Carlos Santana and Steve Miller could find what they were looking for at Don Wehr’s; so did jazz virtuosos George Benson and Barney Kessel, who would walk down Columbus Avenue from Broadway in North Beach—where the jazz clubs competed with strip joints for tourists—whenever they were in town.

These legends were some of the most demanding and finicky musicians on the planet. So it should have been easy for Marin to sell a couple of $5 harmonicas to Lee Oskar, whose melodic riffs on hits like “Cisco Kid,” “The World is a Ghetto,” and “Low Rider” gave one of the biggest bands of the 1970s, WAR, its signature sound. Oskar, however, heard imperfections in his chosen instrument that Marin didn’t know existed. Oskar was not tentative in his quest for what he considered a “gig-worthy” harmonica. “I spent all my money on harmonicas,” Oskar told me recently, “just to find 1 out of 10 that was any good.”

Marin says Oskar was exaggerating, but not by much. He was actually behind the counter when Oskar made his first of many visits to Don Wehr’s and asked to play all of the harmonicas the store had in stock in C, A, F, G, and E—the keys where rock bands live and die. On any given day, Marin maintained an inventory of 10 to 20 harmonicas in each key for each model they sold. That was a lot of harmonicas for Oskar to put his mouth on, so Marin decided to be firm. “I said, ‘You can’t play ’em unless you buy ’em,’” Marin told me, “and he said, ‘I don’t mind.’”

Shrugging, Marin rang him up, then Oskar proceeded to play every single harmonica on the sales counter, which he then divided into two piles—one for the gig-worthy harmonicas and another for the rejects, which were 80 to 90 percent of the total. “When he was done, I said, ‘Lee, what do you want me to do with all these harmonicas?’ and he said, ‘I don’t really care. I can’t use them.’” Marin ended up giving away a lot of used Lee Oskar-played harmonicas. “Lee did this over and over, every time he was in town,” says Marin. “It was crazy.”

Until relatively recently, playing a harmonica was sort of crazy, too, since doing so was essentially the same thing as destroying it. For harmonicas like the Hohner Marine Bands Oskar road-tested that day at Don Wehr’s, a player’s saliva would soak into the wood inside the instrument, causing it to swell. At the end of a gig, the wood would dry out and shrink. This process would repeat itself over and over, until the wood had swelled and shrunk so many times it would split and splinter, often causing a player’s lips to bleed. “I used to hack off the ends of the combs on my harmonicas with a carpet knife,” recalls Steve Baker, a London-born harmonica player and an authority on the Marine Band. Most players would never do that, of course, content to just toss their worn-out wrecks in the trash.

For Hohner, this must have seemed like a very good business model. After all, the Marine Band had been Hohner’s most popular harmonica brand almost since 1896, the year it was introduced. In the United States, in the first half of the 20th century, American folk musicians and blues artists alike embraced the Marine Band as their own, giving the instrument originally designed to play traditional German folk tunes an aura of cool. With sales soaring after World War II, Hohner found itself making an instrument everybody wanted, even though it needed to be replaced regularly. How could a manufacturer’s product get any better than that?

Well, answered harmonica players and a small but influential community of harmonica customizers, how about an instrument that doesn’t wear out, is built to be serviced and tuned to a musician’s needs, and is made out of materials that don’t cause our lips to bleed?

In the 1970s, Lee Oskar and Steve Baker were at the forefront of a movement to get those questions answered…

In the 1970s, Hohner, the world’s largest harmonica manufacturer, changed its flagship model– and in the process, its signature sound. A few musicians and harp customizers waged a quiet rebellion. And they won. The full (and elegantly told) story: “The Return of the Harmonica.”

* Richard Brautigan

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As we blow, we might recall that it was on this date in 1979 that the classic film Rock and Roll High School was first publicly shown. (Some sources report that the movie opened on August 4 or August 24 of that year– and “officially,” one of those dates is likely right.  But according to director Allan Arkush, in an interview with The Village Voice, the movie played in April in Texas and New Mexico, and did not reach New York City– and national consciousness– until August.)

A Roger Corman production featuring a remarkable cast, it is nonetheless probably best remembered as “the movie with The Ramones.” Amusingly, Corman originally wanted Cheap Trick or Todd Rundgren to play the band, but schedules didn’t mesh, so he was forced to find an alternative… at which point Paul Bartel (who played a key role in the film) suggested The Ramones.

source

Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 25, 2021 at 1:01 am

The man who made the clothes that make the man…

 Nudie Cohn, perched on one of his 18 custom cars (source)

Nuta Kotlyarenko immigrated to America from Kiev at age 11, and bought into the American Dream big time.  After kicking around the country as a shoeshine boy and a boxer (and indeed, he claimed, as a companion of Pretty Boy Floyd), Kotlyarenko– by then, “Cohn”– and his wife opened a New York lingerie store, Nudies for the Ladies, specializing in custom-made undergarments for showgirls.

In 1947, after relocating to Los Angeles– and taking “Nudie” as his given name– Cohn persuaded a young, struggling country singer named Tex Williams to buy him a sewing machine with the proceeds of an auctioned horse; in exchange, Cohn made clothing for Williams.  The creations were so popular that Nudie opened a North Hollywood store to feature his chain-stitched and rhinestone-studded creations.

Over the years, Nudie gave dozens of performers their signature looks, from Elvis’ $10,000 gold lame suit to the costumes of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.  But his specialty was country (and country rock) singers: e.g., Porter Wagoner (a peach-colored suit featuring rhinestones, a covered wagon on the back, and wagon wheels on the legs), Hank Williams (a white cowboy suit with musical notations on the sleeves), and Gram Parsons (the suit he wears on the cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers album The Gilded Palace of Sin, featuring pills, poppies, marijuana leaves, naked women, and a huge cross).  John Lennon was a customer, as were John Wayne, Gene Autry, George Jones, Cher, Ronald Reagan, Elton John, Robert Mitchum, Pat Buttram, Tony Curtis, Michael Landon, Glenn Campbell, Hank Snow, and numerous musical groups including “that little band from Texas,” ZZ Top.

Nudie with The King in “the Suit” (source)

Nudie died in 1984; the store (which remained open under the management of his daughter) closed in 1994.  But his work remained prized–  Porter Waggoner reckoned, just before he died in 2007, that he had 52 Nudie Suits, costing between $11,000 and $18,000 each (and worth by then much, much more).

And Nudie’s legacy remains strong.  His glittering garments were a bright stab at the conformity of their times… and set the precedent (if they didn’t in fact lay the foundation) for the Culture of Bling that has erupted out of Rap and Hip Hop into life-at-large.

For more wonderful photos of Nudie, his creations, and his cars visit Nudie (“the official site”) and check out the wonderful pictorial essay at The Selvedge Yard.

As we smile at the irony of a clothier named “Nudie,” we might wish a tuneful Happy Birthday to James Henry Neel Reed, better known simply as Henry Reed; he was born on this date 1884, in the Appalachian Mountains of Monroe County, West Virginia.  Reed was a master fiddler, banjoist, and harmonica player whose repertoire consisted of hundreds of tunes, performed in several different styles.  But beyond his importance as a performer, he became, in effect, the Ur Source for academic research into the history of U.S. fiddle music.  (Learn more about Reed, and hear him play, at the Library of Congress’ Henry Reed Collection.)

Henry Reed (in street clothes), 1967 (source)

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