“Musically hopeless.” Those words, written by Steve Baker’s music teacher after a knee-knocking audition at the age of seven, would follow the British-born musician through the better part of his primary school years. Passed on from one teacher to the next, the label stuck.
Steve with Rick Estrin’s band The Nightcats at the World Harmonica Festival 2013: Kesselhaus Swing
JP Allen, Harmonica.com
“I spent the rest of my childhood music lessons sitting in the back of the class,” says Baker, “where I was never asked to do anything except shut up.”
Years passed. The boy became a teen, who, in the summer of 1969, fell hopelessly in love with his friend Andy’s ten-hole Hohner Echo Super Vamper: the British version of the classic Hohner Marine Band. “I picked it up and put it to my lips, and it was as if it had been sitting there waiting for me.”
By 1972, Baker was playing up a storm and jamming around the campfire with his guitar-playing mate, Dick Bird. The two made a good team, and they began playing Anglo-American acoustic blues and jug-band music around town, eventually hooking up with the Have Mercy Jug Band.
Life was good and getting better. Weekdays they played in local night spots, moving their punk music to the streets on Saturday afternoons at the Portobello Road Street Market.
One night, a German blues fan by the name of Werner Weber suggested that they come to Germany, offering to help them find work if they made the trip. The group didn’t take his offer seriously, until (much to their surprise) Werner came through — sending train and ferry tickets to Aachen, Germany, where he had lined up three paying gigs.
Their music was well received, and eager to keep the momentum going, they decided to try their luck in Hamburg, where, as someone noted, the Beatles had gotten their start. But once there, they didn’t have a clue as to where to go, or who to see. As Baker recalls, they were standing on a street corner trying to figure it all out, when lead singer Rory McCloud spotted a postman. “Hi mate,” he began, “Do any musicians live around here?”
Steve with Blues Deluxe at Harpin’ by the Sea, GB 2013: One Drop Blues
The postman didn’t miss a beat. Pointing to a nearby building he replied, “On the top floor of that house there—just across the road there’s a band.”
Their good luck continued. Rory’s knock was greeted by an affable Scotsman. “Hi, mate,” said he, “We’re a band.”
“That’s great,” replied the Scotsman. “I’m a booking agent!”
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
By the next night, Rory had booked them into Fabrik — the famous Hamburg jazz club (both pictured below). That led to more work, “and once we got work,” says Baker, “we stayed.”
Eventually the band broke up, and Baker moved on, sharing the stage with blues guitar/singer Tom Shaka before joining beat legend Tony Sheridan’s band. Studio work and a series of tours followed.
1989 saw the publication of The Harp Handbook, Baker’s first major entry into the world of harmonica how-to books. A true ground-breaker, it went beyond the basics, documenting the changes that were taking place in the harmonica world, explaining dual-reed systems and what happened when notes were bent or overblown. Its success led to more books, an instructional CD-ROM, an interactive blues workshop, and a series of blues harmonica play-along book/CD packages.
Some more of Steve with Rick Estrin’s band The Nightcats at the World Harmonica Festival 2013: New Minor Blues
In 1990, Baker teamed up with guitarist Abi Wallenstein, whom he describes as “a remarkable performer, master of groove, and iconic figure in the European Blues scene.” Over the years they’ve made a lot of music together, including seven albums.
Guitarist/singer/songwriter Chris Jones was another key player in Baker’s career. They met in 1994, recording and performing together until Jones contracted cancer and passed away in 2005. “He was trouble,” says Baker, “but a beautiful guy and dear friend.”
Baker has also enjoyed a long-standing relationship with the Hohner Harmonica Company where, as a product development consultant, he has seen “far-reaching improvements in the iconic diatonic harmonica model” — innovations like Hohner’s 2005 wooden body harmonica, and the bamboo laminate harmonica combs in the 2009 Marine Band Crossover. Baker was also instrumental in forging a relationship between the company and Joe Filisko, whose revolutionary designs were incorporated in the company’s 2010 and 2011 Marine Band Thunderbird.
All of this to say that when it comes to music, Steve Baker is all about change: shaking things up with new ideas and better mousetraps. He says his music is still evolving, with his main source of material coming not (as you might expect) from other blues harmonica players, but from saxophone players and guitarists. “I’m a musician who plays the harmonica,” he explains, adding, “I think in terms of music, not in harp licks. I’ve played many styles, and that’s reflected in how I play now.”
And play he does, taking on some eighty gigs a year with Abi Wallenstein and BluesCulture, and the Dave Goodman band. You’ll also find him performing and sharing his thoughts and techniques at festivals and workshops from India (Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore) to Germany (Trossingen) to the U.S. (San Jose, California) and France (la Maison du Kleebach, in the Alsace region).
Dave Goodman Band, 2013: Sweet Maybelline
Were it up to him, Baker says he would do away with the competitive component of some harmonica festivals. “I don’t view music as a competitive sport,” he says. “I’m interested in the spirit and the communicative side of music, and people coming together. That’s the cool thing. It’s about energy, not about who’s better.”
That, from a player’s player: a man who is, in his words, “dedicated to creating good times and great music that reaches out and touches the heart of the listener.”
For more information on Steve Baker’s upcoming performances, festivals, workshops, books, CDs, and other materials, head for www.stevebaker.de