Tom Ball had been playing the harmonica for twenty years before he realized that he shared a birthday with the late Sonny Terry. “I got pretty happy about it,” he says, explaining that after he heard Terry’s music on the radio, it changed the way he played the harmonica. “Up until then, I was just kind of breathing it,” he continues. “I had never heard it played the way it should be played, and it opened the whole thing up for me.”
JP Allen, Harmonica.com
The native Californian came to the harmonica and the blues by way of the early 1960s folk music boom, a time when artists like The Kingston Trio and The Brothers Four were tearing up the charts with what he calls “collegiate stuff” — songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Greenfields.” Like many of his peers, Tom was drawn to the acoustic guitar, and he was pretty good at it. But then again, so were a lot of other budding musicians.
“By high school everyone could play the guitar,” he recalls, “but no one could play the harmonica.” At first, playing the harmonica was more about getting some work than anything else, as doing so, made it “easier to get into bands.” But only after he discovered Sonny Terry’s music did the harmonica become more than something to accompany his guitar playing.
Ball credits his guitar teacher with steering him away from faux folk and towards the music of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. It was through their music that he found the blues. But it wasn’t until he returned from a seven-year road trip that he got serious about it.
Hitchhiking his way across Asia, South America, and Europe, Ball spent most of the 1970s “getting by” and, in his words, “just being a bum.” “It was good fun,” he says, adding sheepishly, “If you don’t mind sleeping on the ground.”
Eventually, he did mind, and he returned to California, where he found work in a Santa Barbara band called the Blues Company.
It was there that he heard about a fellow named Kenny Sultan who, as it happened, was playing fingerstyle blues and ragtime guitar just around the corner. He asked his girlfriend (now wife) Laurie to stop by the club and check out the bluesman. She returned with rave reviews, noting that Sultan was a great player with a great sense of humor. What’s more he drank Heineken and (the cherry on top) liked Blind Blake and (Reverend) Gary Davis.
Ball and Sultan would meet a couple of weeks later at a Big Mama Thornton concert. At the time, Sultan was teaching at the University of California at Santa Barbara and was slated to appear on the school’s radio station the next day to drum up some students. He invited Ball to join him.
Moments after they finished playing on air, the station’s telephone rang. At the other end of the line was the manager of a local eatery called the Sojourner Café, who offered the duo a one-time, let’s-see-how-it-goes gig. The pay: $7.50 apiece, plus all the pizza they could eat. Negotiations ensued. Free beer sealed the deal, and the guys signed on. That one-time Friday-night gig turned into playing five to six nights a week at various clubs around town, and a musical partnership that continues to this day.
Over the years the duo has performed at festivals, concerts, and tours that have taken them to Spain, Ireland, eastern Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and other points along the way. When they’re not on the road, Tom can be found in the studio, where he’s played the role of sideman for the likes of Jimmy Buffett and Kenny Loggins (who, he allows, is a pretty good harp player himself).
All in all, Tom estimates that he has appeared on some 230 CDs, including a few of his own, as well as on a Telly-winning film soundtrack and assorted radio and TV commercials. He’s also managed to find the time to write a series of “how-to” books, the most recent of which (the Sourcebook of Little Walter/Big Walter Licks for Blues Harmonica) is available along with his other books for purchase online, or at a music store near you.
Tom has also written a novel called The Marty Graw Book. A second novel is in the works.
But it’s the harp that tugs at his heartstrings, his most recent project being a one-cut-wonder with the unlikely title “Nagasaki Sails from Uranus.”
“I had this crazy idea that there should be a bunch of harmonicas overdubbed,” he says. It was the impetus for this one-man-band extravaganza that features a range of harmonicas, including diatonic, chromatic, whole tone, and double octave bass harps, as well as several Hohner models, including a Polyphonia, Slide Harp, and an Extreme Bending (XB-40) harp.
A true labor of love, “Nagasaki Sails” is a tip of the hat to the jazz tunes of the twenties, thirties and forties, and groups like Borrah Minevitch’s Harmonica Rascals. “They did crazy stuff,” he says, and he’s talking crazy good. The tune is a madcap mix of semi-jazz, reminiscent of the background music you might find accompanying an old Betty Boop cartoon. “It was great fun,” he recalls, adding, “I’d love to do a whole album.”
“Nagasaki Sails from Uranus,” featuring the Tom Ball Harmonica Orchestra, is available through Ball’s website or as a download through Amazon.com, iTunes, CD Baby, and other online music outlets. For instant gratification, you can enjoy the sights and sounds of Ball’s magnificent obsession on YouTube, here:
As for his instrument of choice, while some harp players modify or customize their harps, Tom says he prefers an off-the-rack Hohner Special 20. “I don’t change or tweak them,” he says, “I just buy and play them.”
If you enjoyed Tom’s playing as much as I did, please leave a note in the comments section below. I would love to hear your thoughts.