music by STEVE GUYGER
Text and Photos by Larry Benicewicz
How about if I told you that one of the greatest blues harp players in the world lives just up Interstate 95; could you identify him? No, not down I-95, where players such as Mark Wenner, Charlie Sayles, or Bruce Ewan could lay claim to that distinction. Give up? Well the answer is Philadelphia’s Steve Guyger, who’s yet to become a household name in blues circles despite the glowing accolades of a jury of his peers. The late California bred harmonica wizard, William Clarke, paid him the highest compliment in the UK publication, Blueprint, when he was asked to name the finest harmonica player he had ever heard and singled Steve out among the rest. Mark Hummel, another giant of this genre labels him as a “monster player.” And Rick Estrin, himself a famed harp virtuoso of the recently disbanded Little Charlie & the Nightcats, refers to him in the liner notes of Steve’s most recent CD as
“a true master of the blues harmonica.”
But actions always speak louder than words. And the Baltimore Blues Society-sponsored Alonzo’s annual Labor Day weekend extravaganza of 2000 spoke volumes with regard to the high esteem in which Steve Guyger is held by the blues community. As usual, I was booking the Cat’s Eye Pub in Baltimore on Sunday nights (which normally entails a zydeco act); but on that particular date, I couldn’t latch on to any such accordion band. I had owed Steve a favor and contracted him to play instead that evening but I was still worried that Alonzo’s would siphon off the blues fans or at least tucker them out so that no one would show for Steve’s late night gig. So much was I anxious, that I went to the afternoon festival and announced Steve’s venue several times over the loudspeakers. But I needed not to have been concerned because not only did Rick Estrin show up for the soiree (leading a large, boisterous contingent of blues buffs) but also another formidable area harp player, Doug Jay, who had just returned from Osnabrück, Germany, where he had relocated. Of course, Steve was all too glad to have them both sit in during a set and soon there commenced a harmonica battle of epic proportions. In short, it was a magical evening and you just had to be there to feel the love and respect between the three, a trio of harmonica genii.
But if for no other reason than his nearly decade and a half association with the blues guitar legend, Jimmy Rogers, you should acknowledge Steve Guyger. Just think of his predecessors in this capacity, especially when Rogers played second guitar in Muddy Waters’s band---Little Walter, Big Walter Horton, Henry Strong, and James Cotton pretty heady company and enormously big shoes to fill.
Back about fifteen years ago I covered the Mid-Atlantic region as a beat writer for Maryland Musician magazine, now the Music Monthly, and even then I recognized his unique talent; that he was head and shoulders above most harp players in the area. He was always in key and whereas most of the pretenders of that period (and even today) played this instrument like a chain saw, trying to overwhelm the backing band with sheer volume, Steve always took a nuanced, subtle approach to delivering the notes, sometimes drawn out, or sometimes abrupt, distinct, staccato-like bursts as the song dictated. But no one could doubt that he was always in total command of the harmonica. The vintage microphone and amplifier aren’t just for show; they are an attempt at duplicating the true blues tones of that golden age, just another means of achieving that goal of a consummate bluesman. And Steve remains his own most harsh critic, often demeaning what I would have considered a sterling performance, in that quest for perfection.
Quite a few artists claim to be “old school,” but Steve Guyger is the genuine article - a student of blues history with a voracious appetite for knowledge. Since his longtime supporting cast has been the Excellos, I suppose that the average blues fan might suspect that his forte, or strong suit, is the brooding “Swamp Blues” of producer J.D. Miller’s Crowley, Louisiana-based stable of stars such as Slim Harpo (James Moore), Whispering Smith, or Lazy Lester (Leslie Johnson). And, it’s true that he is comfortable playing in this understated style; but Steve is so much more. As an inveterate collector, he has immersed himself in a wide range of harmonica postures from the slick, jazzy, “contrapuntal,” urban variety of Chicagothe Walters, Snooky Pryor, Billy Boy Arnoldto the rough hewn country or rural type represented by Sonny Boy Williamson II (Aleck Ford “Rice” Miller) or Howlin’ Wolf. But in addition to these fairly renowned figures, he also is well acquainted with the lesser lightssome of the best kept secrets, living and dead in bluesdom, like the late George Smith who recorded under several pseudonymsLittle Walter Junior, Big Walter, or Harmonica King, like George “Mojo” Buford of Minneapolis, and Larry Wise, a Philly native, who now makes his home in Washington, D.C. In fact, he can reel off the names of so many harp practitioners toiling in obscurity that I once suggested that he compile a city by city directory, instead of committing all this information to his memory, which is prodigious to say the least. Moreover, in that his instrument of choice is part of the wind family, he’s examined the techniques of its other members, like the saxophone, which might provide an assistance or insight into his method of tackling a tune. In fact, he credits the late studio session fixture of New Orleans, tenor Lee Allen, with contributing to his own full throated, in your face, harmonica assault, when and if the occasion demands it.
Back when I did the first interview, I had assumed that he’d been at it a long time, since his proficiency with the instrument was so advanced and his grasp of blues tradition was both encyclopedic and exhaustive,. But he corrected me. “I’d have to admit that I was a late bloomer in that regard,” he said. Even so, he must have been a fast learner to have come so far in such a relatively short amount of time.
Steve Guyger was born in Philadelphia in 1952. Although he didn’t hail from a particularly musically inclined family, music was always a part of his life. In 1964, he was inspired to take up the guitar after hearing a folk production at his school and thereafter even tried formal lessons, until he discovered that after nearly five years that it was a virtual waste of time. “I just couldn’t click with that instrument. I just wasn’t suited to it or vice-versa,” he confessed. His first encounter with the harmonica came after the end of high school when his future sister-in-law presented him with a gift with which he showed immediate aptitude; so much so, he was able to serenade the guests at her wedding. “She probably didn’t realize the seed she planted at the time,” he added.
In the late 60s, Steve recalled that he became somewhat interested in the blues after seeing B.B. King and Aaron “T-Bone” Walker perform on television live from the Newport Jazz Festival. In addition to this introduction, there was also a “radical alternative” FM station in town, WMMR, which offered blues programming. “One tune that really grabbed me - ‘Got My Mojo Workin’’ - the original with Little Walter,” he remembered. However, it wasn’t until he enrolled at a local junior college did he receive a thorough blues baptism. Steve was quick to acknowledge a friend and harp player, John Gunning, who as a blues aficionado and an avid collector, played a key role in his blues indoctrination. “It was John who really pointed me in the right direction. He knew all the cats like Junior Wells, Charlie Musselwhite, Rod Piazza, and Big Walter and actually sat in with the late Magic Sam. Needless to say, he’d frequent all the big blues happenings each year like Ann Arbor [Blues Festival],” Steve said. Not long after meeting John, Steve made it a point to attend his first blues show - James Cotton at the Main Point club in Bryn Mawr, PA, in 1972. Later at the same locale he saw Sonny Terry. Finally, Steve recalled a memorable appearance by Paul Butterfield at the Spectrum in Philly, wherein he met the future founder of the Bucks County Blues Festival, Tom Cullen. This fateful encounter would further cement his relationship with the blues.
Although, at this juncture, Steve would be the first to admit that he was nothing more than a novice on the harp, nonetheless he began exploring his potential of becoming a public entertainer and often would sit in with groups formed by chums like alto player Larry Joseph and pianist John Flood. “You got to remember it was the 70s and artists like War were huge. I guess you can say we were in a funk bag back then,” said Steve. But his rather rootless existence as a racetrack helper precluded any possibility about forming his own outfit. “I felt I was wandering around aimlessly from Charlestown [WV] to Bowie [MD] to Penn National to Delaware Park and not accomplishing much career-wise. Outside of rehearsing by myself, these were pretty much lost years,” he confessed.
Though he floated from job to job, he never lost his enthusiasm for the blues and even tried to contact such blues legends as Jimmy Rogers, inquiring whether there was a vacancy in the harp department that he could fill. “Looking back, I must have had quite an inflated opinion of my abilities. Though, I must say that Jimmy was very gracious and even answered my letter. I don’t know why I thought I could have hoped to supplant such able-bodied harmonica players as Joe Burson,” he confided.
In 1975, Steve broke his wrist and this incident and subsequent layoff allowed him to temporarily indulge his whims, like traveling to New York and partaking of its then vibrant and ever burgeoning blues scene. “I had always wanted to meet a particular musician whom I admired, Paul Oscher, and upon arrival I was reading the Village Voice, which announced an engagement of his at a club in Brooklyn, Barbara’s My Way. And the next week with Tom Cullen, I caught him at the Marble Lounge. We hit it off right away,” he answered. In fact, New York of that era proved to be a revelation to Steve, a veritable hotbed of blues, whereas Philadelphia, by comparison, seemed positively moribund. Indeed, his initial excursion was to launch a twenty year commuter romance with this megalopolis’s blues community. “There were simply some awesome harp players up there like Little Frankie Padini, Danny Russo, Gene Palatnick, and Bob Shatkin. And Bill Dicey’s was the house band at Dan Lynch’s [now a sadly defunct East Village bar in Manhattan]. I eventually met them all,” he added. But his new acquaintances were not necessarily limited to harmonica aces. During that time frame, there were a whole host of blues stalwarts, both established and up-and-coming, seeking their fortune in the Big Apple---a young Bobby Radcliff, Larry Dale, Louisiana Red (Iverson Minter), Tarheel Slim (Alden Bunn), ubiquitous session guitarist Jimmy Spruill, pianists Bob Gaddy and Victoria Spivey---with whom Steve would visit and jam on occasion. Moreover, the city’s proximity to Boston made it an attractive destination to the cream of Bean Town’s blues artists as well---Sugar Ray Norcia, Ronnie Earl, and Jerry Portnoy. “I became deeply involved with such colorful characters and absorbed all I could from them,” said Steve.
Still, Steve felt intimidated being in the presence of such extraordinary talent, and perhaps inadequate to the task. He now was well into his twenties and to him these new found heroes had seemingly been plying their trade almost since they had begun teething. In order to catch up, back in Philadelphia, he sought out the services of a classic harmonica (and much acclaimed) teacher in the Larry Adler/John Sebastian Sr. tradition, Forrest Scott. However, to his dismay, the only lesson he learned from this episode is that formal training does not necessarily ensure success. He found that, evidently, the only way to become expert is to try and mimic the masters and start from the bottom up, in the trenches, so to speak. And, he thought to himself, what better sites are there to acquire such first-hand experience than the decrepit blues dens which bordered Indiana Avenue in South Chicago?
It was the fall of 1976 that Steve Guyger made his first pilgrimage to the Windy City in the company of friend Rich Yescalis, who would eventually go on to play guitar in Steve’s outfit and handle the bass chores for Jimmy Rogers’s road show. After making all the rounds of the usual blues haunts, the two settled on a favorite water hole---Elsewhere’s on North Lincoln---because it was the most likely to present traditional blues entertainers, like John Wrencher, Sunnyland Slim, Big Walter, John Brim, Floyd Jones, and Jimmy Walker. Another club proved pivotal as well in his development, Kingston Mines, where Steve was to meet a sensational, yet unheralded, harp player, Leon Brooks, who was to have a major influence upon his evolving harmonica style.
Steve had to leave, returning to Philadelphia after three weeks, a move he was soon to regret. Rich came back also, but reluctantly so and firmly resolved to make Chicago his permanent residence. “When Rich finally found an apartment there, I used it as a handy crash pad whenever I got laid off from my factory job back home, which was often,” he said. After several visits, Steve developed a close friendship with his idol, Jimmy Rogers, a connection that would prove to be productive a few years down the road.
By the time the late 70s rolled around, Steve felt confident enough to form his own band. One native guitarist prominently stood out, Steve Chismar, and he quickly recruited him for his new invention, Rock Bottom. Area blues followers may remember this other Steve who would also go on to distinguish himself a decade later in George Thorogood’s then Delaware Destroyers. Once he assembled this group, Steve didn’t waste any time trying to create some name recognition in the region. “We covered all the blues hot spots like J.C. Hobbs in Philly, John and Peter’s in New Hope, Kenny’s Bar in Southhampton, and the Chadds Ford Inn,” he said. This first experiment lasted two years, as Steve met with much frustration in trying to keep a competent rhythm section together.
Steve’s next project was the short-lived Blues Rockers which featured Art Hines on guitar. Again, finding the right supporting cast proved Steve’s undoing. But when things seemed most bleak about the prospects of consistently retaining the loyalty of fellow band mates, the proverbial golden opportunity fortuitously presented itself.
On one particular trip to New York, Steve met drummer and singer Ola Dixon in the aforementioned Dan Lynch’s blues club. Ola even then was a solid, seasoned veteran who had formerly supplied her signature “fatback” tempo in both Paul Oscher’s ensemble as well as that of Sugar Ray (Norcia) & the Bluetones. In fact, Steve was well acquainted with this rarity in the professiona female percussionisthaving met her on previous forays into the Big Apple and then from time to time engaging her as a substitute in his own band. And little did he know back then that two decades hence they would become label mates (check out her CD, Labor of Love on Severn). It was Ola who informed him that Jimmy Rogers was heading east for a six week Mid-Atlantic trek and was desperately seeking a harmonica player familiar with his repertoire. To say the least, this news more than piqued his interest and he asked for a contact. She then gave him the phone number of George Lewis.
Guitarist George Lewis was already a local legend in the Boston area who later would go on to run the blues jams at Cambridge’s House of Blues, the first of the actor Dan Ackroyd’s franchises to open in 1992. But in the early 80s, he fronted a group, the Excellos, which, as the name suggests, borrowed for its play list a preponderance of Swamp Blues classics. It was George who was responsible for assembling a back-up band for Jimmy Rogers and, to make a long story short, Steve passed the audition for harp man. “We covered all the territory from Maine to Virginia and back and even performed at the Bottom Line [in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village] with Tracy Nelson. I really got the bug to travel on the road after that joyous swing through the Northeast,” said Steve.
When the junket was completed, Steve wished to appropriate the name, Excellos, for him self and George kindly relinquished it to him. Nonetheless, the new Excellos, even with Steve at the helm, still retained its Boston flavor in that the guitarist (George) and original rhythm section was comprised of bassist Michael “Mudcat” Ward (who also served with Sugar Ray) and the aforementioned Ola Dixon. Looking back, Steve considers this lineup as his best band ever. Yet, it, too, did not endure. “There was a spell of inactivity in the early 80s when I had a hard time getting gigs. Luther ‘Guitar Jr.’ Johnson [who moved to Boston in 1982 forming the Magic Rockers] fresh out of Muddy’s outfit was then on the prowl for able sidemen. He sort of borrowed them and didn’t return them,” he admitted.
Despite periodically losing such vital personnel, Steve claims to have never had much difficulty replacing them with other individuals of quality, a truth which either is a tribute to his stature as a musician or his powers of persuasion. Since founding the Excellos, Steve also is proud to have employed every musician of renown who resided in the City of Brotherly Love. “I guess I must have been doing something right,” he said.
Since the inception of the Excellos in 1980, Steve had not only retraced his steps in the Philadelphia blues scene but also ventured several times to New York. “We were regulars at Dan Lynch’s for a spell and even played the Other End and Manny’s Car Wash when it first opened in the late 80s. The only thing that held us back in the Big Apple was the weird cabaret regulation which only allowed three pieces. Now, tell me, with me blowing harp, who are you going to leave at home?” he said. Despite this handicap, Steve did establish some valuable connections to New York-based blues bands like Tony O’s with whom he performed frequently. Tony O, a fine guitarist, was often called upon to back up visiting blues luminaries like the trio of Snooky Pryor, Pinetop Perkins, and Hubert Sumlin, much in the same manner that Steve supported Jimmy Rogers on tour.
As the nineties dawned, Steve’s band was top-notch (with Rich Yescalis in the lead guitar role, following the departed Joe Baranga) and his reputation was such that he became a dependable draw in all the Philadelphia and New York blues bars and clubs. The only thing missing from Steve’s stellar resume to this point was a killer blues album. But all this was to change not too far down the road.
Next Month: Part II: IN THE STUDIO
------ Larry Benicewicz, Baltimore Blues Society
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