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Bailey, DeFord (14 December 1899–02 July 1982), musician, was born in Bellwood, Smith County, Tennessee, the son of John Henry Bailey and Mary Reedy, farmers. Bailey grew up in the rolling hills east of Nashville and as a child listened to what he later called “black hillbilly music” played by his family. His grandfather Lewis Bailey was a skilled fiddler who won numerous local championships, and a family string band often appeared at local fairs and dances. DeFord Bailey’s own fascination with the harmonica, an instrument that was especially popular in Middle Tennessee, resulted from a childhood illness. When he was three he was stricken with polio and was bedfast for several years; to amuse himself he practiced the harmonica. Lying in bed and listening to the distant sound of trains, hunting dogs, and barnyard animals, he became adept at working imitations of these into his playing, creating unorthodox “bent” notes and mouthing patterns that would later make his musical style unique. Bailey survived the disease, but it left him stunted and frail....

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Bate, Humphrey (25 May 1875–12 June 1936), bandleader, harmonica player, and physician, was born in Castalian Springs, Tennessee, the son of a local physician. His parents’ names are unknown. A graduate of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Bate took over his father’s practice and traveled the circuit in Sumner County, just north of Nashville. As a hobby he organized and led a string band that eventually became the first such group to appear on the pioneer country radio show the “Grand Ole Opry.” His band is considered by historians to be one of the finest and most authentic of the old-time performing groups, and for years it was the cornerstone of the “Grand Ole Opry.”...

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Butterfield, Paul (17 December 1942–03 May 1987), blues harmonica player and bandleader, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of middle-class parents whose names and occupations are unknown. Butterfield was raised in Chicago, where blues music was regularly performed in small clubs on the city’s South Side, catering primarily to a black audience who had migrated to the city in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s looking for better employment opportunities. Butterfield was one of the few young white musicians to befriend the older bluesmen and was soon sitting in with band members as a harmonica player....

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Bill McCulloch and Barry Lee Pearson

Horton, Walter (06 April 1918–08 December 1981), blues harmonica player and vocalist, known variously as “Big Walter,” “Shakey,” “Mumbles,” and “Tangle-eye,” was born in Horn Lake, Mississippi, just south of Memphis, Tennessee, the son of Albert Horton, Sr., and Emma McNaire. When he was five his father bought him a harmonica, or mouth harp, and he began teaching himself to play. Guitarist Johnny Shines first encountered Horton around 1930 and recalled that he was a serious musician, constantly working on new techniques, even as a preteen. After Horton’s father got a job as a handyman with the city of Memphis, his family moved there, giving Horton ample opportunity to further his musical education....

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Jacobs, Little Walter (01 May 1930–15 February 1968), blues singer and instrumentalist, was born Marion Walter Jacobs in Marksville, Louisiana, the son of Adam Jacobs and Beatrice Leviege, sharecroppers. Soon after Walter’s birth, the family moved to Alexandria, where he grew up, and at age eight he began playing the harmonica, absorbing the sounds of white harmonica-player Lonnie Glosson and Cajun music. At age eleven or twelve he ran away from home, his destination New Orleans, where he played on the streets and perhaps in some clubs in 1942 and at the Liberty Inn Club in Monroe in 1943. By 1944 he was in Helena, Arkansas, learning a few pointers from Rice Miller and appearing in radio on “King Biscuit Time” and “Mother’s Best Flour Hour” in 1945–1946. Jacobs married Pearl Lee around 1945; they moved to East St. Louis and St. Louis before arriving in Chicago by 1946....

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Red McKenzie © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB13-0576 DLC).

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McKenzie, Red (14 October 1899–07 February 1948), jazz singer and comb player, was born William McKenzie in St. Louis, Missouri. Raised in Washington, D.C., after his parents’ deaths, McKenzie returned to St. Louis, where he worked first as a racing horse jockey and then as a bellhop at the Claridge Hotel. It was while on this job during the early 1920s that he began amusing himself and others by humming jazz melodies into a homemade instrument made of a comb wrapped in newspaper. With kazoo player Dick Slevin and banjoist Jack Bland, McKenzie formed a trio that soon came to the attention of bandleader Gene Rodemich, who took them to Chicago for a recording date. Their February 1924 Brunswick coupling of “Arkansaw ( ...

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Terry, Sonny (24 October 1911–12 March 1986), blues harmonica player and vocalist, was born Sanders Terrell in Greensboro, North Carolina, the son of Ruben Terrell, a tenant farmer, and Mossiline Smith, a singer. Terry learned to play folk-blues harmonica from his father, who was an amateur musician. Two unrelated childhood injuries led to the loss of sight in both of his eyes. Not unlike other black, blind men at the time, Terry took up a musical career because he was unable to obtain other work. He began to travel to nearby cities, playing on street corners and begging for change. In Durham, he met another blind street musician, ...

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Wells, Junior (09 December 1934–15 January 1998), blues harmonica player and vocalist, was born Amos Blackmore in Memphis, Tennessee; his parents' names are not known. He was raised on a farm just outside of nearby Marion, Arkansas, and attended school through grade school but did not pursue a high school education. Wells, as he was known by the late 1940s, began playing harmonica on the streets of West Memphis, Arkansas, where his family had relocated during World War II. Largely a self-taught musician, Wells was influenced by the recordings of ...

Article

Bill McCulloch and Barry Lee Pearson

Williamson, Sonny Boy (30 March 1914–01 June 1948), blues harmonica player, was born John Lee Curtis Williamson in Jackson, Tennessee, the son of Rafe Williamson and Nancy Utley, occupations unknown. His father died shortly before he was born, and he was raised by his mother, who later remarried. As a boy, Williamson sang with a gospel quartet at Blair’s Chapel CME Church on the outskirts of Jackson. When he was nine or ten, his mother gave him a harmonica, or mouth harp, as a Christmas gift, and he began teaching himself to play, starting with the gospel tunes he sang in church. At least two other Tennessee musicians later claimed to have known him then: John “Homesick James” Williamson, a guitarist from Somerville, said he and Williamson were boyhood friends, and James “Yank” Rachell, a mandolinist from Brownsville, claimed Williamson was a youngster riding a bicycle in Jackson when they met....