Professor Harp

Professor Harp
Lessons in the Blues

By A.J. Wachtel
December 2010

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Gig after gig, night after night, Hugh Holmes continues the routine that he started more than four decades ago: spreading the word of the blues' founding fathers to an ever-growing group of disciples by bringing his own interpretations of Texas-style blues, exploding with influences including rock, soul and R&B, to stage after stage and impressing person after person with his memorable and exciting act. Read on and learn something from Professor Harp.

AJ: Originally, you were a drummer but after seeing a show with George Allen Harmonica Smith you turned to harp. Why? How come you didn’t learn guitar after seeing a B.B King show? What about the harp turned you on?

Professor Harp: When I saw George Smith and heard his tone (after seeing Rod Piazza open up with a knock-out harp boogie), I was just plain seduced. There was no turning back after that. It was the summer of '69 and I was pushing 18 at the time.

AJ: 35 years ago, you met Muddy Waters backstage at Paul's Mall and he brought you up to play. What's the story behind that?

Professor: It was 35 years ago, and me and my friend Paul Dion, who was also was a friend of Muddy's, went to see him at Paul's Mall. Paul introduced me saying “Muddy, this is Hugh. He's gonna play some harp for you.” Muddy seemed non-committal. Sitting down for the set, Paul and I enjoyed the show and seeing Jerry Portnoy on harp. He had just replaced Paul Oscher. So Muddy's playing and all of a sudden between songs he says, “Now where is that harp player?” and he points to me and continues, “You, boy get up here.” Bob Margolin had just joined the band too. Paul later told me that I had passed with flying colors.

AJ: Both Muddy and Solomon Burke called you Professor of the harp. How did your name come about?

Professor: Regarding my title, I got “Professor Harmonica Holmes” from Solomon Burke. I was at one of his gigs in Dorchester and had finished jamming with him and he says to me: “DAMN. You the first black I've heard who can say 'Massachusetts' the right way. That and the fact that I wore old-fashioned gold rimmed wire frame glasses led to the Professor moniker, methinks. I shortened it to Professor Harp and when I told Muddy the name I'd be going by he called me “The Professor of the harp.”

AJ: Who are your harp influences? You are a vocalist too. Who are your singing influences?

Professor - My biggest harp influence is George Smith. Then it's both Walters - Little and Big. Butterfield, James Cotton, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Lee Oskar, Jrs. Wells and Parker, and a few others. Vocally, Muddy, Magic Sam, B.B. King, a little bit of Little Milton. Burke, of course. Wilson Pickett, Bobby Bland and others.

AJ: You were once on NBC's “The Today Show.” What's the story behind this and did it help your career any?

Professor: I didn't get a lot of gigs out of the Today Show appearance, but everything helps. It was part of a news magazine article focusing on the project of that mad genius of the harmonica world, Pierre Beauregard. It was showcasing The Cambridge Harmonica Orchestra.

AJ: On stage, you do covers by many different artists including Slim Harpo, Link Wray and Bo Diddley. What's the common thread that draws you to other artists’ songs?

Professor: Well, regarding Messrs. Harpo, Wray and Diddley - it's all roots music. I dig it all.

AJ: “Just Came Natural,” a new original song on your upcoming release, is a hot tune. Tell us about your new CD. What songs are on it? What covers? When and where will the release party be?

Professor: “Natural” was written by Rhode Island guitar great Tom Ferraro and, I believe, Scott Duhamel. We're working on the artwork and duplication now. The record release party part – the where and when – is TBA. It has traditional blues and rock ‘n’ roll. Six out of the ten songs are originals and three or four are penned or co-penned by myself.

AJ: You played with original Beatle Pete Best once. What's the story behind this?

Professor: I met him through a cat named Caswell Cooke Jr. from Westerly, R.I who puts on the Misquamicut Music Festival. Caswell thought it might be a good idea if I sat in.

AJ: You play a blend of sparse, full sounding Texas-style blues with rock, soul and R&B sounds all over the place. How do you make your sound in concert sound different, like a huge organ?

Professor: Regarding the organ effect, right now I use a Leslie effects pedal as well as a Holmes Harp Commander or a Lonewolf Harp Attack. Naturally, there's an A-B box so I can switch between the two.

AJ: What's in the future for Prof. Harp?

Professor: More recognition and hopefully being able to survive by playing music.

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