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Mark Hummel
by Cathi Norton


Driving up to the "blues pad" furnished to touring bands by Indianapolis's Slippery Noodle night club, I found Mark Hummel squinting hard at the end of a needle he was trying to thread. If I didn't already know he was a die-hard blues player, I'd be convinced after a gander at that shirt -- a Lightnin' Hopkins/Goodwill original that only a certified blues addict could love. The shirt almost sighed with weariness as I sewed the collar back on, snatching it back from retirement. Mark grinned with delight and we launched into conversation about his favorite subject, blues harmonica.

Born in New Haven, Connecticut in December 1955, Mark and his family moved almost immediately to L.A. where Mark came up listening to black radio stations. An early and avid fan of the blues, he soon discovered harmonica and played constantly. A scant market for unknown blues players in L.A. pushed Hummel, in his mid-teens, to the more active scene in San Francisco. He played harp wherever he could, developing a style and learning from several local, older, black mentors. With one, Mississippi John Waters, Hummel formed the "Blues Survivors" band. The group stayed busy on the West Coast and in 1985 released their first album, "Playin' in Your Town," on their own "Rockinitis" label. The endless road-trip began, both Stateside and in Europe. In 1988 Hummel met Canadian blues guitarist/vocalist Sue Foley, and joining forces they released "Up & Jumpin'," featuring Charles Brown.

Touring is still a lifestyle (150-300 gigs a year) and Hummel's smooth harp style and skill have earned him a solid reputation as a great jump and West Coast swing harmonica player. It's also clear he's a serious scholar of the blues, careful to pay tribute to the masters of the genre and give back as much as he can.

Hummel worked briefly with a Dutch label "Double Trouble," before signing with Flying Fish and releasing "Feel Like Rockin'" in '94 followed by "Married to the Blues" in '95. Now his latest, "Heart of Chicago" (ToneCool/Rounder, TC1156, 1997), calls forth a sound reminiscent of the '40s when the "urban blues" was emerging in Chicago. Created during a four-day, blitzkrieg visit to the city of Big Shoulders, "Heart of Chicago" pays tribute to some of his favorite blues masters. The versatile Willie "Big Eyes" Smith on drums, Bob Stroger (Muddy Water's band) on bass and drums, and Barrelhouse Chuck on piano, forge a rhythm section made in heaven. Guitar turns are taken by Billy Flynn (Legendary Blues Band and Mississippi Heat), Steve Freund, who also produces (Sunnyland Slim's Big Four Band), and the legendary Dave Myers (Little Walter's band). It's clear chemistry was instant; the result is a treat. If the road and those goodwill shirts hold out, you'll probably get your chance to catch Mark Hummel in action one day soon. He's got a bad case of white-line fever and a permanent blues flu.

Cathi: How did you get turned on to harp?

Mark: There was a gravitational pull for me on the harmonica. It was totally an example of the instrument picking me. I wanted to play guitar, but I played badly. So I practiced harp hard...man, it was like a mission to me. The first guy I went and saw was Sonny (Terry) and Brownie (McGee). Sonny just mystified me. I mean how he did that I'll never know; I STILL don't -- it's true! I played with Brownie years later and when I did I never tried to play like Sonny (laughs). Cathi: Smart move. How did you get to know Brownie?

Mark: Well I met him through a friend of mine -- Carroll Peery -- who managed Big Mama (Thornton) and worked with Brownie and Sonny, Taj Mahal and the Chambers Bros. At the time Brownie and Sonny were doing the "splits." They'd been fighting for 20 years or something by that time. So I said "Okay, I'll help you get some gigs if you want. That's a secret a lot of people don't know (laughs). You think these guys work with me because they love my playing -- bull (laughter) -- it's 'cause I'm willing to go out and get 'em work. So you know I've worked with Lowell (Fulson) like that; I worked with Brownie for a long time.

Cathi: So when you worked with them, you played harp with their stuff?

Mark: Yep. They played with my band, but actually the funnest gigs I ever did with Brownie were just me and him together, because he played much more guitar and he played acoustic usually which was really fun.

Cathi: Tell me about some of the other folks you've played with: Cool Papa Sadler, Charles Huff, Boogie Jake, Mississippi John Waters, Sonny Lane....

Mark: Those are old guys that are no longer alive. everybody's dead...maybe Boogie Jake is still alive, but not the others. They were guys...really the "Blues Survivors" were started with Johnny Waters and then we got Sonny Lane in. These guys were all older than me and brought me up. It was much more like them working with me than me working with them. People like Cool Papa were mentors. He's somebody I'd like to emulate as far as his attitude about things. He had a very open attitude about who he hired and people's roles in the band, and he was very diplomatic, democratic...a very warm, generous spirit.

Cathi: What about Eddie Taylor? Can you tell me about him? I think he's generally an overlooked guy.

Mark: Yeah, pretty much; it's sad. I mean we brought him out in '82 and played about three weeks with him. He was really somebody that I wasn't hip to until about a year before I brought him out. He played with Jimmy Reed. I'd gone to see Jimmy a few times in the Bay Area and he (Taylor) had not showed.

Cathi: Why not?

Mark: He just didn't trust the promoter, which he had a perfect reason not to. So the only way to get him to California was to get my friend Carroll Peery to stop in Chicago on his way back from Minneapolis, put him on a plane and bring him out. He played the San Francisco Blues Fest, the Sacramento Blues Fest and a couple of others -- and a lot of club gigs. (Laughs.) He came out so suddenly he forgot his dentures! A street sweeper went by him in Chicago and a piece of metal had gone in his eye. He also had a cataract operation so his eye was really messed up. He kind of had a little black cloud over his head that...

Cathi: Rained on him all the time?

Mark: Yeah! And it was really the blues man! Totally the blues! (Laughs.) But the thing was, he was a pretty sweet guy; very proud. Played great, totally in his own style -- a very, very deep player. One of the deepest Chicago guys I've ever played with.

Cathi: You mean he pulled it up from down there?

Mark: He really pulled it up -- pulled very heavy stuff out of the ground. He recorded with Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Carey Bell, Big Walter. Yeah, he played on a lot of sessions and did five or six of his own records too. It's hard-to-find stuff though. Blind Pig just re-released some.

Cathi: You put out your first album five years AFTER you started the "Blues Survivors." How come? Did you not think about recording before then?

Mark: We'd done some small projects. We'd done an EP of four songs in 1979 with John Waters. It was called "Tree of Hope Records." Johnny sang two and I sang two and (laughs) it got slagged in the blues magazines.

Cathi: Well, every time you learn something.

Mark: Yeah, and when I finally did record my first album it just really fell together and felt good.

Cathi: Do you think all that bar-banding -- all that playing...

Mark: Yeah, that made a huge difference. When I went in with my own band we were very tight -- good pre-production. It was very together.

Cathi: The "Blues Survivors" is a hearty little band you know?

Mark: (Laughs.) Well, there's been a lot of different survivors though! Yeah, I'm the main survivor -- no one else really survived (laughter).

Cathi: Who's survivin' now?

Mark: Mark Bohn is the drummer. He's been playing with me for about five years -- since '92. Mike McCurdy, the bass player, is brand new, but he played with Jimmy Rogers, on stand-up. He's good; sounds great with the drummer. Then the guitar player is also pretty new -- Charles Wheal from England. You know, one of the things I do now when I hire people is really look at personality, you know? Trying to play with somebody that's 20 is a real chore. If you're my age and playing with somebody that's half your age, chances are you become "father figure." And when you become "father figure," you end up with a rebel on your hands.

Cathi: (Laughs.) I see! On their way to stardom?

Mark: That's exactly it. In all the cases where I've had younger musicians, it's been this star trip.

Cathi: Guess you gotta get whupped awhile, or there are too many distractions.

Mark: That's really my feeling. I think there are too many distractions. That's a big part of why I'm hiring older musicians. Younger players want it overnight.

Cathi: A lot of people think there has to be a music director and then sidemen, because bands can't be a democracy. Mark: Well, in a lot of ways I agree. As much as I admire Cool Papa and truly look to him as an inspiration, I sometimes think in certain ways he would tend to get run over by the guys in the band. I don't know, the dynamics of a band are so complex it's almost like a marriage.

Cathi: It IS a marriage. You have to marry all of 'em and be half-married to all their old ladies (laughter)!

Mark: (Laughs). RIGHT!

Cathi: When you were first learning music, what got you past "Blue Cheer?"

Mark: (Laughter) This sounds weird, but I think a lot of it was hearing black musicians play their own songs versus white guys doing them.

Cathi: Isn't it the same for you too? I mean songs you write come over with bigger impact...you can't help noticing an audience difference.

Mark: I think you're right! When I do my own songs, people get more out of it than when I do somebody else's. There's a BIG audience difference. But I think there's a tendency for people to compare, when you do somebody else's song, to the original. I hate to say it, but the original guys are always going to win on that.

Cathi: It's some unexplainable something else...something coming out of them.

Mark: I agree and I think that applies to black as well as white. I think the young blacks don't do the older black's material as good as the original guys did, because it's from a different era. You gotta look at the era. When it was being done blacks were in so much of a different situation psychologically and sociologically. When the originators die, they take that with them.

Cathi: So your advice to harpers would be...?

Mark: Listen to the old guys. That's my biggest advice. Listen to them and study them for as long as you can and then try to build something on your own. I do think that something is handed down. You don't get your own style out of thin air, because nobody else did. If you listen to the old guys, eventually you will come off with your own thing. But I think roots are pretty important. Older players...yeah! The weird thing is that pretty soon WE'LL be the older players! (Laughter.)

Cathi: Let's talk about "Heart of Chicago." It smacked to me of wanting to go back and grab something -- the Chicago feel -- a pet project.

Mark: That's pretty much what it was.

Cathi: It's cool you could make an album like that. How much artistic control do you have in your recordings?

Mark: Oh, generally about 80-90 percent, but there's a 10-20 percent chance the record company's going to say "We don't really like this."

Cathi: Rusty Zinn came up with this record idea didn't he?

Mark: Yes. We were on tour in Chicago at Flying Fish and he said "Man, you're on a Chicago label, you should do a Chicago blues record and get people like Jimmy Rogers, Pinetop (Perkins) and Dave (Myers)." I pitched it to the label, but they were waiting on Rounder who was supposed to buy them. When Fish got sold they found out they were out, so that idea was nixed. Then I had the idea of going to ToneCool since they were a part of Rounder. I went to Rosy (Richard Rosenblatt, ToneCool), and it was definitely the right place at the right time.

Cathi: I was going to ask about "real life recording." This seems to be happening a lot more -- people going in and recording pretty much live, just a few overdubs, to get more of a feel going. Are you behind that?

Mark: Yeah, that's where I'm at. I mean on the "Heart of Chicago" we did two takes on a lot of stuff and almost every time I used the first take. For some reason the first takes had more feel -- mistakes but much more edge. The mistakes end up making it unique...a different sound.

Cathi: Kind of the same thing as knowing that blues is a language, you know? People don't HEAR blues right off. It takes awhile, even a kind of commitment to learn what the language is saying. It's mysterious to me.

Mark: It's very mysterious. Most of my favorite blues I didn't hear right away. The majority of it I didn't "get" right away. It took a few listenings to really understand what it was they were trying to say.

Cathi: So your friend Steve Freund got the Chicago players together, knew them?

Mark: Yeah, that was why I hired him as producer. Because one, we were really good friends. The only producers I've ever used are Steve and Rick Estrin (Little Charlie and the Nitecats), and mainly because both those guys are guys that I've known. Rick, Steve and I are all real good friends, people I felt like I could be open with and they could be open with me. They could critique me and I wouldn't have a problem with it.

Cathi: It's a touchy thing.

Mark: That IS a very touchy thing! I've tried to pick people I'm really close to, to work with. My friend Carroll Peery, in the past, used to be very much my right-hand man in production as far as who I'd go to for advice.

Cathi: So you have confidence that people like Rick are going to hear what you're going for?

Mark: Yeah. Plus someone like Rick is much more helpful in the overdub department...helping me with phrasing, singing, songwriting and harp ideas...the production kinds of things. The album project was a rush, four-day job. Two days for basics, one day for overdubs and starting to mix, and the final day to mix. I mean, that's a pretty big rush-job you're talkin' there. But it turned out great.

Cathi: Do you book yourself now?

Mark: AGAIN (laughs). I've been through eight agents in eight years and in all honesty I think I do a better job myself. I had an agent book me and I dropped him because the fact was we were out there doing 6-12 hour drives every night. I've tried to be fair to the club owners and not jack 'em up to a price they can't afford. I hate to say it, but I've seen booking agents put nightclubs out of business that way. And a lot of the agent problem for me is that I'm a white blues harmonica player -- one of the more un-bookable things you can be out there (laughs). It's a hard business to be in.

Cathi: Tell me about tone and your rig.

Mark: Well the main thing for me is I tongue-block most of the time -- a big part of where I get my tone. But it's also a marriage between the amp, the microphone, the settings and all kinds of things. I have an '58 Bassman with no effects at all -- well, I'm wireless because I got tired of stepping on my mic cord.

Cathi: Do you do the audience-walk stuff?

Mark: Oh yeah! I decided, you gotta entertain people -- there's an interaction going on. But you don't want to let the gimmicks take over what you do artistically...to the point where you don't differentiate between that and playing good music.

Cathi: How do you keep your eye on the ball?

Mark: I just do it in a small portion ...it doesn't rule the show. It's a natural way for you to connect with the audience, and hey, it works! Who knows, maybe in five years I'll be burning harmonicas!

Cathi: Don't say that!

Mark: No...on stage I mean!

Cathi: (Laughs.) Oh...that's different. Tell me about your goals.

Mark: Ohhhhhh boy...you know what my goals are?...

Cathi: (Laughter.) Well, I'm looking for early, good-paying, local gigs!

Mark: YEAH! Pay well and FLY ME IN!!!

Cathi Norton is a musician (30 years) as well as a journalist. She has written for magazines like Blues Revue, Rhythm and Blues (Britain), Harmonica World (Britain), American Harmonica Newsmagazine, Easy Reeding (Hohner), Southwestern Blues, Mississippi Saxophone, HIP, several blues societies, many newspapers, and liner notes.  Cathi's web site


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