30 Mar 2023


by Brian Coleman

Most kids have owned a toy harmonica with tinny, tuneless reeds that made it impossible for them to produce any recognisable tune from the instrument, just an annoying discordant blow-draw cacophony.

A contingent of those wannabe virtuosos had probably expressed an interest in mastering the harmonica, and I was one of those. In fact, in those pre-television days I had never seen anyone play the instrument correctly until my parents took me to the Tivoli Theatre in Sydney in June 1957. Here, I saw Ronald Chesney, the first person on the planet I had ever seen coax a tune out of a harmonica, albeit this was the chromatic version that had a slider which could produce sharps and flats.

Benny Hill with puppet Charlie McCarthy and Ventriloquist Peter Brough

The Tivoli was my first trip to any theatre; not only was I mesmerized by Ronald Chesney’s harmonica performance, but I was also in awe of ventriloquist Peter Brough with his dummy Archie Andrews featuring on the same programme. The entire theatre experience left me stagestruck, an affliction that has stayed with me to this day. So along with harmonica playing, another lifetime obsession emerged, that of ventriloquism and puppetry.

In the same year, bitten by the theatre bug, I somehow landed the lead role in the Year Two (then called Second Class) play at the school’s annual concert. Later in Year Four I would experience a monumental fall from grace when the school cast me as one of the lowly rats in the Pied Piper of Hamelin. How could this have happened when only two years earlier I was on my way to stardom, wooing a packed house singing and dancing to the Bing Crosby hit ‘With My Shillelagh Under My Arm’?

There was one saving grace: the shillelagh man role where I was dressed in top hat, white tie and tails was merely performed on a makeshift stage in a dilapidated demountable classroom. Now, fully costumed as the Fourth Rat, I was delivering my few speaking lines from the dizzying heights of the Bankstown Capital Theatre stage. Some six years later I would be watching acts like Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, and Ray Brown & the Whispers perform on that same Bankstown Capital stage.

Bankstown Capitol

Meanwhile, obsessive trips to the Bankstown Library saw me borrowing every book on ventriloquism and puppetry in the library, and they were plentiful. I also pestered my father to arrange tuition on the harmonica, which was mostly referred to in those days as the mouth organ. Perhaps this failed actor’s resurrection to stage stardom would be as a ventriloquist or harmonica player?

My father was an ‘old boy’ of Saint Benedict’s Catholic School Chippendale, Sydney. His mother, a devout Catholic, was a parishioner, and the parish priest Father Roach gave free harmonica lessons to students. So every Saturday, after a trip to Paddy’s Markets in the Haymarket, my father would drop me off at Saint Benedict’s Catholic Church whilst he visited my grandmother, and I would be taught the harmonica by Father Roach.

St Benedict’s

In my first year of high school it was mandated that every student would be required to buy a recorder. It’s an instrument that I abhor to this day because of the raucous shrill that emanates from it in the hands of amateur musicians. There is no worse sound on the planet than a classroom of 50 or so kids trying to play ‘Polly Wolly Doodle’ on the recorder, so I refused to own one. Ironically, Led Zeppelin’s noted intro to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ played on the recorder was later to become a great embarrassment to me for my enduring ridicule of the instrument.

To pass the school’s final music exam, students were required to play a tune on the recorder. The era was pre-Beatles and somehow the 1959 Broadway Cast Recording of ‘The Sound of Music’ had made its way into the syllabus; the horror, the horror. Until you’ve heard a classroom trying to sing ‘The Lonely Goatherd’ complete with yodelling you haven’t experienced real pain:

“High on a hill was a lonely goatherd, Lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo.”

After some wrangling, I was eventually allowed to front up to my music exam armed with my harmonica, and bluntly refused to play ‘Polly Wolly Doodle’ or anything from ‘The Sound of Music’. The Shadows were very big at the time, so I played their hit ‘The Boys’ to our disgruntled music examiner Brother John, who, whilst despising me for this and other infractions, had no choice other than to pass me.

It wasn’t too long before Bob Dylan and The Beatles were churning out songs utilising the harmonica, and I was enamoured that I could play along. Although Bob Dylan and John Lennon played both the chromatic harmonica and the diatonic harmonica (single scale), their ‘harps’ were in the key of the song they were playing, and they rarely, if ever, bent notes.

These were 10-hole Hohner Marine Band diatonic harps.

Hohner harmonica

Later, ‘blues harp’ became the rage and I bought a book by Tony ‘Harp Dog’ Glover entitled How to Play Blues Harp, which came complete with a flexi disc vinyl record. Blues harps are almost always diatonic but are played in the subdominant key, meaning the fourth note on the scale. So if the song is in C you buy a harp in the key of F. If the song is in E you use a harp in the key of A, and if the song is in A you use a harp in the key of D. And to get that bluesy sound you have to draw down hard to bend the harmonica reeds; it’s kind of like a legato slide on a guitar. Tony ‘Harp Dog’ Glover insisted that the harmonica had to be wet and some players went to the extreme of soaking their harps in whiskey or vodka. I tried this a few times but eventually settled for water. Of course, you have to tap the excess liquid out before you commence playing.

Brian and Joey D, Main Earth 1980

I was already in my fourth band, Main Earth, before I played harmonica live. The band had a residency at the Brooklyn Hotel in George Street Sydney every Saturday night circa 1980/81. ‘Roadhouse Blues’ in the key of E was in the repertoire, so one evening I trotted out my A harp and played through the song. The harp was so well received that we incorporated it into a whole range of songs. My only guess reverts to my earlier assumption that every kid once owned a tuneless harmonica without the simple instructions of how to play the thing. So this was some kind of magic emanating from an instrument you could fit in your pocket.

Playing harmonica at the Brooklyn Hotel

In a 2011 Diesel interview for CX (CX 59) Mark Lizotte told me, “People come up and ask me things, and I just tell them. They probably get more information than they bargained for,” he said, adding, “They probably go away wishing they hadn’t asked.”

I’m a bit the same with lengthy explanations. So when a passing punter from the street poked his head inside the open doors of the Brooklyn Hotel, where my harps sat on the lead guitarist’s Marshall amp head, I went into great detail before returning to the microphone.

When I returned, I discovered that he had stolen all my harps.


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