Harmonica player Sugar Blue has been everywhere and played with just about everyone during a 40-year career that spans from blues legend Willie Dixon to The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.
For someone who only plays one instrument, and not exactly the most popular instrument in pop music, he’s had a huge impact on music.
And he’s not afraid to tell you that.
“I think harmonica had kind of faded from the scene for a while, but when I cut ‘Miss You’ (on the Stones album “Some Girls”) in 1978, people started playing it again like crazy,” said Sugar Blue, nee James Whiting.
When told that the harmonica seems popular again in all sorts of folk and roots recordings, Sugar Blue bristled a bit. He thinks “roots” is one of those musical terms that’s been used so often, it’s lost all meaning.
“That term has become so generic, it can mean anything. For me, I find roots under a tree,” he said. “I play blues and rock and roll and jazz and funk.”
Sugar Blue will be bringing his unique harmonica style to The Big Easy in Portland on Sunday as part of a new Sunday-night series featuring nationally known blues acts.
The series is being organized by Jamie Isaacson, a promoter of the North Atlantic Blues Festival in Rockland, who recently moved to Portland. Isaacson saw that there really wasn’t a regular stream of national blues acts coming to Portland, so he decided to start the series at The Big Easy, using contacts with acts he’s built up over the past couple of decades.
“There just isn’t a lot going on around here (with blues), so I thought this would be a good opportunity,” said Isaacson. “There’s definitely an audience for it.”
The series so far has included Joe Louis Walker in February and Moreland & Arbuckle and Debbie Davies in March. Other upcoming shows include Chris Beard on April 29, Smokin’ Joe Kubek on May 6 and Sugar Ray and The Bluetones on June 3 (not to be confused with the rock band Sugar Ray of “Fly” fame). Tickets are $15 for Beard and Sugar Ray, and $20 for Kubek.
Sugar Blue, 62, grew up in Harlem, and his mother had been in the chorus at the famous Apollo Theater. He was influenced by both the national and local jazz scenes, and the first instrument he wanted to play was saxophone. But his practicing at all hours aggravated his mother, who took the instrument away from him.
So an aunt gave him a harmonica instead.
“She said, ‘Here’s something you can play that you can hide when your mother comes to take it away,’ ” he said.
As a youngster, Sugar Blue was drawn to great blues harmonica players, but also as a teen began to see harmonica used in popular music by the likes of Dylan and Stevie Wonder.
Harmonica is a reed instrument, sort of like a saxophone. But most harmonica players don’t have sheet music in front of them, and don’t have a section to sit in with the high school band.
“You can learn to play classical music on harmonica, as some do,” he said. “But for me, for the music I play, it comes straight from your heart and head and out through the instrument. It’s all improvised for me,”
Sugar Blue has homes in Chicago and Memphis, but spends most of his time on the road. “If I’m not touring, I’m bored.”
He actually started his musical career as a traveling street musician, playing on sidewalks with other buskers. In fact, it was while playing the streets of Paris that he first met The Rolling Stones.
Sugar Blue spent a month in the studio with the Stones for “Some Girls,” and found them to be “crazy-ass musicians having a good time, chucking down a few beers.”
Sugar Blue continues to be in demand as a session musician, correctly pointing out that there aren’t a ton of well-known harmonica players. Not as many as there are guitar players, for instance.
“I’m toying with the idea of writing an autobiography,” he said. “We’ll see.”
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at [email protected]