In 1970 the self-titled debut album by J. Geils Band was released and immediately caught the attention of listeners interested in blues and rock music. One listen let you know that the band had a deep appreciation for classic blues music. Their sound focused on the wild style of singing and the stage presence of singer Peter Wolf, the perfect guitar work by J. Geils, rounded off by the plaintive harp of Magic Dick, who was born Richard Salwitz in Connecticut in 1945.
Dick began taking music lessons in third grade. His instrument of choice was one of the brass instruments.
“I think what attracted me to the trumpet was probably hearing Louis Armstrong. It really did for me. I took lessons as part of my school program and was in the band. But I wasn't deep in the band because I like to be alone, so I wasn't that interested in the school band. But there was an introduction to playing with a group and learning to read some diagrams for the second or third trumpet part.
“All of this has influenced me to this day. It was the foundation of my approach to learning and my love for music. I had a love affair with the trumpet that goes back to that time. That made me play a little saxophone even though I never considered myself a good saxophonist. Or a good trumpeter! But that was the foundation for things like breath control and other aspects of playing that are very important to me, how I play and why I sound like the harmonica.
“The first saxophone I owned was an alto, a Selmer Mark VI, a beautiful instrument. I sold that a few years ago. Since then I have recorded a Selmer Super 20 tenor saxophone with balanced action. I was originally more drawn to the alto saxophone, largely because of Charlie Parker, who was a huge influence. I was really impressed by its sound and tone. Its sound came from playing with a really hard reed. Someone like Earl Bostic, who has had a number of hits, used a softer cane to get their sound. Parker had a harder, stronger tone on Alt.
“There are a lot of tenor players that I like, with Dexter Gordon being one of my all time favorites. Other favorites on Alt are Art Pepper, who was a master of ballads, and Paul Desmond, who played in Dave Brubeck's band. I admire her lifelong commitment to learning to play her instrument to the nth degree. I find that really admirable. I work on playing different instruments, which can be to my disadvantage. Calculations of the profitability must always be carried out in order to make the best use of the available practice time
“I apply what I've learned about the saxophone directly to my chromatic harmonica playing, which I've focused on for the past few years. That doesn't mean I've given up on the diatonic harp, what people call the "blues" harmonica. When it comes to chromatics, I don't just stick to the Chicago-style chromatic play like Little Walter on "Blue Lights". I'm working on playing with a broader expression in a variety of music sources. I listen to the likes of Jerry Murad, who leads the Harmonicats, Toots Thielemans and Stevie Wonder. There aren't many top chromatists out there. "
Another jazz artist who attracted Magic Dick was Ornette Coleman, particularly his small group recordings for Atlantic Records, where Coleman made original material that defied the conventional approach.
"Coleman did a bunch of things, like" C&D "from his Ornette! Album, that was bluesy. Another thing that had an impact at the time was his use of two drummers in some sessions, guys like Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins who were really great players, the approach I'm taking now is to treat the chromatic harp as a jazz horn and I'm not focusing on any type of music.
“I play just as much chromatics as I do now and mainly concentrate on bebop jazz and ballads. When I say bebop, I am referring to the music Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie were making in 1945 when I was born. This music speaks to me more than the hard hit that came later. And I love the way Charlie Parker played ballads. That doesn't mean I won't play rock or blues anymore, but that's where I am now. "
Six years ago, Dick began working with guitarist Shun Ng and formed an acoustic duo. Ng was born in Chicago, grew up in Singapore and later settled in Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music on a scholarship. They met through Ng's manager, who was Magic Dick's old friend.
"We did some cool stuff like doing a cover of the James Brown classic" Papa & # 39; s Got A Brand New Bag "as a duo. And we regularly talked about" So What "from Miles' classic Kind of Blue album Davis reports. Shun is now back in Singapore, got married and with Covid issues I don't think he and I will do more things. He's younger and wants to focus on composing instead of going out on the streets and performing. One thing I know is that his compositions are going to be great.
“I like minimalism. I prefer small bands or even solo. There's nothing like hearing a great horn player play a ballad with no accompaniment or minimal background. One example of this are the trio recordings that tenor star Sonny Rollins pioneered in the late 1950s with only bass and drums, without a chordal instrument. I came across an interview in which Rollins stated at the time that he did not want chord accompaniment because he found that it got in the way of his tenor ideas. The stuff he was doing in Europe back then is breathtaking.
“So minimalism can be fewer instruments, but it can also be applied to the number of notes you play. I don't like musicians who can play 900 notes in three seconds. It just doesn't move me, no matter how well it's done. I prefer to listen to slow playing or medium grooves without the density of notes. J. Geils and I used to refer to this as "sheet music auctions". "
The trumpet became Dick's constant companion over time, until a random moment occurred.
“I did a summer school lesson at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and studied to be a physicist or an engineer. I was very fond of electronics and mechanical engineering. I wasn't particularly chemical, but physical chemistry was all a different matter! My interests have always been broad and yet they are all interconnected.
“When I got back from that session, my girlfriend at the time had an older brother who was interested in the blues. He spent a lot of time listening to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. There was a 10-inch record of field recordings that interested me in the harp on Folkways Records from the Library of Congress. In a very short time I had shifted my focus to Chicago blues and amplified harmonica, like the classic Muddy Waters and Little Walter. My interest went from the Piedmontese style Terry played to the darker side!
“I started playing the harp in 1967, and within a year I had met J. Geils and Danny Klein who became our bass players. We founded a jug band trio with Danny and me on vocals, Geils on acoustic guitar and Danny played a homemade washtub bass. I also played an instrument I invented, a hydro-kazoo, a kazoo that stuck in a beer can full of water. Blowing at the end of the kazoo will give you a bubbling sound as the air meets the water.
J. also played a manda banj, a mandolin-sized banjo. It was a very intense interest. "
Within a short time, the trio went electric and moved to Boston, where they met singer Peter Wolf and drummer Stephen Bladd. About a year later, Seth joined Justman on Keyboards. In 1970, Atlantic Records released the self-titled album that introduced the J. Geils Band to the world.
“We haven't created anything new for this album. What was always most important was to be fresh and to give a new twist. Peter certainly had his own sound and charm, if you will. The more you know about this music, the more you know where Peter got his shit from. And that goes for me too. When it all came together, there was nothing like it as a new band. Some people thought we were the American version of the Rolling Stones. I could kind of understand this comparison, but I didn't really feel it. "
The group became the house band at the Boston Tea Party, a famous club that was originally a synagogue. The room had high ceilings with a reflective sphere that was the centerpiece for psychedelic light shows. They would open to headliners like B. B. and Freddie King.
“One night, Mario Medious, a promo guy for Atlantic, heard us play and was very hot on us. When he got back to New York, he told Jerry Wexler that Atlantic had to sign us. But Wexler wasn't really our champion. Atlantic co-founder Ahmet Ertegun loved us. Ahmet and I shared a love for classical jazz with Louis Armstrong. Ahmet knew his shit!
"A couple of albums in our career we've done a version of the song I'm Not Rough, an Armstrong recording. I brought it to the band and pointed out that I thought we might do something with it, one of them to an acoustic country thing to an end that had more of a city sound to it. J. played slide guitar on it and emulated the slide trombone excellently. I had transcribed Armstrong's solo note for note to play on the diatonic harp. I think we did that pretty successfully.
“When we were recording in New York City, Ahmet used to come into the studio. He would come to many of our NYC shows too. It was always a real thrill for me to see him in the wings standing 15 feet away on my side of the stage watching us. It was a special relationship.
“And Mario was also something special. He grew up in Memphis near Beale Street. As a kid he stayed down there listening to blues harp players like Sonny Boy Williamson all the time.
So it's been a good relationship for a while. But then at Atlantic you had to pay to keep records. It was a joke."
The song that Magic Dick put in the spotlight was an instrumental he composed: "Whammer Jammer". It first appeared on the band's second studio album, The Morning After. When Atlantic Live: Full House released, a live album that the J. Geils Band captured in all its glory, Magic Dick's two-and-a-half minute storefront caught the attention of fans around the world.
“There are a number of references to this melody. Part of the opening came straight from Sonny Boy Williamson II and the Yardbirds who did Bye Bye Bird. I did it a little faster, especially live. Then each chorus was taken from things I learned from the Chicago playstyle lexicon. The song is more of a free flowing composition than a burst of improvisation. "Whammer Jammer" has held up over the years because the flow is inevitable, unfolding from one choir to the next and building to its climax.
“A number of people I've spoken to lately have picked up Stoop Down # 39, a blowout harp instrumental from our Nightmares… ..and other stories from The Vinyl Jungle album. This one is more spectacular, with more fireworks than Whammer Jammer.
Together with J. Geils, Magic Dick took part in a project with Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, which was released as Buddy Guy and Junior Wells Play The Blues. Eric Clapton and Dr. John were also involved.
“Michael Cuscuna was the producer at the time we were asked to play a piece or two. We were asked, but I can't remember who asked or how it came about. Buddy and Junior had already recorded their stuff, so they weren't in the studio when J. and I were there to do our thing. It has never been one of my favorite records. There you have it as a historical record. "
Harmonica quality control was pretty poor in those days. The tolerances went to hell so they were almost unplayable. Eventually, Dick began playing Hohner Golden Melody harps, which used a plastic comb and a tuning like that of a saxophone.
The J. Geils Band ran out of breath in 1984. Dick was bad.
“It was a depressing time. It was worth about eight years not to play. The whole end of the band was a big change. But I have a deep and strong interest in photojournalism. I'm a nut for cameras. So I put a lot of energy into it while retiring from music for a while.
“Then around 1989 I got back to it. I wanted to play again, so I started getting back in shape. Once that happened, the next step was to bring a band together. I went up to J. Geils to see if he was interested. He hadn't played much either. He turned his attention to his Ferrari restoration business. J. had been immersed in Italian sports cars for some time.
“He was interested in the band idea that made him start playing seriously again. We both saw the band as an opportunity to focus on our first love – classic jazz and blues. The stuff we did with the J. Geils Band was more rock with blues and jazz injections. With our Bluestime band we wanted a more authentic sound. "
The Bluestime band cut two albums for Rounder Records, Bluestime 1994 and Little Car Blues 1996. Both show how J. Geils got a Charlie Christian-influenced guitar sound as Dick began to step out of his comfort zone.
“The first time it was my introduction as a singer. No doubt that I was relatively inexperienced and had only been singing for about two years. I saw a vocal coach about a year before Bluestime. That made me start singing seriously. I think my singing is a lot better on the second album. Overall, our game is very good in both areas, but personally I like Little Car Blues more. I think the sound and the instrument intensity are better. My singing on the first was just too green.
“You have to work to improve your singing. My vocal coach set me on a path that has completely influenced my harp playing. She taught me a breathing technique that opera singers and popular pop stars use. There is a technically correct way of singing. It all has to do with how you breathe and how you control the air. I took lessons from the late Jeannie Deva in Boston. She later moved to Los Angeles. She had studied with Dante Pavone, who was a singing teacher in Boston. Many rockers studied with him, including myself for a very short time. "
“Dante used to say that he could teach a fire hydrant to sing! Good trainers know the exercises that will help you develop the basic mechanisms you need to sing properly. These basics will give you confidence. You need to know that you can do it without negative thoughts getting in your way. I was pretty tied up at the beginning. When you get past it, you can really see what you can do. "
The key to Magic Dick is still the ability to sing whatever he wants to play with rhythmic precision. Its goal is to achieve free expression, an immediate connection between the mental conception of a sound or an idea and what is coming out of your mouth.
“It's a fascinating process that is brought to a microscopic level, like switching from a slap note to a drag note. It could be an adjacent hole in the harmonica so you are only moving a small amount to another location. As a professional player, you have to learn to play timely, precisely and expressively. I enjoy practicing solo and playing ballads to develop my concentration, like trying to thread a needle. For a moment you have to focus on a very small point with great intent.
“I'm learning to play more like a jazz improviser. Here are the changes, now play it. I didn't take this approach that often when the band was active. Then I was part of a team with specific roles. Nowadays a lot of musicians do what I do because they spend a lot of time at home because of Covid. The downtime has created space for sustainable work. So I'm happy as a pig in shit! "
There are two different approaches to playing the harmonica: pointed or puckered lips and blocking tongues. Every approach has its advantages.
“You expand your palette of sounds on the harp when you can use both, which I do. I can switch mid-stream or mid-phrase from one to the other. Each technique produces a different tone, sound, a different attack. You should be good at both. But I recommend newer players focus on one approach until they're pretty good at it. Otherwise, you may get confused by the muscle movements in your mouth.
“The harmonica is a unique instrument. Everyone has their own sound. My natural instinct is to get out of the microscope! I examine shit in amazing detail from philosophical, physical and sonic perspectives. But I don't forget that what matters is how you sound and what comes out of the harp.
“The quality of your perception and everything that contributes to the production of these grades is what sets the really good players apart from everyone else. I pay attention to the attack how you start the sound. The quality of the thought that triggers the action of playing makes a huge difference and controls the outcome. I think about this stuff every day. Some of this comes from a trumpeter because learning is so much trial and error, adjustments that you make based on the sound you get.
“On the one hand, you can memorize things and develop what you think is a level of instrument setup. But that's not a real possibility, not like Art Pepper's Altspiel, for example. You need to have the mental understanding of the actions that you need to take and then practice those actions. I am very happy when that happens. That is why I make a distinction to whom I am listening my time when I study the Masters so intensely.
In 1993, in collaboration with Pierre Beauregard, Dick patented a new concept in harmonica design known as "Magic Harps".
“Our design offers alternative tunings for the diatonic harmonica. Conventional ten-hole diatonic harps have a fixed layout and use the same tonal ratio unless a specific tuning is involved. They are also key specific. The Magic Harps were designed to allow you to play certain types of music with much greater ease than you could with a traditional diatonic like the Little Walter Chicago style.
“They look and feel the same way. The moods improve your ability to play melodies and chords that are suitable for a variety of musical genres. We have developed more than 40 different models under one patent.
“All models have a common feature that differs from that of the diatonic. You can bend all drawing notes on the Magic Harp. With a diatonic there is a crossing point at the seven-hole, where the logic between pulling and striking changes. Our design is more symmetrical, added chord extensions and made the blues sound. So we've changed the color of the chords and the note relationship while maintaining the characteristics of the harmonica sound. "
With the intention of playing more of the chromatic harp in a minimalist format, Dick continues to practice and work to improve his playing.
“I would like to do another duo or trio if our situation improves. It took some time to get used to performing in a duo with Shun because you are exposed to every minute. But I respond to the pressure that is put on me. Plus, each member has to play as a drummer, which further refines your attention, understanding of grooves, and the importance of timing. Fewer instruments mean you can hear what's going on. I was often amazed when I played with Shun that it sounded so much more than either of us. "
Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Mark Thompson lives in Florida enjoying the sun and retirement. He is the past Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Suncoast Blues Society and a former member of the Board of Directors of the Blues Foundation. Music has been a big part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!