If Pierre Lacocque’s life story were a play, the harmonica would make a brief entrance in the first act, a fleeting appearance in the second, and save the day in the third.
Born in Israel to Protestant parents in 1952, Pierre and his family would lead a somewhat nomadic life, with his father’s work as an army chaplain, minister, and theologian taking them from Israel to Germany, France, and Belgium, all by the time Pierre was five years old. The family moved to Brussels in September 1957, one month short of pierre’s 5th birthday (October 13th).
“We, as a family, were deeply marked by the Holocaust,” he says. “My mother’s father was a leader in the resistance movement and was tortured by the Nazis. Her older brother died in a concentration camp, and my paternal grandparents hid Jewish families during the war. Both sets of grandparents did, in fact.”
The family’s respect for the Jews and their culture, philosophies, and courage did not end with the war, prompting them to enroll their children in an Orthodox Jewish private school. They were the first and only non-Jews to attend.
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His father, whom he describes as a “heavy intellectual and scholar,” spent most of his time buried in his books. He was, says Pierre, “profoundly passionate about Judaism, and he wanted us to know about their wisdom, ethics, and morals. How you treat your neighbor―if you’re in a boat with several others and you’re sinking, are there ethical considerations involved in who you save first?” That sort of thing. Heavy stuff for a little boy, and a Protestant boy at that.
Asked whether he felt out of place, or was treated differently by the students, their families, or the school’s staff, he says, “I wore a yarmulke, and my first alphabet was Hebrew. And all of my friends were Jewish, so it wasn’t that I wasn’t welcome. It was more like being an African-American in an all-white school, maybe.”
Aside from the general course of study, there were classes in Talmudic wisdom, biblical Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, leaving little or no time for things like sports and other boyhood pleasures.
But there was music. “My dad loved, and at age eighty-seven is still drawn to, African-American gospel” he says. This, along with the sounds of Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, and Sidney Bechet would set the stage for things to come.
But perhaps most prophetic of all was the day Pierre’s father gave his then-three-year-old son a harmonica. It was a green plastic four-hole harp―a toy, really, but it made a lasting impression on the boy. “I was overcome by the sound,” he says. “It had an emotional impact on me even then, so I knew early in life that I had a special calling for it.” Equally moving was the fact that his father had bought it for him. “I was touched that he thought of me,” he says.
Nine years later, his father would give him a real harmonica in the form of a Hohner Marine Band. Of the gift he says, “I was moved, but not driven to master it.” Not yet.
When Pierre was sixteen, his father was offered a teaching position at the Chicago Theological Seminary, which was located on the University of Chicago’s campus. The decision to leave Europe was a relatively easy one. “Prior generations of my family had an idealization of America, so it had an appeal,” he says, “and dad had been struggling financially teaching the Old Testament in Brussels, as the Protestant faculty didn’t have money to always pay him. So when he was offered full-time tenure at the Chicago Theological Seminary, he said yes.”
The seminary provided the Lacocques with a home on campus. The family immigrated in the summer of 1969. That very summer, while taking a walk, Pierre remembers hearing the sound of music in the distance. “It grabbed me,” he recalls, “like somebody was dragging me by my clothes. An unbelievable emotion. It was a free concert for returning students. I went in and I heard this sound. It was a harmonica played through an amplifier. His name was Big Walter Horton. That night changed my life. I listened to this harmonica player, and I could not move. It was unbelievable. And that was when I said, ‘this is it.’”
Over the next few years, Pierre would immerse himself in the iconic sounds of Chicago blues, from Muddy Waters to Big and Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf, eventually taking on the role of sideman during his college years. But any thoughts of becoming a professional musician were quickly set aside. Explaining, he says, “My family was very much into philosophy and existentialism, and it was expected that my father’s sons and daughters would follow an intellectual path.”
And so it was that Pierre would go on to obtain an advanced degree in psychology, a field that paralleled the Judeo-Christian belief that, as Pierre puts it, “we are all connected, and life has no meaning if you don’t care for your brother and sister.”
But there were other, more personal reasons behind his decision. “I was a sad little boy,” he says, “and a nonverbal guy. I couldn’t express my feelings. So I thought studying psychology could be good for me.” Perhaps, in helping others sort things out, he could do a little sorting of his own.
Obtaining his doctorate, Pierre pursued a life in clinical psychology, and a workload that preempted just about everything else. By 1988 he had had enough. “It didn’t feed me the way I hoped it would,” he says.” It wasn’t making me happy. I was in my mid-thirties, and I thought, ‘I’m getting old too fast, and not living life.’” Even more distressing, “I noticed that my work was affecting my family, and I was becoming my father.”
It took “hitting bottom” to bring him back to music. Harmonica in hand, Lacocque soon found work as a sideman, before forming his own band, Mississippi Heat, in 1991.
Alluding to his love of Chicago blues, he says, “The passion came back.” And with it, came a sense of relief he describes as “liberating.” “I can work and rehearse at home for two or three hours, he explains, “and then I’m available for my family.”
It was Pierre’s brother Michel, the band’s manager, who encouraged Pierre to start writing for the group and, in doing so, give voice to his feelings. The words flowed. “I found an artistic way of expressing something, he says, “and it was exciting to create art out of chaos.”
Twenty-four years and eleven CDs later, Mississippi Heat is hotter than ever, racking up awards and accolades, and inspiring blues fans around the world.
Their latest effort, Warning Shot, is enjoying life at the top, as the number-one blues album in the world, according to charts in Living Blues magazine (for the months of October, November, and December 2014). It ranked #4 in January of 2015).
Charlie Musselwhite is quoted on the back of the CD and praises the recording, especially Pierre’s playing:
“Mississippi Heat are true ‘Keepers of the Blues Flame.’ … The album has great performances by everybody: enduring melodies, adventurous chord-changes and rhythms and ALWAYS inspiring, heart-felt blues. Of course, I’m especially fond of Pierre’s tasty and brilliant harmonica playing throughout. A PHENOMENAL PERFORMANCE!!!”
Jason Ricci gave a similar critical appraisal in a text addressed to Delmark Records:
“A lot of today’s blues bands are centered around a single front man with a revolving door of sidemen (which is fine), so it’s refreshing to hear Mississippi Heat yet again demonstrating the power of a full, complete, road-tested band playing like an ensemble together and powerfully individually as well. Being a harmonica player I was naturally drawn to Pierre Lacocque’s fine playing all over this disc. His playing is tasteful, inventive, free of typical harmonica cliches. His tone is smooth, not overdistorted, and lends itself to his role as a supportive musician supporting the songs and the melody, rather than his own ego. I also appreciated how he changed his tone to suit the individual songs. I thought he WAS a tenor sax on the first opening notes of his solo on Alley Cat Boogie! Pierre’s harp playing works amazingly well with the fine horn arrangements and weaves in and out of the vocals brilliantly and maturely … a hard task to accomplish on that instrument.”
The CD includes mostly original tunes written by various members of the band, including ten by Pierre (one being a beautiful instrumental interpretation of Hank Williams Sr.’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart”).
In music and the Chicago bluesy sounds of the harmonica, Pierre Lacocque has found his calling, embracing the philosophies that have formed his life in ways he could never have imagined.
Warning Shot is distributed worldwide and available through amazon.com, cdbaby.com, the band’s website, and other fine record stores. For information on the band, upcoming appearances, and the group’s other offerings, go to mississippiheat.net.