Harp and soul 

From Muddy Waters to the J. Geils Band and beyond, Magic Dick keeps on blowing

click to enlarge Insert favorite Dick joke here.
  • Insert favorite Dick joke here.

J. Geils Band co-founder Magic Dick is the only person on the planet to have played with both Muddy Waters and Ryuichi Sakamoto.

And while he admits the Mississippi bluesman and the Japanese composer appear worlds apart, Magic Dick explains that, in his mind, "there's not that much difference between the two.

"Because," he adds, "I'm a strange one musically."

Magic Dick is touring with Mark Hummel and his Harmonica Blowout, which also includes the Fabulous Thunderbirds' Kim Wilson. (Colorado's own Al Chesis will round out Thursday's local appearance.)

"We really derive much of our playing from the Chicago heroes," says Magic Dick of his tourmates. "We're all disciples of Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Cotton and Junior Wells."

While Magic Dick's collaboration with Sakamoto involved playing over a loop sampled from Jimi Hendrix's "Third Stone from the Sun," his work with Waters was decidedly more flesh and blood. As a college student in Boston, he would sit in with the elder bluesman, whose legend now rivals that of Robert Johnson.

"He could be demanding in earlier times, like when Little Walter was with him," says Magic Dick. "It's a different scenario if you were one of the original members and you're all traveling around together, and Muddy's the boss. But Muddy wouldn't treat a person sitting in with any kind of sternness. He'll show you whether or not he likes what you're doing he'll be demonstrative about that but if he doesn't like what you're doing, you probably won't get asked back."

Magic Dick came back 10 times.

His eclecticism also aided the J. Geils Band, with which he spent 20 years. "Whammer Jammer," an early instrumental he'll be playing on this tour, opens with an unaccompanied homage to Sonny Boy Williamson before bursting into a frenzied rave-up that harp players still try to imitate.

"One of the things that I became fascinated early on with the harmonica was that, depending on how you play it, you can make the harmonica sound like anything from a saxophone to a trumpet to a voice," says Magic Dick. "On 'Whammer Jammer,' those high notes I play were basically inspired by the manner in which John Coltrane played some of those high notes on his sax."

In addition to seeing the J. Geils Band through its transition from R&B-based party band to '80s pop band, Magic Dick has more recently recorded with both guitarist Geils and vocalist Peter Wolf. He says he had no problem with the band's commercial success ("I'm not one of those people that disassociates popular from good"), though he admits that the musical shift diminished his role: "There's a big difference between 'Southside Shuffle' and 'Freeze Frame.'" In fact, his playing appears nowhere on the latter track.

Despite some inspired on-stage reunions, Magic Dick sees little chance of the band (whose breakup he attributes to tensions between Wolf and keyboardist Seth Justman spreading to the rest of the group) ever returning to the studio.

"About all I can say is, I would love to do it, I'm ready to do it, it's not up to me."

All of which leaves just one question: How did he get that stage name?

"I grew up in a town called Pittsfield, Mass.," says the former Richard Salwitz. "So I could have either been Pittsfield Slim or Magic Dick. I submit to you, which would you have chosen were you me?"



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