Joe Filisko literally knows the diatonic inside out. But it hasn’t always been that way.
Performance, featuring Joe and Eric Noden at the IC Special, BP Club in Croatia
Growing up in Chicago, Joe recalls that there was “always music floating around the house,” and picked up the guitar in his teens. Like many boys his age, his repertoire was limited to the pop tunes of the day, but all that would change when he entered college and joined a music ensemble that dabbled in other genres as well. “There was a gentleman who would “sit in” when we were doing bluesy numbers, Joe recalls. “He played the harmonica, and I was intrigued by it.”
Shortly thereafter, Joe stumbled upon an article that focused on the beginners’ approach to playing the instrument. As a boy of 12, Joe had bought a 12-hole Marine Band 364 at a local department store. “I thought it was cool,” he says, “but I didn’t know what to do with it. I noodled with it here and there, but any sounds that came out of it were sheer coincidence.”
So Joe put the harmonica in his sock drawer, where it remained untouched until the day he came upon that fateful article. “After reading it, I went to my sock drawer, picked up the harmonica, and started fooling around with it,” recalls Filisko. “ Once I got it in my mouth, I found that I had the hardest time not playing. It kind of took me over, and my enthusiasm hasn’t much waned since that time.”
Missed Train Blues
Fueled by an innate curiosity, and the mentoring of a college instructor who urged him to “set goals, have dreams, and accomplish things,” Joe soon had a whole raft of harmonicas, and the skills to go with them.
His first taste of notoriety came when, in the late 1980s, the ensemble had a one-page write-up in Guitar Player magazine. Joe, a self-described “music writing slave,” was singled out for his scoring. “I grew up with a small-town mentality,” he says, “and this article gave me a lesson that you are only limited by your dreams. It really changed my life.”
Another turning point came when Joe attended the annual NAMM show, what he describes as “the biggest showcase for musical instrument manufacturers in America.” Armed with technical questions, he made his way to the Hohner booth where, much to his dismay, he found only a small sampling of harps … and no one with the technical expertise to answer his questions. The Hohner rep passed on a couple of names of people within the company who were more equipped to help, along with a copy of their in-house magazine, Easy Reeding. Inside was a letter to the editor from a member of the Windy City Harmonica Club.
Joe had found a home: a place where like-minded players from relative beginners to Al Fiore, of the famed Harmonicats, came together to make music: harmonica music.
The following moving tribute to DeFord Bailey on the occasion of Bailey’s recent induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, demonstrates why Joe Filisko is Harmonica.com’s Harmonica Player of the Month:
It was at the club that Joe first heard about SPAH (the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica). A trip to their convention in 1990 was an experience he’ll never forget. “Everyone there was clearly dedicated to the instrument,” he recalls, “and that put me in a different place. It gave me a new perspective. I got to meet players who were clearly dedicated to the instrument and making great music on it.”
At about the same time, Joe’s natural curiosity as to the inner workings and mechanisms of the harmonica, coupled with the engineering and metal working skills he had learned during and just after his college years, soon found him repairing and modifying instruments for amateurs and pros alike. He did everything from minor repairs to elaborate etchings on brass, which he then folded into brass plates. News of his unique abilities spread virtually overnight, after a local Associated Press article was picked up by news organizations around the world. Before long, everyone from Howard Levy to Doc Watson, Kim Wilson, John Hammond, and Jerry Portnoy came calling. Even former President Bill Clinton boasts a customized Filisko harp.
Today, SPAH 2001’s Harmonica Player of the Year is hard at it: repairing, customizing and modifying harmonicas, performing and conducting seminars, organizing jam sessions, and holding “teach-ins, where players of all levels can interface with an elite, hand-picked collection of harmonica pros who are masters in a particular style and/or technique. Sitting down with these musicians in an informal setting, attendees can ask questions, play for the pros, and get the kind of one-on-one feedback and support that can make all the difference.
Joe downplays his own talent, believing that he got where he is today by what he refers to as “sheer determination.” We say, no way. Joe’s success and well-earned reputation has everything to do with his musicianship, technical acuity, love for the instrument — and sheer determination.