Harmonica Bands

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Harmonica Bands

Although harmonica bands and orchestras have generally been forgotten, the harmonica was one of the most popular musical instruments from the 1920s through the 1940s. Its cheapness made it an ideal instrument for teaching music to children during the Depression, and the harmonica youth orchestras were influential in instilling discipline. In the years between the two world wars—a period called the "the golden age of the mouth organ in America"—sales of the tiny, inexpensive instrument increased dramatically. Bands of har-monica players became famous on the vaudeville circuit, on radio, and in Hollywood films; whole orchestras of harmonica-playing youth were organized in cities all over the United States, and public schools offered harmonica instruction courses. The craze finally hit its peak in 1947 when the Harmonicats' rendition of "Peg O' My Heart" became the number one hit of that year.

It all began during the Boy Council of Philadelphia's 1923 "Boy Week" celebration when philanthropist Albert Hoxie began organizing successful harmonica contests. Hohner Company, a German manufacturer of harmonicas, began sending experts to public schools that year to teach children how to play the instrument. In 1924, over ten thousand children participated in the contest, and in the following years harmonica youth bands began forming, including one led by Hoxie himself: the Philadelphia Harmonica Band. Hoxie's band, consisting of about 60 young men, was modeled on military lines—the musicians wore marching-band uniforms, were given ranks, and ended each show with "Stars and Stripes Forever." The band lasted until 1936, traveling around the country and playing for presidents, royalty, and visiting dignitaries, and at events such as the Philadelphia celebration of Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight, the heavyweight championship fight between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney, and Franklin D. Roosevelt's inaugural parade.

Hoxie also sent harmonica assistants to schools to encourage children to play the affordable instrument during the Depression years. His efforts paid off. By the end of the 1930s over 150 harmonica youth orchestras existed in Chicago alone; 1,200 public school children learned to play it in Dayton, Ohio, and in Los Angeles 115,127 children were enrolled in the harmonica band program from 1927 to 1937. Boy Scouts could earn merit badges for harmonica playing, and over two thousand harmonica bands were formed in the United States during the Depression.

Albert Hoxie's efforts were not the only factor responsible for the appeal of harmonica bands in the schools. Up until the 1920s the harmonica was based on the diatonic scale and each instrument was limited to the notes found in the key to which it was tuned. However, in the mid-1920s, Hohner Company developed the polyphonia, bass, chord, and chromatic models, which expanded the range of the instrument and the overall sound of the bands. Vaudeville acts using the new instruments began to appear as early as 1927, when the Harmonica Rascals combined music and slapstick comedy onstage. Other bands soon followed, making the instrument even more popular as fans were inspired to try it themselves.

The Harmonica Rascals, formed by Borrah Minevitch, were like "the Three Stooges with mouth organs" and audiences loved them. Their image was based on the ragamuffin/tramp motif and their act centered on Johnny Puelo, a four-foot-one-inch midget who played the largest harmonica available, the polyphonia, for comic effect. The Harmonica Rascals were so successful that Minevitch simultaneously ran three separate bands by that name—each with its own midget—in different regions of the country until the end of World War II. Besides appearing on vaudeville, the Harmonica Rascals had a weekly radio program, and appeared in nine movies between 1935 and 1943. Other 1930s bands, inspired by the Harmonica Rascals, included the Har-monica Scamps, a vaudeville band that featured an African-American midget, and the Harmonicuties, an all-girl band boasting a female midget. The Harmonica Harlequins, whose members dressed in clown outfits, formed in 1934 as a competitor to the Harmonica Rascals and worked the vaudeville circuit, played on the radio, and recorded. Other bands from the 1930s include the Cappy Barra Harmonica Ensemble and the Philharmonicas, both of whom specialized in big band arrangements; the Harlemonicats, a jazz trio; the Three Harpers, the Stagg McMann Trio, the Harmonica Hi-Hats and the Harmonica Lads.

World War II ended the golden age of the harmonica. A ban on German goods prohibited the importation of harmonicas from Germany, where the highest-quality instruments were made; youth orchestras disbanded and schools halted their instruction programs; and large harmonica bands pared down to smaller units, usually trios. The most famous trio materialized when former Harmonica Rascals Jerry Murad and Don Les teamed up with Al Fiore to form the Harmonicats in the mid-1940s. Their 1947 version of "Peg O' My Heart"—recorded as a B-side filler—stayed at number one on the Billboard chart for 26 weeks. The record subsequently sold over 20 million copies to become the second-most popular 78 rpm of all time, surpassed only by Bing Crosby's "White Christmas." The record's success even convinced the Musician's Union to accept the harmonica as a legitimate instrument and allow harmonica players to join.

The Harmonicats went on to record 36 albums, and Murad kept the trio alive (Les retired in 1972, Fiore in 1982) until his death in1996. Other harmonica bands also performed after World War II, but none equaled the success of "Peg O' My Heart." The Don Henry trio had a minor hit in the 1950s with their version of "The Saber Dance." Johnny Puelo, the original midget from the Harmonica Rascals, formed the Harmonica Gang, which appeared on television with Milton Berle, Dean Martin and Perry Como in the 1950s, played live at the Latin Quarter in New York and the Stardust in Las Vegas, and recorded seven albums until Puelo's retirement in 1973; and Dave Doucette had some success with his quintet The Stereomonics in 1968, and with the Big Harp in 1975.

The size and versatility of the harmonica—in all of its forms—allowed entertainers to combine music with comedy on the vaudeville stage, which proved to be the inspiration and/or the training ground for many future American harmonica soloists and session players such as Richard Hayman, Pete Pedersen, Mike Chimes, Leo Diamond, Alan Shackner, Charles Newman, and the world-famous soloist Larry Adler, who elevated the tiny instrument to near-classical status in the concert hall.

—Richard Levine

Further Reading:

Field, Kim. Harmonicas, Harps, and Heavy Breathers. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1993.

Krampert, Peter. The Encyclopedia of the Harmonica. Illinois, Tatanka, 1998.