Former HOOT member Texas Johnny Boy played a great set at Pearls in Dallas recently. A few of us were there to see it. His harmonica playing was strong, steady, and had a rich tone. I emailed him the next morning to ask if he would do an interview.
He replied instantly.. .and I do mean instantly...saying, "Yes, an interview is fine. Got home at 7 and I am up at 11. Too much adrenaline!"
Thanks to Texas Johnny Boy for the taking the time to answer some questions for us.
Here is the interview...enjoy!
1. What made you want to start playing harmonica?
I can, barely, remember this... but, i was about 5 or 6 and i got a harmonica for a Christmas present. For most of my life, that occurence was forgotten. A family member put together a collage of some old film footage. The collage had a small segment that had my siblings, and myself, opening our Christmas presents. In this segment, I was sitting amongst all of the toys, opened boxes and strewn Christmas wrapping papers bouncing on my little butt playing the harmonica with both hands. My more conscious recollection of my desire to play harmonica was when I was 16. At this time (1970), I lived in Northern California and it seemed that every little rock and roll hippy wanna be had a harmonica in their pocket. This particular culture of youngsters were musically influenced by a band called "Canned Heat". In turn, Canned Heat was influenced by a blues artist named John Lee Hooker.
2. During the show you did a horn solo...using only your mouth and a microphone. How on earth did you figure out that you could do that?
That was what is called a mouth trombone. It is a facsimile. It is an imitation of a trombone that is only in the heart and soul. One time, I had a REAL trombone player get very upset with me and he stormed out of the club as he was swinging his fist through the air. I learned it from one of my favorite blues singers, New Orleans' "JohnnyAdams". Way back when, I saw Leon Redbone do it on TV. Through the years, as my confidence has developed in certain areas, you start believing that you can. Believing is a huge thing because believing is where it all starts. If you believe it, and you're willing to earn it, then you are on your way. You have to build the house one brick at a time. My house is far from finished.
3. How did you end up playing with Milton Hopkins?
The band you saw, at Pearl, is my band. Milton is a driving musical force in my band. Twenty two years ago, I played in Milton's band. Sadly, I don't even remember how Milton and I met.. but, i think it must have been some thing of fate. He is a very special musician. Milton is the real deal and is a walking slice of American Rhythm & Blues musical history. His credentials, of practical experience, are far too many to mention.
4. You have a powerful singing voice. Is it something learned and developed, or have you always been able to sing?
Thank you for the compliment. My singing voice is my primary instrument. It is what I do best. Harmonica, flute and saxophone come after my voice (and in that order). When I was 15 years old, I was a singer in a backyard garage rock and roll band. I think music and singing is something I was born with. They are, most likely, a God given gift.
There are some things, in life, that just can't be explained but, I feel them in my heart. If the instrument is going to be real, it has to be earned. I have had to earn my voice but, when I was aboy, my Italian father, and my mother, always had Mario Lanza records playing. Mario was, probably, the greatest opera singer of all time. Also, my father's father was a guitarist, and he played the mandolin extremely well, and he had this beautiful Italian voice and he sang these beautiful Italian songs.
I can remember my mother had a very pretty voice too. They were not people who did this for a living, though. I do think that having family, that came before me, had a musical influence on me. So, I was a singer that got his hands on a harmonica.... mmmmm, now I had a little bit of icing for the cake.
5. What harmonica do you prefer, and why?
I have been using the Marine Band Deluxe. They have been holding up quite well. They have an open back that allows them to project better. I like the tone of the wooden comb. The comb has rounded edges which allow for better lip action. Also, the reed cover plates are made out of a better quality metal that makes them harder to damage.
The down side of the harp is the gaps are not set worth a darn which causes inconsistant playing action and they aren't tuned worth a darn either. I am learning how to do these things but, the time to do it is hard to come by (too many irons in the fire!). So, I would prefer to play some of the well known customized harps but, I can't financially afford them. So, I do the best I can with what I have.
6. What has been your best experience on stage?
The audience that came to hear music. I can't put it in words. It even makes my eyes water. The audience that came to hear the music, well... they ARE THE MUSIC. The honor runs very deep. If I put my heart and soul into the music, and I'm earning my way, and an audicence claps... we are gifted together.
7. And the weirdest experience on stage?
Again, this was in the audience.. and believe me when I tell you this, you don't want to know! I have been on that bandstand for a while, now, and the blues nightclub business can bring forth way too much information.
8. What helps you play fast without losing track of rhythm and melody? Over 30 years ago, I learned this from Professor Thom Mason at SMU: "Music starts with rhythm, it does not start with musical notes and don't you ever forget it". I took about 15 private flute lessons from him (the only lessons i have ever had). He was the co-founder of the Dallas Jazz Orchestra.
I was not in the high school band, I never went to college to study music. Basically, I am a street musician. Different types of music have different feels. That could also mean, different types of music have different types of rhythm. Regardless of what style, the groove is the most essential element of the musical piece. I guess, my real answer to your question is: CONFIDENCE.
9. Was it fun to play the show at Pearl?
Yes! We made lots of new friends. Pearl is a, literally, fabulous place. It is owned and operated by Tracy and Rick Yost... and let me tell you.. they have a serious vision and they LOVE music as much as anybody out there. They DO have a business to run but, they are doing what they are doing because it is what is in their hearts.
They have a very astute audience too. Let's face it, I have lived in Dallas, and Houston, for the last 36 years... you can't fool the musical audience of North Texas. The North Texas audience has witnessed the greatest music in the world and much of it was born right there in North Texas and I am very proud of it! When Texas makes a musical mark on the world, the world never forgets it.
10. Last words to members of HOOT?
HOOT starts with the letter "H", the same letter that HEART starts with. It's all about the HEART. The heart runs deep....just like the blues and just like HOOT.
I have to ask, just out of curiosity....what about the fake trombone is offensive to trombone players? or at least to that particular trombone player?
In this case, I would just address it as THIS PARTICULAR TROMBONE PLAYER. I don't know if other tombone players would be offended or not. This particular guy is a very well known jazz musician in the Austin area.. he is a VERY good musician and plays upright bass and trombone. My answer to your question is: I DON'T KNOW. But, i suspect that he was one of those very egotistical musicians.. and he was, most likely an immature person that may have been full of himself. I had never met the guy, before, in my life but, i had seen him play before.
He was not much of a blues player at all but, is a good jazz man. Allot of people won't understand that statement but, it's true. Being a good blues player is a matter of being able to speak the DIALECT of the blues. You don't even have to know allot of notes and this is easily proven by listening to SonnyBoyWilliamson.
I know the folks at HOOT will want to know....what mic and amp were you using for your harp?
The mic I use is a Hohner Blues Blaster. It is blue in color. I have had it for about 16 years. It is, sort of, a modern day version of the Astatic Company's JT-30. I think that Astatic may, even, be the manufacturer of the Hohner mic. The amp I use is afirst year"Fender Bassman" reproduction.
It has four 10 inch speakers in it. The reason I specify "first year" is because it was the only year Fender made them worth a darn. After the first year, they progressively went down hill. These amps were, originally, made in the 1950's. Through harmonica players, a huge demand had developed for the original Fender Bassman's of the 1950's.
The prices skyrocketed and the demand became hard to fill. With that in mind, Fender decided to build them again and I think they first came out around 1990 or 1991. Since mine is a first year reproduction, it's starting to become, sort of, vintage itself.
As I’ve learned more and more about diatonic harmonicas on the internet, I keep coming across a modification called, “embossing”. This narrows your reed slots, making the reeds more responsive.
After practicing on (and ruining) a couple of cheap harps, I finally decided to give it a try on one of my Lee Oskars. It took a lot of time and patience, but I finally got it done. The tone is a bit warmer, and it takes less force to activate the reed. The final result is that without extra effort, I can play a bit louder, more clearly, and have an overall better tone.
Here are some links with information about embossing. Make sure you try it on old harps first…it takes some practice to get it right!
If any of you have some knowledge on the subject, or any tips to add, click on “Respond” below.