Peter Madcat Ruth has established an international reputation through his exhilarating, riveting virtuosity on the harmonica. His expertise on this instrument has amazed audiences world-wide. He is equally at home playing blues, folk music, jazz, country, or rock and roll. Performance Magazine refers to him as "A harmonica virtuoso who is rapidly approaching legend status."
Madcat's music has been evolving for over 55 years. It started in the Chicago area in the early 1960s, with Madcat playing folk/blues on guitar and harmonica. By the late 1960s he had immersed himself in the Chicago Blues and was studying harmonica with Big Walter Horton. In the early 1970s Madcat moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan where he was a key presence in two of Ann Arbor's finest progressive rock bands: New Heavenly Blue and Sky King. By the mid 1970s Madcat was touring the world with jazz pianist Dave Brubeck. In the 1980s, Madcat went solo infusing the folk/blues tradition with elements of rock and jazz. In 1990, Madcat teamed up with guitarist/singer Shari Kane to form the duo Madcat & Kane. For twenty four years they toured nationally and internationally. And in 1998 Madcat teamed up with Chris Brubeck to form Triple Play and also started performing with Big Joe Manfra in Brazil.
Madcat's experience is extensive. He has been an invited guest performer at many harmonica festivals in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia. His harmonica playing is heard on over 130 CDs and LPs. National television and radio appearances, symphony orchestra performances, radio and television advertisements, and harmonica workshops all attest to Madcat's reputation as one of the best and most versatile harmonica players in the world.
Madcat is more than an expert musician. He is also performer who has such a good time playing music that audiences, ranging from pre-schoolers to senior citizens, delight in his performances. His enthusiasm is unpretentious and contagious.Quotes about Madcat
"Madcat has got to be one of the greatest jazz soloists in terms of getting an audience. He's got that magical quality. It doesn't matter if he's playing a hoe-down kind of thing that evolves into a blues and pretty soon into jazz. Audiences here and overseas go with him all the way. He's into music without categories."
- Dave Brubeck
"A harmonica virtuoso rapidly approaching legend status for his style."
- Performance Magazine
"By any standard, Peter Ruth must be considered one of the greatest harmonica players of all time. His virtuosity on the diatonic harp is simply amazing!"
- Richard Hunter
author of Jazz Harp, Oak Publications
"Peter Madcat Ruth is a virtuoso harmonicist who blends a lot of soul with his amazing technique."
- R.J. Deluke
"Peter Madcat Ruth is a world class harmonica player whose technique approaches impossibility. He could coax a smile from a rock."
- Judith White
"Peter Madcat Ruth is a harmonica player of faultless technique, imagination and delivery."
- Melody Maker Magazine
"Madcat is with out a doubt, one of the most phenomenal harmonica players that I have ever heard, and I've heard them all."
- Jerry Murad
"Madcat treads the line between control and abandon, a sure fire method for heating up a crowd."
- Niel Tesser
"Harmonica wizard Peter Madcat Ruth's wild blues playing sparked raucous approval and his quieter work was simply amazing."
- Milwaukee Journal
"Madcat is my favorite harmonica player."
- Corky Siegel
"Madcat plays some weird shit!"
- Rick Estrin
Little Charlie and the Nightcats
Back in 1963, when Peter Madcat Ruth was a freshman in high school, he began taking guitar lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. In 1964, his interest in guitar led him to an album by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Sonny Terry's harmonica playing inspired Madcat to pick up a harmonica and play along. He's been playing harmonica ever since.
In his early years of harp playing, Madcat practiced along with whatever blues albums he could buy or borrow. He also listened to the blues live whenever he could at places like the University of Chicago, and Chicago's Regal Theater. Too young to listen to the blues in bars, Madcat was a devotee of the Pervis Spann radio program on WVON, and the Big Bill Hill radio program on WOPA which featured occasional live broadcasts of blues performances from bars on Chicago's South Side.
In 1966, Madcat met the legendary Chicago blues harmonica player, Big Walter Horton. Madcat was able to arrange to take harmonica lessons from him periodically over the next few years. As Madcat put it, "He's the man who opened my ears and mind to the amazing potential of the harmonica."
During high school, Madcat played harmonica with several local folk groups, and later with several blues bands. In 1968 he met bass player and trombonist Chris Brubeck, son of jazz pianist Dave Brubeck. The two met at a jam session and an instant mutual respect sprang up between them. Madcat told Chris to let him know if he ever needed a harmonica player. Shortly after this meeting, a surge of wanderlust sent Madcat on a two-year hitchhiking stint. He studied Spanish in Mexico, played in a jug band in Albuquerque, and worked in a day care center for the children of migrant farm workers in central California. He also spent a lot of time by the side of the road playing harmonica. In the spring of 1969, Chris Brubeck tracked Madcat down in New Mexico and invited him to join his rock band, New Heavenly Blue, in Michigan. For the next two years, Madcat played with the band summers and weekends while attending Lake Forest College in Illinois. In 1971, he left college and moved to Ann Arbor to work with the band full time.
Playing with New Heavenly Blue enlarged Madcat's musical experience. Many of the tunes the group performed were in unusual time signatures such as 5/4 and 9/4. The group recorded two LPs: EDUCATED HOMEGROWN on RCA Records and NEW HEAVENLY BLUE on Atlantic Records.
In 1971, Dave Brubeck wrote the cantata TRUTH IS FALLEN which featured New Heavenly Blue. TRUTH IS FALLEN was performed with various orchestras, among them the Rochester Philharmonic, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. New Heavenly Blue also played the music for a touring company performing Jesus Christ Superstar; Madcat played all of the saxophone parts on the harmonica.
When New Heavenly Blue disbanded in 1973, Madcat joined the Darius Brubeck Ensemble, a progressive jazz group led by Chris's older brother, Darius. This was a tremendous education for Madcat, who found himself playing harmonica with a horn section composed of clarinet, trombone, saxophone and harmonica. The Ensemble was often billed as opening act for the Dave Brubeck Quartet. At these concerts the performers from both groups would usually jam together on stage to close the show. Now Madcat was performing with such jazz greats as Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond, as well as Dave Brubeck. In 1974 when the Dave Brubeck Quartet disbanded, Dave invited Madcat to join the his new group: Two Generations of Brubeck which featured Dave, and his sons Darius, Chris, and Daniel. At the same time Madcat joined Chris Brubeck's new rock group, Sky King. In 1975, Sky King released the album SECRET SAUCE, on Columbia Records, and made an extensive U.S. tour.
And so for a few years Madcat spent almost all of his time on the road playing jazz and fusion rock with the various members of the Brubeck family. One night, Madcat played at New York City's Bottom Line Cafe with Sky King early in the evening, dashed uptown in a taxi with Chris between sets to play with Dave Brubeck at the Newport Jazz Festival (held that year at Carnegie Hall), and made it back downtown in time to do Sky King's second set at the Bottom Line.
With Two Generations of Brubeck, Madcat performed in concert halls and at music festivals in the U.S. and in Mexico, Canada, Germany, Austria, Holland, Australia, and New Zealand. Mexico was delighted with "El Gato Loco," and Germany hailed "die Verruckte Katze." Madcat recorded on three Dave Brubeck albums: TRUTH IS FALLEN, TWO GENERATIONS OF BRUBECK, and BROTHER THE GREAT SPIRIT MDE US ALL, all on Atlantic Records. He also appeared with the group on the Mike Douglas Television Show on CBS, and on a National Educational Television Special filmed at Dave Brubeck's home in Connecticut.
In 1977, after ten years in other people's bands, Madcat realized that the time had come for him to do his own music, on his own terms. For the next few years he returned to his folk music and blues roots, playing his music at colleges and coffeehouses throughout the Midwest. Often he performed as a soloist and on other occasions he would be joined with various back-up musicians, including drummer Danny Brubeck, and the amazing electric bassist Jason Boekeloo. In addition to performing his own music, Madcat accompanied many other musicians and played in an impressive variety of musical styles.
In 1984, Madcat released his first solo record called MADCAT GONE SOLO, and for the next few years continued to pursue a solo career, performing at night clubs, civic auditoriums, college campuses, and music festivals throughout the United States. It was also during this time that Madcat started performing children's concerts and school assembly programs.
In 1987, Madcat was an invited guest performer at the First World Harmonica Festival, held in England. Other guest performers included Larry Adler, Cham-Ber Huang, and Jerry Murad of the original Harmonicats. Two years later he was an invited guest performer at the Second World Harmonica Festival held in Trossingen, Germany. During the past thirty years, Madcat has led dozens of harmonica workshops for music schools, blues societies, and harmonica festivals in the United States, Europe South America and Asia. These include "Blues Week" and the "Advanced Harmonica Class" at the Augusta Heritage Arts Workshops in Elkins, West Virginia, The Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, Elderly Instruments in Lansing, Michigan, The Dixie Harmonica Festival in Birmingham, Alabama, the Detroit Country and Classic Blues Society, The Memphis Harmonica Festival, The Kerrville Folk Festival, The Bristol Harmonica Festival in England, the National Conventions of the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica, the First and Second World Harmonica Festivals, and the Asia Pacific Harmonica Festival.
In 1990, Madcat teamed up with blues guitarist Shari Kane to form the duo, Madcat & Kane. In 1992 Madcat & Kane was voted one of six finalists in the Long Beach Blues Festival National Talent Search Contest. Their CD MADCAT & KANE, KEY TO THE HIGHWAY was released on the Schoolkids' Records label in December of 1993. In 1994 and again in 1995, Madcat & Kane was featured on the National Public Radio program BluesStage, which was broadcast on over two hundred radio stations nation-wide. The second Madcat & Kane CD, UP AGAINST THE WALL, was released in 1999, and LIVE AT THE CREOLE GALLERY was released in 2009. Madcat & Kane toured extensively throughout the United States. They also performed in Canada, Spain, Brazil, Poland, and the Cayman Islands.
On August 23, 1997, Peter Madcat Ruth was named Harmonica Player of the Year by The Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica (SPAH). The award was presented to Madcat at the 1997 SPAH Harmonica Convention held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Romulus, Michigan. SPAH is an international, all volunteer, non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the rich heritage of harmonica music, and advancing the appreciation of this very versatile musical instrument. SPAH currently maintains a membership of over 3000 harmonica players from all over the world.
In 1998, Madcat again joined forces with his old buddy, Chris Brubeck. Along with guitarist Joel Brown, they formed the trio: Chris Brubeck's Triple Play. Triple Play has performed in concert all over the USA, and has performed with several symphony orchestras. In the year 2000, Triple Play released their first CD: TRIPLE PLAY, LIVE which was recorded live at Skidmore College. Their second CD: WATCHING THE WORLD was released in 2003. TRIPLE PLAY LIVE AT THE ARTHUR ZANKEL MUSIC CENTER was released in 2011, and TRIPLE PLAY WITH THE SINGAPORE CHINESE ORCHESTRA (recorded in Singapore) was released in 2014. Go to the Triple Play Page.
Also in 1998, Madcat hooked up with the Big Joe Manfra Blues Band of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This first tour was a great success and was followed by Brazilian tours in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2010, 20011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. In 2006 the CD: MADCAT LIVE IN RIO was released on Brazilian the Bluestime Records label. Go to the Big Joe Manfra Page.
Madcat's solo recordings include: MADCAT'S HARMONICOLOGY (1994), MADCAT'S HARMONICA & UKULELE PROJECT (2006), MORE REAL FOLK BLUES (2008).
In 2006 Madcat won a Grammy Award for being a featured soloist on William Bolcom's CD: SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND OF EXPERIENCE.
Madcat has also released two instructional DVDs distributed by Homespun Tapes: ANYONE CAN PLAY HARMONICA and THE INS AND OUTS OF RHYTHM HARMONICA.
Madcat's most recent project is his new quartet: The Madcat Midnight Blues Journey. Their first recording, MMBJ@SOTE, was released in 2014.
In the year 2019, Madcat continues to play music with The Madcat Midnight Blues Journey, with Chris Brubeck's Triple Play, on his own as a solo artist, and as a guest artist with numerous other groups.
Peter Madcat Ruth
by Cathi Norton
© 2000 All rights reserved.
I love sound-seekers, people who are intrigued by sounds and always interested in discovering new ones. I remember walking through a festival with one of my favorite percussionists once. I had to restrain him from knocking over a little kid to get her toy whistle, so intrigued was he with its unusual sound. Peter Madcat Ruth is one of that breed. Add to that the fact that he's a harmonica player, slightly deranged, and you've got one inventive musical package. Born in Chicago in 1949, "Madcat" was exposed to a world of musical styles, falling in love with folk music, learning ukulele, and then becoming truly enamored of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, in particular Sonny's harmonica (and his "hoot"). The discovery of a harmonica in his dad's closet (in the same key as the one Sonny Terry record he could find), was the beginning of a most amazing musical life. Pursuing folk and blues music in Chicago led him to the sounds of Little Walter (Jacobs) and Jr. Wells. That combination "blew my head off" and helped Madcat realize what a diatonic could really accomplish. Right about then, his teenage church group decided to have a blues party. Not knowing who to hire, they contacted Bob Koester (of the now-famous Chicago Jazz Record Mart and Delmark Records). Unbelievably, they found their party hosting entertainers Johnny Young and Big Walter Horton.
Madcat screwed up his courage for six months after that party before calling Big Walter for lessons. Irascibly, Big Walter put Madcat through the changes, but really taught him a lot. "I'd get a lesson and practice for six months and go back for another," laughed Madcat. "He was a terrible teacher, but a GREAT inspiration! Looking disgusted was his biggest motivator." Madcat figured Big Walter was just getting even because when he first asked what Madcat wanted to learn, Madcat replied, "to play like Jr. Wells!"
As Madcat's skill grew, so did his love of blues and other music. He met Chris Brubeck who played trombone, bass, piano, and guitar. Together they formed "New Heavenly Blue" in 1969, a band that played just about everything. A couple of records, and group formations later, Madcat found himself playing in Chris' brother's band, "The Darius Brubeck Ensemble," doing original avant garde jazz. "I was practicing all the time just to keep up. The stuff could never be played on one harmonica because it was too chromatic, so I'd stack up harmonicas. I had little cryptic notes and papers, arrows and diagrams, whole numbers everywhere!" he laughed. Soon the Brubeck Brothers were inducted into a band with their dad, Dave Brubeck. Madcat went too, and found himself touring the world with the 11-piece "Two Generations of Brubeck."
Eventually Dave cut the band size down and Madcat (who lasted until they cut down to four), played solo guitar and harp gigs, formed a duo with a brilliant percussionist, Ruben Alvarez, and bass player Jason Boekeloo. They experimented with all styles of music-most of them leading him back to blues. He did assembly performances for the Chicago Public School system, using guitar, harmonica, pennywhistle, kalimba, and percussion instrumentals from all over the world-all the while making recordings for his own "Beancake Record" label. At a big festival in his now-hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1990, Madcat paired up with Shari Kane, a blues guitarist 10 years his junior. They had a real feel for working with the blues and each other. The duo was such a success that they remain active to this day, becoming Madcat's main working format for nearly a decade.
Nevertheless, Madcat's musical interests continued to expand. He put out a compelling harmonica record entitled "Harmonicology," on which he detailed his harmonica gymnastics on the CD insert. To the delight of harmonica players everywhere, he listed the exact keys, instruments, and styles he was playing on each unique song. "I figured it might not be a money-maker, but I love harmonica players!" He was wrong. The album was not only a delight for harpers, but it's still bringing him allowance money.
Since his world tours with Brubeck's band, Madcat has traveled three times to Brazil, Europe and over the U.S. His trips to Brazil found him with a terrific Brazilian Blues band, soon dubbed "Madcat and the B.B. Players" (Brazilian Blues). "Aw, man, they're great! They play real in-the-pocket blues, with an occasional Brazilian beat."
In 1999, Madcat decided to call beloved musical friends together for a big concert bash to celebrate his 50th birthday. Accomplished musicians from the many different stages of his musical career gathered in Ann Arbor to celebrate. The result is an amazing collaboration of styles and performers, most of whom had never played together before. Shari Kane played electric guitar. Ruben Alvarez played percussion "better than anyone," claimed Madcat. "Chicago Hambone" (Chris Cameron, formerly of John Mayall's group, and the group "Chevere" that boasted Howard Levy and Ruben Alvarez as members) played "anything with keys." Kevin Maul (formerly with Robin and Linda Williams) played lap steel guitar, and Perry Robinson (an old friend who's father was close to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seger) played clarinet. Madcat's old partner, Jason Boekeloo played bass. Chris Brubeck couldn't make the date, but the 500-seat hall was packed and the audience was not disappointed. "Wait 'til you hear lap steel and clarinet together!" Madcat hooted.
It was the summation of an amazing career built on that little diatonic instrument he first found in his dad's closet, and a huge start to what Madcat termed "re-negotiating reality." He no longer chose to spend his life on the road, or working full-tilt to make music. Instead he decided to spend more time with his family (wife Connie and 8-year old daughter Mollie), and perform less frequently. Though his performances are fewer, they remain full of invention and his passion for music. To that end he is again working with Chris Brubeck in a trio called "Triple Play" (and from whom we'll shortly see yet another CD). He also maintains his partnership with Shari Kane and travels to Brazil to make dates with his Brazilian blues brothers.
His custom-made, "Shaker Mic" for harmonica players is now complete and on the market. The mic fits into your left hand, but also slides between your fingers. "The important thing is the sides of your right and left hand can come together without having a mic in between them." Retailing at around $150, the mic is available for order, though production is still (slow) in initial stages.
Madcat has always championed the diatonic harmonica, and his body of recorded work certainly proves there are few limits on what sounds it can make. He confesses to noodling on chromatic lately, but that isn't surprising to a life-long sound seeker. No instrument is too strange: jawharp, high hat, an amplified wastebasket, a home-made wooden-and-metal high hat, to name a few favorites. His humor is dry and infectious. Who can avoid smiling when he pauses during a number to add a duck call? Atop an endless array of instruments and gimcrack proficiency, he is a wickedly good guitar player.
Best of all, he's slightly mad. He says stage fright was burned out of him all in one show - his first appearance in a duo with Dave Brubeck at Lincoln Center in New York City (!). I don't doubt it. Fearless on stage, he's always listening...never for a genre, not for the notes, but for sounds. I really like that. When I asked him what he'd like me to tell the world, he replied with a quiet smile, "Tell them, I'm accepting gigs."
© 2000 Cathi Norton. All rights reserved.
Peter Madcat Ruth
By Cathi Norton
Reprinted with permission from
AHN - American Harmonica Newsletter
Peter Madcat Ruth was born in Evanston, IL, April 2, 1949, and first felt the musical bug in the fifth grade when he heard The Kingston Trio on the radio. Inspired, Madcat learned all their tunes on the ukulele and went in search of other "folk" music. He got hold of a guitar and took lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago when he wasn't glued to the radio. A lover of all kinds of music, Madcat probably went through a fortune in radio batteries -- often falling asleep listening to live blues shows broadcast from Chicago clubs on WVON and WOPA. Then one day when he was about 15, while listening to a folk music show called "The Midnight Special," Madcat heard a tune by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. "Oh my gosh," he thought, "This is IT -- the best folk music I've EVER heard!" He was immediately off in search of a Terry-McGhee record, and came across "Folk Music at Newport, 1959." He just couldn't get over Sonny Terry's harmonica sound, and discovering a harp in his dad's stuff, he tried it himself. "My good fortune was that Sonny was playing in the key of F on a Bb harmonica and my dad's harmonica was a Bb!" Thus he began a rich musical career with a passion for the diatonic harmonica sound and a blues nickname - Madcat; both have stuck with him for over 30 years.
Probably the most singularly interesting feature about Madcat as a musician is the fact that he has adapted his harmonica playing to an incredibly diverse collection of styles -- folk, blues, avant garde jazz, Indian, Asian, Eastern European, Peruvian -- whatever you've got, he'll play harp to it. Sonny Terry was largely responsible for his initial harmonica enthusiasm, and remained "the only harmonica player in the world," for a good long spell. But Ruth's eagerness to try anything, including fortunate pairings with Dave Brubeck and sons, set off explosions of interest in a variety of music which continues to delight the listener. He's weathered it all with aplomb, and now, with his acoustic blues guitarist/performing partner, Shari Kane -- in "Madcat and Kane," he's building a very affectionate blues following. Once in awhile, he breaks out on a solo record, witness his harmonica tour de force, "Harmonicology." But then he says, laughing softly, "everything I do always comes back to blues."
CN: So Sonny Terry was IT huh? What did you do after you got that first Terry/McGhee record?
MC: I got other Sonny Terry records! In fact, my father said "Oh, you like Sonny Terry? I have one" (laughs); it was a record called "Harmonica and Vocal Solos" on Folkways which is a 10" 33 rpm -- one of my all-time favorite records. It's one of those "desert island" records -- if you just had one record on a desert island...".
CN: Right..right...the famous desert island record.
MC: I still have it. In fact I'm on my second copy. The first one wore out.
CN: (Laughs). Man, two copies -- that's more than a man deserves! Your influences are interesting because they are so varied.
MC: Yeah, I do like a lot of different kinds of music. Most harmonica players of my age, that I know, got into playing harmonica by first getting into rock and roll and then finding out that it came from blues - -- then getting into blues. But I got in through folk music and then hearing black folk music. Before I started playing harmonica, I was really into Mississippi John Hurt and Fred McDowell. Then...still thinking Sonny was the only harmonica player in the world (laughs) I joined this Unitarian youth group in Oak Park, IL. I met some people who said "You should check out Little Walter." And then at the same time (1966), the first Jr. Wells record came out. I got it and was knocked out of my mind. "Yikes! Listen to what the harmonica can sound like!" At the same time, the "Chicago Blues Today" series came out with James Cotton and Big Walter Horton. So right about then the Unitarian Youth Group thought they'd have a party. Let's have a blues band. Why not (laughs)? So they talked to Bob Koester (at the Chicago Jazz Mart) and said "Who can we have for $150?" And we got Johnny Young and Walter Horton (and a drummer) to play for our high school youth party!
CN: Oh man! That's great!
MC: (Laughs) Yes, and as a trio they played and completely knocked me out. And I heard Walter Horton at that time tell someone else that he gave lessons. It took me six months to get up my nerve but I finally went and took a lesson with Walter Horton. And then practiced for six months and took another lesson, then practiced for six months and took a third lesson.
CN: What did he think about you practicing for six months between each lesson?
MC: Well he told me that well... When the lesson was over he said "Get out of here." (Laughs). And "Come back when you want another lesson." But I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing; I didn't want to come back the next week because I wouldn't be any better.
CN: Well what did you think about him as a teacher?
MC: Oh he was terrible teacher, but a GREAT inspiration!
MC: (Laughs) Because he'd...well, I'll show you what he did (plays a mournful blues riff with bends). And then he'd say "You do it!" And I'd go (plays jerky sawing back and forth sounds)...and he'd say "Naaaaaaaaaao" and look so disgusted! And then he'd do it again (plays mournful bend riff again) -- "You do it!" (sawing sounds) (laughter). And he'd look disgusted again! So I'd go back and put on the "Chicago Blues Today" record and hear some of it and practice.
CN: Do you think being there and watching what he was doing -- like with his throat -- helped?
MC: It was just the fact that it was -- we were sitting across a kitchen table and this sound was coming out of him and it wasn't like a studio track. It wasn't something in the recording or something.
CN: So you knew you could really make that sound?
MC: Yes, it was such an inspiration to hear this huge, incredible tone come out of a little harmonica -- it just blew my mind. I was just really inspired to practice.
CN: What did he charge you for a lesson?
MC: I think it was $15 or $20 which was a lot in '66.
CN: A lot of money!
MC: Yes, he was just about dead by then, (laughs) but he was THE GUY! I would've -- I think if I could've taken lessons from Jr. Wells, I would have, which would have been a mistake because (laughs)...You know Jr. Wells was really hot and I was just like "Wow! Jr. Wells!" But I knew I could take lessons from Walter Horton, and I didn't even realize how good he was when I started. After a year or so I did, but when I first started it was like I just lucked into this. In fact one of the most stupid things I've ever said in my life (laughs).... If you took all the stupid things I've ever said in my life, I think the TOP of the list would be when I first met him and he said "Well, what do you want to know?" And I said "I want to know how to play like Jr. Wells!"
CN: (Laughter) That's GREAT!
MC: Of course he rolled his eyes at that one too. He was incredible. First I'd call him up incessantly at the corner store because he didn't have a phone. You had to call him at Lincoln's Grocery Store.
CN: His office.
MC: Yeah (Laughs) It was! And eventually you'd get him and he'd say "Okay I'll meet you at such-and-such a day at such-and-such a time and then I'd get down there. It was a rough neighborhood and I'd meet him at the grocery store. You'd pay him for the lesson right away -- in advance -- and he'd buy a bottle of whiskey and then we'd go to his apt., and he'd commence to drinking the whiskey while giving me the lesson.
CN: Of course!
MC: And then when he was done he'd say "I'm done; get out of here."
CN: (Laughter). The American Maestro.
MC: But the last lesson I took, the last time I was there -- you know over that year I had improved a great deal. And a friend of his came over, and he had me play for the friend because he was kind of pleased with my progress. And the friend said "Did you teach him that?" And Walter said "Yeah, I taught him how to do that." Kinda braggin'. And the friend said "Well, could he play before he got here?" And Horton said "Yeah, he could play a little; but what he played wasn't worth shit!" (laughter). He was an incredible guy.
CN: So you're experience got rapidly wider. You played different styles of music then?
MC: Well I still played folk music and blues and then I met Chris Brubeck, and that just completely expanded my idea of music. He played trombone, bass, piano and guitar. And I got into a rock and roll band with him called "New Heavenly Blue" in 1969. We liked all kinds of music, so we played it all. We all loved it and we were SOOOOO optimistic. We thought "Wow, we're going to be the first one to have a number one hit on the rock charts and the country charts simultaneously!" (Laugher) "We're going to be the next Beatles!" We were completely convinced!
CN: So what happened to them?
MC: (Laughs) Well we had a record on RCA which was the first record and another on Atlantic, so things seemed to be going well, and then the whole band seemed to be getting better and better, but the original drummer....(laughs). So we all kind of abandoned the band, but started another band almost immediately called "Sky King" in probably '73. Then within that first year we got a record deal with Columbia Records, so we were feeling like we were hot.
CN: Well why not -- that's not too shabby -- three records, three different record companies!
MC: So while I was in that band, I got an invitation to join Chris' brother's band, "The Darius Brubeck Ensemble" and that was just WAAAY bizarre and wonderful. We were playing original avant garde jazz.
CN: And this was all on harmonica?
MC: Yes all diatonic harmonica.
CN: So it was a big band? And that was when you started playing the strange time signatures?
MC: Yes, seven members. I didn't want to lose that gig, so I was just practicing all the time, trying to keep up!
CN: How do you practice that? Were there set arrangements? It was a jazz free-form thing wasn't it?
MC: Yes, well, we'd have the heads of the tunes to learn and then we'd improvise. Just figuring out what they were doing!!...I mean, most of the stuff couldn't be played on one harmonica because it was too chromatic, so I'd stack up harmonicas. In some tunes you'd have a Bb harmonica, a D and C harmonica all stacked on top of each other, and then you'd find the notes that you needed between the harmonicas that you had in your hand. Little by little I learned what I was doing. At first I was just doing anything to find the notes and then I started to realize "well, I'm playing this one in third position and this one in fourth position and this one in second position." And then I'd have my little (laughs) cryptic notes and papers, arrows and diagrams, whole numbers and....
CN: So what happened with that band then?
MC: Then Dave Brubeck got rid of his quartet and started using his sons as his backup band. And it became "Two Generations of Brubeck." And so for three years (1974-76) I toured all over the world with "Two Generations of Brubeck." Here I was -- only in my 20s -- playing with Dave Brubeck and that band!
CN: Heady stuff.
MC: Completely. It was all Dave's stuff. He'd occasionally do a Duke Ellington or something, but almost all of it was his compositions.
CN: Then after those three years?
MC: When we started this "Two Generations of Brubeck," there were 11 of us on the road. Then he started cutting back -- to ten, then eight, then seven, and six and to five -- and I was still hanging in there. It was the Brubecks and myself. Then when it went to four, I was out...just Dave and his sons.
CN: So what did you do when you got off that road?
MC: Well the pendulum swung back to folk music again.
CN: Did you find your music, the way you played it, changed because of the jazz influence?
MC: I think it changed, but mainly what it did was I could play so much better, because being forced to play all those different styles and techniques...when I went back to playing something more simple I just had the chops to do whatever I wanted. But the first thing I did was accompany a guitar-player/singer, a guy named Bob White who toured around for a little while. Then I started playing guitar myself with harmonica on a rack, which I still do on occasion. I loved it; it's like juggling (laughs).
CN: That's what I've always thought!
MC: When you really get 'em both going at once, you just get mesmerized. But what would happen was like, harmonica playing then was so much better than my guitar playing. If my guitar hit the wrong chord, my harmonica would compensate and improvise around it.
CN: (Laughs) That jazz thing.
MC: (Laughs) Yeah...because most people that play guitar and harmonica at the same time are better guitar players -- the great majority. In fact, everybody that I've ever heard that plays guitar and harmonica at the same time, is a better guitar player than a harmonica player....except for...well, like Paul Geremia. He's GREAT at playing harmonica, but he's a way better guitar player. John Hammond -- he's great at playing both at once, but he's a way better guitar player than on harp. Then in the late '70s I hooked up with a bass player -- Jason Boekeloo ("Buck-a-low") and Jason is INCREDIBLE! Really incredible, and then Danny Brubeck -- between bands he joined Jason and myself and we had a band for awhile. It was more bluesy-- some jazz things, but lots of blues. Some rocky things. Kind of a rootsy band. Lasted about a year (laughs). Then back to solo again and finally I hooked up with Jason the bass player again. I don't know -- we hooked up off and on -- he was difficult.
CN: Yeah, I've had those off-and-on music romances for years.
MC: Yeah, this guy was such a good bass player and so difficult in anything not having to do with music. Like, getting him to answer the phone.
CN: Oh I know! I tell you; I've been driven to solo acts more times than you can count for those very same reasons! When I'm solo, I always know the musicians are going to show up!
MC: (Laughter). Yeah. In the late '70s I also had a drummer who was wonderful, but in some ways, even more difficult, because -- like this one gig -- at the Ark in Ann Arbor, he came an hour late. I was just finishing the first set as a soloist, and I said "You're late!" and he said "It's God's will."
CN: (Laughter) Gotta love it.
MC: How can you argue with that? (laughter).
CN: Well "Your destiny is -- you ain't playin' tonight!" (Laughter.) So you were playing with a lot of psychotic-but-excellent musicians?
MC: (Laughs) Oh yeah...yeah...we were playing Indian music, Eastern European weird time signatures...Peruvian music...it was great...then I was solo for a long time.
CN: Did you put out records as a solo?
MC: Yeah, I was mostly playing around the Midwest and selling these records from the stage. I started putting out my own records because I realized, after being on Atlantic, RCA and Columbia, and not making any money that if you put out your own record, you could actually MAKE money!CN: What a concept.
MC: I mean 'cause you know it was always -- zero! (Laughs)
CN: I know! I'm so familiar with that number! Yes.MC: So I wasn't in any hurry to try to get a record deal; I just started Beancake Records. So we're into the late '80s and I decided it was time for a band again. I got a band with some really wonderful, difficult musicians (laughs), called "Madcat's Pressure Cooker." We did an album on Beancake and it was a HOT one! Very electric and blues. LOUD.
CN: Blues rock. And did that finally completely exhaust your appetite for bands?
MC: Yes (Laughs). But I really wanted that band to do something. I put everything I had into it and tried to make it work for about three years and then one completely destructive person -- the keyboard person - -- made it so bad, all the other people quit. Finally I just gave it up - -- "can't do this anymore" and went back to playing solo again, and then I ran into Shari Kane. I was going to do a concert with a percussionist - -- Ruben Alvarez -- a GREAT person, a wonderful person and a great percussionist. Over the years we'd done a lot of things in schools -- mostly Chicago Public Schools. I go over to Chicago and he and I have a duo that plays. We still do this; I'll be going in a couple of weeks. It's a duo of "world" music. I'll play guitar, harmonica, pennywhistle, kalimba, and he'll play all the percussions from all over the world...Asia, Africa, South America. Brotherhood and world cultural diversity show stuff...very nice show for elementary kids. And so I had this performance in Ann Arbor which was a big outdoor concert and I called him and called up Shari Kane because I knew she played the blues guitar and I said "Do you want to play some tunes with me?" She said "Sure." We both were big country blues fans so we knew a lot of the same songs; her taste in music was really lined up with mine. Well, my taste in music is broader than hers I'd say. I don't think she listens to much African or Asian music, but when it comes to blues, she knew all the blues stuff and especially all the acoustic blues stuff. The amazing thing is we figured out recently that she started playing guitar the same time I started playing harmonica. Except I was 15 and she was 5. But it was the same month, the same year.
CN: Weird. So then you decided to make it an act?
MC: So we decided to be a duo and see what happened and we've been a duo for seven years. And every band I was ever in only had this maximum life of three years. We're more than double that - it's amazing -- and we get along!
CN: That is REALLY weird!
MC: (Laughs) Yeah.
CN: I know you put out "Key to the Highway" with her. Anything else?
MC: We're working on the second one, and have been for ....decades (laughs). No, we've been working almost five years...
CN: Gonna be a killer, I can tell.
MC: It is! It really is! I tend to be more "Let's just slap something together and throw it out," and I'm pretty pleased with what I've come up with over the years. She's much more of a perfectionist than I am, but this next one -- everything we have for it is really good! We have about 9-10 things now.
CN: Keeping busy? Where do you generally tour?
MC: Yeah, pretty busy. About half our gigs are in the Great Lakes states and the other half -- the corners are Minnesota, Texas, Florida and Massachusetts.
CN: Big corners. How about Europe?
MC: We've done Europe once. We went to Brazil, Spain and the Cayman Islands.
CN: How did they like it?
MC: They really liked it in Brazil. In Spain it was strange -- more like they were going out to make the scene -- not really to hear the music. But in Brazil the people really loved the music. I mean, when we'd do something that we knew was really good, the crowd would respond in the places we knew it was good.
CN: I was interested in the album insert on "Harmonicology." You have that huge page with explanations about the songs and then a whole side for harmonica players (laughs). That made me wonder...do you have an educator side to your presentations? I mean, what is that -- you have something going on with your audience where you're really interested in involving them?
MC: Wow...what a question!
CN: (Laughs) I just get intrigued by that sort of thing.
MC: Well I think that the real answer for why I put all that information for harmonica players -- I like harmonica players. I love harmonica conventions. I love that whole scene, but I think the reason I put that in...on my records I put out before people would ask me "Well what key is this in? What key is this in?" So I wrote it all out on my computer -- all the keys and the harmonicas I use on all the songs because people would send me letters all the time asking. And I'd just print it out and send it to them. So I thought, instead of printing it out and sending it to them, I'll just stick it right in the liner notes. But there was a second reason. When I put out that record I thought "I really want to make a record; how am I ever going to make my money back?" And I thought "Well at least the harmonica players will buy it." (Laughs) It's a little weird for the general public, but it turns out, it got more airplay than any record I got! But anyway, I mainly put it together thinking if I'm going to make my money back on it, I'll probably make it back selling it to harmonica players, so I wanted to make sure they were pleased.
CN: And they were?
MC: Oh yeah, because I made my money back and now I'm just making money on that one.CN: I'm interested...you have such a big background of folk and jazz in your life. Do you think that makes your blues sound different?
MC: I do think it makes it sound different but I'm not exactly sure how. I don't feel like I have to play.... Well I think I sound like myself.
CN: Well, that's what I was wondering. So many people I know -- if they get into a bizarre style, like Indian music for instance, and then go back to a style they'd done before, they can no longer separate it.
MC: Yeah, I'm not good at separating it. All I know how to do is to play like I play. But I play like I play because I've listened to so many different styles. But my goals are to continue to play harmonica and get better at it.
CN: Do you and Shari have ideas to do something other than blues?
MC: No she doesn't like that. When I start getting too weird, she'll say "Madcat, you're getting weird again." And that's fine though, because then I can go put out a solo record and get it out of my system.
CN: Now comes the fabulous gear question. I loved the workshop you did on the history of harmonica amplification at the Buckeye Harmonica Festival, but you ended up with your own rig, and what's that?
MC: (Laughs) Well it starts with Joe Filisko harmonicas.
MC: They're very nice, although if I end up on a gig playing a Huang Silvertone -- a $9 harp, it also works okay. But Joe's are even nicer. Then the next thing in line is a Shaker mic which will soon come out.
CN: Oh so that is in production? Is that the little hand mic?
MC: Yes. It's a little thing that fits in your left hand. But it also slides between your fingers. It's kind of attached to your left hand so that your right hand can be used not for holding onto a mic, but for getting a good wah-wah sound. The important thing is the sides of your right hand and left hand can come together without having a mic in between them.
CN: For cupping . I sort of remember the mic. It fits in between your fingers pointed toward the harp. It's got a loop over the finger?
MC: Well the one I made for myself has a band around my hand, but the one that will be marketed, has a little piece that lies between the fingers of your left hand to anchor it.
CN: Then you had a wrist band?
MC: Yes, that runs into a little wireless transmitter that you can wear on your belt. It's made for guitar players. They usually wear 'em on their belt or on their guitar straps, but I found it was easier to put it on my wrist.
CN: When do you think the Shaker Mic's going to be out? And how much?
MC: Probably in July...$150 retail. And then the receiver for the wireless, and then it goes into a graphic equalizer to boost or cut any of ten frequencies. Then it goes into a Tube Works "Blue Tube" pre-amp for different distortion sound and tone control. And then it goes from there into a Peavey "Pro-fex" with reverb, echo and all kinds of sound.
CN: Then you have a 12" JBL speaker?
MC: And pushing that JBL is a Crown Power Amp -- a good quality Hoosier product (laughs).
CN: (Laughs) Amen! So what would you say to the budding harmonica player. I always wonder what advice you'd give.
MC: Have a harmonica handy always. When I was learning how to play harmonica in high school, I had one with me all the time. When I was walking home from school, when I was riding my bike, pulling it out in the grocery story when I was waiting in line -- just wherever or whenever you think of something.
CN: That's probably one of the great things about harmonica -- you can do that.
MC: Yes, harmonica is great because you can get in so much extra practice that way. I have harmonicas all over the place. I have 'em on my desk, I have 'em in my coat pocket; a whole 12-pack just for my car.
CN: Do you ever just get sick of it?
MC: (Laughs) Maybe the day after I come home after a harmonica convention!
(For more information about the Shaker/Madcat harmonica microphone, contact Shaker Microphones, 870-437-5304, P.O. Box 2634, Harrison AR 72601, U.S.A.