Some of the greatest names in the harmonica world are associated with the chromatic harmonica. In this post, we look at just a few of those world-class players.
“We can’t keep calling him the 8th Wonder of the World,” Motown CEO Berry Gordy said, impressed by the young musician. That’s how he became named Little Stevie Wonder, when he was just eleven, after being discovered singing at a street corner by a relative….Ronnie White of The Miracles. White accompanied the youngster and his mother to Motown Records, and the rest, as they say, is musical history.
Stevie was born blind on May 13, 1950. His birth name was Stevland Hardaway Judkins. When his parents separated, her mother returned to her maiden name and changed his to Stevland Hardaway Morris.
He is an American singer, songwriter, versatile instrumentalist and record producer. More than 30 of his records reached the Top 10 and won 22 Grammys, but what made him a standout from the start was his legendary harmonica playing.
Jean “toots” Thielemans
Toots Thielemans is a name that barely needs introduction to harmonica aficionados. Playing the chromatic harmonica he is recognized as one of the best jazz musicians in the world.
Born in the Belgian capital, Brussels, in 1922 he really developed his musical interest during the war years though he had reportedly been playing accordion since the age of 3. Toots migrated to the US in 1952, at which time harmonica was merely a hobby for him. Django Reinhardt was his first idol and his early influence was Charlie Parker.
“I can say without hesitation that Toots is one of the greatest musicians of our time. On his instrument he ranks with the best that jazz has ever produced. He goes for the heart and makes you cry. We have worked together more times than I can count and he always keeps me coming back for more …”
From Quincy Jones’ liner notes
Q’s Jook Joint, 1995
Winning first prize in a state-wide harmonica competition marked the start of Jerry Adler’s musical career. He was just 13 years old, and in his day was considered the world’s youngest harmonica virtuoso, playing his first British Royal Command Performance at the age of just 17. He also had the honor of being invited to the White House by then President Harry S. Truman.
His musical versatility included scoring popular themes for movies and TV and he was honored by Jackie Kennedy for his harmonica score of the theme for The Young Man from Boston, a TV special aired after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The Los Angeles Times once said of one of his performances: “The harmonica artistry of Jerry Adler was the highlight of the show. He transforms this simple instrument into sounds usually related to an entire symphony orchestra”.
Jan Verwey is a notable player who created his own distinctive and immediately identifiable style on the chromatic harmonica, by playing octaves. His solo playing brings out the heart of the harmony and melody from his instrument.
Toots Thielemans said of him: “Jan is the only harmonica player I know who is not trying to play my style.”
Willi Burger was born in Milan, Italy and studied the classics in Germany. His passion for the chromatic harmonica in classical music produced some of the best versions of harmonica in that genre earning him the reputation as a virtuoso of interpretation and styles. Recognizing him as one of the best classical harmonica players ever, world renowned composers like Abbado, Reverberi, Bandal, Coggiola and Teodori have written original pieces specifically for him.
Burger organized the first-ever Italian workshop for chromatic harmonica, and designed Hohner’s top harmonica model, the Amadeus, an instrument strictly for the advanced professional.