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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Blues harmonica legend Sonny Terry celebrated with new Hohner Signature Series entry

Sonny Terry

Hohner's Sonny Terry Heritage Edition harmonica

Blues harmonica enthusiasts have reason to rejoice over the venerable German harmonica and accordion manufacturer Hohner’s new Sonny Terry Heritage Edition entry in its Signature Series of harmonicas honoring great Hohner harmonica players.

“We’re ecstatic about it!” says Drew Lewis, Hohner’s brand manager for harmonicas and melodicas.

“It’s the first time we’ve really been able to honor one of the blues legends.”

Indeed, the Sonny Terry signature harmonica follows previous Signature Series models celebrating Bob Dylan, Toots Thielemans, Larry Adler, John Lennon, Billy Joel, Ozzy Osbourne and Steven Tyler.

“The problem has been that with Sonny and all the other great blues harmonica players from the past, you really don’t know who owns the licensing rights,” says Lewis. “We were actually all set to put another one out a few years ago, and then this guy came out of the woodwork and said, ‘I own that!’ And it’s pretty much that way with all the blues legends: They’re all deceased, and there are issues with the estates.

Sonny Terry's "whooping style" in the classic "Lost John"

Hailing from Greensboro, Georgia, Sonny Terry, who died in 1986 at 74, is categorized as a “folk” or “country” blues harmonica player, distinguishing an acoustic style originating in the rural, pre-World War II South. As Lewis notes, he was immensely significant “in defining the blues harmonica genre,” especially in the ragtime-like “Piedmont blues” subgenre (also called “East Coast” or “Southeastern blues”); his trademark “whooping style,” was hugely influential, even among players who populated urban centers in the North--particularly Chicago—and had to amplify their instruments in order to be heard over the city din and the noisy taverns they performed in.

One of those Chicago blues harmonica players was Corky Siegel, the harmonica/piano player of the legendary Siegel-Schwall Band, who learned from and played with blues pioneers like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

“I knew Sonny and heard him many times,” says Siegel. “He was a major influence on harmonica players around the world, especially because of his rhythmic style, and popularized a manner of playing that might be called the ‘fox chase,’ with all its hootin’ and hollerin’ between the punctuated rhythms, mimicking the howling canines running down the fox.”

Sonny Terry's "Fox Chase" (with Brownie McGhee)

Terry, who performed solo and with others (most notably, acoustic Piedmont blues guitarist Brownie McGhee, with whom he performed from the 1940s into the ‘80s), did in fact record a classic harmonica showpiece, “The Fox Chase.”

“They used to play the Quiet Knight—our home club in Chicago—and one time Sonny got a little sick so I took his place with Brownie for a night,” continues Siegel. “But I didn’t try to fill his shoes. That would have been ridiculous!”

But Siegel “absorbed by osmosis” Terry’s “rhythm style” on Siegel-Schwall standards like “Hey, Billie Jean,” and Delores Boyd, Terry’s niece by marriage and the managing partner of his estate, was “blown away” when she discovered “the international magnitude of his fame and influence.”

A retired federal magistrate judge and trial lawyer, Boyd began assisting Terry with respect to contracts and royalty payments after she graduated from the University of Virginia Law School in 1975. After he died, she represented his wife and her aunt, Emma Taylor Terry, in handling his estate—which she continued doing following Emma’s death in 2012.

“I was just astounded when I read the list of the few artists honored in Hohner’s Signature Series,” says Boyd.

“I saw John Lennon’s name in a magazine, where he mentioned Sonny Terry as an idol, and found among Sonny’s memorabilia a notebook with a letter he had someone write on his behalf thanking John. Now Sonny was someone who was blind most of his life, who came from utter poverty and was self-taught, and to be in the same company as John Lennon—and have John Lennon himself say he was someone he learned from! It was such a thrill—and humbling, to be honest.”

Boyd adds that her aunt was “quite a hoarder” in that she amassed an extensive collection of her late husband’s documents, memorabilia, photos, posters, shirts, walking canes and other artifacts. This included as many as 250 Hohner harmonicas that Terry had used—some more so than others.

“She didn’t throw them away, and also kept the belt he used to place the different keys in specific pouches—because he couldn’t see,” says Boyd, who studied Aunt Emma’s files and started contacting people at various companies that worked with Terry. She was eventually led to Adam Gussow, a blues harmonica player and author/historian whose Modern Blues Harmonica website is a top instructional resource.

In September, 2015, Boyd sent 150 of Terry’s harmonicas to Gussow for appraisal. He methodically inspected and played each one, and evaluated them in terms of playability, since they were in various stages of prior usage. Another harmonica expert and friend of Gussow’s, Tom Halchak, who customizes and restores harmonicas out of his Blue Moon Harmonicas company in Clearwater, Florida, then came in to help market them for the Sonny Terry Estate.

Adam Gussow appraises Sonny Terry's harmonicas

The 10-hole, 20-reed Hohner Marine Band harmonica was introduced into the American market in 1896 (hence, it’s full name is the Marine Band 1896) and remains the most famous harmonica model. It was the harmonica played by Sonny Terry and undoubtedly every blues harmonica player since (though other models from Hohner and other manufacturers are also played by contemporary blues artists).

“The beautiful thing about the Marine Band is that it’s virtually unchanged since 1896!” says Lewis. “The Sonny Terry Heritage Edition is basically a reproduction of what Sonny would have played.”

The Sonny Terry Heritage Marine Band—which is tuned to the key of C--also features a custom engraved portrait of Terry on the top cover plate instead of the traditional Marine Band cover. The sealed comb (the piece in the middle of the harmonica with the holes that the player blows and draws air through in sounding its reeds) is orange- and black-lacquered pear wood to match that of the historic Marine Bands.

The harmonica is set inside a magnetic case showing historic Marine Band box graphics alongside a photo of Terry holding a Marine Band to his lips, with five more photos on the inside top of the case showing him as he looked through the decades. A vintage cardboard Marine Band box (now they’re packaged in plastic boxes) with similar graphics is embedded inside the case above the harmonica, and to their right is a replica of the signature stamp that the blind Terry used to sign autographs.

“We worked closely with Delores and the estate,” says Lewis. “She gave us full access to everything we needed.”

The estate, which made a limited number of Terry’s harmonicas available to the general pubic, made a generous donation to the German Harmonica and Accordion Museum in Trossingen, Germany, where there is now a permanent installation of some of Sonny Terry’s collection. Trossingen is where Hohner was founded and remains headquartered—and where the original Marine Band 1896 model that Terry played was manufactured.

“That was the stepping stone to the Sonny Terry Heritage Marine Band for Hohner,” says Halchak. “They have a long history of commemorative, collectible harmonicas—and are great at marketing them. And this is the first time they’ve used the [original] Marine Band.”

And for Lewis, “It’s about time!”

“I’m glad we could do it with someone like Sonny Terry, who inspired so many players over the years. If not for these blues legends, the harmonica might have been lost to history many years ago.”

Boyd concurs: “Most of his cohorts are gone. But Hohner reactivated the interest in him, and I take great delight in trying to preserve his legacy, which rests in the uniqueness of his musical style rather than Grammy awards or sold-out venues or earnings. I haven’t heard anybody who can duplicate that unique style.”

In 1982, Terry and McGhee received a National Heritage Fellowship (the government’s highest honor for folk and traditional arts) from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

“He was a healer--a celestial being,” says Siegel of Terry.

“He’s revered for good reason,” concludes Halchak.



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