Professor Harp

Professor Harp
Dauntless - Bostonís longtime harmonica pro

By Karen Nugent
March 2009

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Hugh Holmes likes to use the phrase “take it slow.”

But he hardly does that during his shows.

Holmes, whom most blues fans know as “The Undaunted Professor Harp,” has been playing the New England and beyond area for 35 or so years.

On Valentineís Day, when one indeed likes to “take it slow” the professor and his fantastic band took over the new Smokení Joeís BBQ on Washington Street in Brighton center (a wonderful addition to Brighton) for a tremendous show. There wasnít even a cover charge Ė the professor passed the hat.

Putting out two sets of a great selection of classic Chicago blues, including Slim Harpoís “Got Love If You Want It,” a little Jimmy Reed, and the funky “Chicken Heads,” - along with some R&B and roots - Holmes blew the mostly youngish crowd away.

This particular band - he has used various musicians throughout the years - is made up of Tom Williams, who absolutely smoked on guitar, especially during Willy Dixonís “Let Me Love You Baby,” which is always a crowd pleaser. (Williams powered it like Buddy Guy himself.)

Keeping great time on bass was Bruce “Dr. Feelgood” Thomas, (donít know how he got the moniker, but he was funny in the menís room line. Thatís right, the menís room. It seems the womanís room was not functioning that nightÖ)

Dan Bunge provides solid backing on drums.

Holmes said in an interview a few weeks after the show that his unique repertoire, which sometimes sounds like Texas blues, is purely derived from roots music, but it can include rock ní roll, or rhythm and blues.

“As long as itís in the roots vein, Iím happy,” Holmes said.

But itís the stage presence and talent of The Professor, who, at 57, made the shift early on - in 1969 - from a drummer in a rock band to harp player extraordinaire.

With a deep singing style full of shouts, whoops, and other wild sounds, his vocals, which Iím happy to report are on key, sound a bit like Muddy Waters, who, in fact is partly responsible for the “professor” moniker, although it was a malapropism.

Holmes met Muddy back in the 70s, and got to sit in. Muddy called him up to the stage as “the professional of the harp.” Later, Solomon Burke gave him the name “Professor Harmonica Holmes.” OK, it works for me.

Holmes said he occasionally used a chromatic harp, but he seemed to be switching back and forth with little notice from chromatic to regular at Smokení Joes, which by the way, serves excellent barbecue and Cajun specialties such as crawfish etoufee and andouille sausages. They have a license for beer and wine only.

Born and raised around Boston, Holmes moved from rock 'n' roll to blues during the Boston blues revival in the late 1960s. A super performance by blues harmonica great George “Harmonica” Smith, helped lure him away from drums and into blues harp.

“Without him, there would be no Kim Wilson, Rod Piazza, or William Clark,” Holmes said of Smith.

The Professor had two harmonica instructors, but learned a lot on his own.

Holmes initially played drums after viewing a film about the great Gene Krupa, but he was given an introduction to music from his father, who, he said, dabbled in saxophone.

Other harp influences include Little Walter and Big Walter Horton.

Singing, he said, is part of the deal for harp players.

“You canít front a band by just playing harp,” he said.

The “undaunted” adjective comes from Holmesí refusal to compromise. While he told me how distressing it is to see fewer and fewer people our age in clubs, how hard it is to get good gigs, and the flat music scene in general, he undauntedly carries on.

With a commanding presence, Professor Harp puts phenomenal shows on week after week, and he has been doing this for decades.

Holmes has performed with some well-known bands throughout the Northeast including Burke, Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson, and Pete Best (the “fifth Beatle.”) Holmes also played live on NBC's Today Show.

“I want keep playing anywhere and everywhere,” he said. “I care about this music.”

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