'There's always hope in it' 

The blues keeps harmonica master Jerry Portnoy going

One of the cornerstones of hardscrabble Chicago blues is the harmonica. It's an integral part of the electric blues framework, like the violin in a proper orchestra.

Blues harp, of course, goes all the way back to the rural South, before there was electricity in every home, before the Delta players got all plugged in and put amplitude behind their attitude.

None of this is lost on Jerry Portnoy, whose second-generation status as a blues harmonica icon is eclipsed by his resume, which includes six years as the harpoon man in Muddy Waters' band, and a lengthy 1990s stint in Eric Clapton's touring blues unit (along with Albert Collins and Robert Cray).

Portnoy, 67, and his band play a Savannah Music Festival show April 9 along with blues harmonica legend James Cotton and his band.

First of all, let me ask you about James Cotton, who's sharing the bill with you in Savannah.

Jerry Portnoy: From an historical perspective, he's certainly an important figure. The so-called harmonica chair in Muddy Waters' blues band was the apex of playing blues harmonica. The harmonica had a special place in that band, and Muddy had most of the great harmonica players over time, starting with Little Walter, Big Walter, Junior Wells, James Cotton, George Smith..

Cotton played with Muddy the longest. He played 12 years and I played the second-longest; I was there six years.

Why does harmonica work so well with the blues?

Jerry Portnoy: You'll hear a lot of jazz players, horn players say they want to play like a singer and so on. Now, the harmonica because of its tonal properties, its sound capabilities, lends itself to mimicking the human voice. Vocalizations and all the sounds you can get out of it, if you know what you're doing. It really lends itself to that kind of approach.

I mean, you can make that harmonica moan, cry, sing, squawk, bark, all these different things you can do. The function of the harmonica in a blues band like Muddy's is to answer his voice. And because of its properties, because the notes are flexible, you can bend the notes down. You can put so much emotion in it, and like I say it's the second voice. It's the answering voice to the actual vocal.

In your case, how did the harmonica find you? Or how did you find it?

Jerry Portnoy: I'm a very oral person. I don't have a lot of digital dexterity or coordination, so playing piano or drums, doing four separate things with four separate limbs, I wasn't cut out for all that stuff. I have to be smokin' a cigarette, or kissin' a girl, or stuffin' my face, something with the mouth.

So when I picked it up I realized, OK, I don't need any digital dexterity for this thing. All right, low notes on the left, high notes on the right, blow in, blow out, it's all mouth. I can do this.

You still have to put in the time and effort, the practice and all that, but I had the sense very early on that I could do something with that instrument. Once I picked it up, it felt right. Sometimes there's the right instrument for each person, and I knew that one was the right one for me. Because I had tried foolin' around with guitars, accordions and pianos, and it just wasn't happening. The harmonica felt natural to me.

Were you a kid then?

Jerry Portnoy: No, I didn't start playing till I was 24, 25. Late. But I heard blues early, because I grew up around it. My father had a store on Maxwell Street, a very famous blues area in Chicago. There would be a street fair every Sunday, and all these blues bands would set up and play.

I wasn't thinking about anything in particular except avoiding working for a living. As I'm fond of saying, I was too lazy to work and too nervous to steal. So becoming a musician was my only career option.

It wasn't too long before you started playing with Muddy.

Jerry Portnoy: Well, I'd been playing about five years. I lived out in California for a couple of years after I got out of the Army, and I moved back to Chicago in 1970. And the blues actually kept me around there. So I started playing locally, sittin' in here and there, and then I got my first actual paying job, with Johnny Young. I remember the first gig was in Appleton, Wisconsin. We played all around the Midwest.

Then I played a couple of years with Johnny Littlejohn, who was a great singer and slide guitar player. Then I played with Sam Lay for about six months - he was Paul Butterfield's drummer, and Howlin' Wolf's drummer - then I hooked up with Muddy.

He was really the turning point in my life, because everything prior to that led up to that moment when I got that gig. And everything that happened to me afterwards, in music, was a result of having that gig. That put me on the map in a worldwide sense and led to all the rest of the stuff, including Clapton.

You played for many years with Pinetop Perkins, who passed away a few weeks ago. Tell me about Pinetop.

Jerry Portnoy: He was a lot of fun to be around - a wonderful guy, wonderful spirit. The spirit was the thing. If you knew Pinetop, you could see that the little boy in him never died.

He lived to 97. He only quit drinking a few years ago, smoked till the day he died, and never could pass a Kentucky Fried Chicken without stopping to wolf down three or four pieces of grease-laden chicken. So it helps to have the genes!

But his spirit was wonderful. He was a gentle guy. He took life with such equanimity, which is something about blues guys in general. These guys, the real guys, the guys that invented this music - the black blues players that grew up in the original generation, born between 1900 and let's say 1920, Muddy, Pinetop, Wolf, Hooker, Elmore James - they grew up so hard, in such brutal circumstances, and for the most part they just had this wonderful, almost spiritual attitude about dealing with whatever life threw at them. Good or bad, they kept on going.

And there's always hope in it. Think of the words to the blues: "Trouble don't last always, and the sun's gonna shine in my back door some day." That's what kept those people going in the face of mistreatment, and hunger, and poverty and everything else.

Being allowed into that world was a gift beyond description.

Savannah Music Festival

"Blowin' the Blues": James Cotton/Jerry Portnoy

When & where: At 8 p.m. Saturday, April 9, Trustees Theater

Tickets: $15-$40 at savannahmusicfestival.org




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Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was Connect's Arts & Entertainment Editor from May 2009 to August 2014.

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