"The harmonica is the closest to the human voice that any instrument will ever be."
Herbie "Doctor Fun" Katz: Keepin the Blues Alive
Herbie Katz has been playing harmonica since he was hitch-hiking with a friend in Connecticut at 15 years old. He has studied harmonica with Lee Oskar and David Barrett and was influenced early on by Paul Butterfield and John Mayall. He truthfully believes himself to be a born again black blues man whose influences extend from Louisiana to Australia, but most people think he's making this up. A wandering loner, he prefers to sit in with different bands roaming from club to club.
He did, however, perform for three years with "Blue Baron and the Stretch Club" and was seen and heard at many clubs throughout Los Angeles performing with them in the mid 90's. Not many people have been fortunate enough to tie him down and record him, although he does appear briefly on Harriet Schock's "from Fairfax to Pasadena" CD. He can also be heard wailing on Wumbloozo's CD "Come Down Here." If you come across a bootleg recording that you swear contains his playing, he'll flatly deny it. Doctor Fun just loves music. He'll play Blues and Jazz for free, but you'll have to pay him if you want him to play country music.
When was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?
I was actually given a harmonica at age 4. It was a yellow plastic one. My neighbor threw it into the woods behind his house. I think I’ve been chasing it ever since.
Sonny Boy Williamson, Paul Butterfield and John Mayall were my first harmonica influences. Next was Charlie Musselwhite. Much later, I heard Larry Adler and Toots Thielemans.
My favorite album was and still is “Super Session” with Stephen Stills, Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper.
I first heard it in the library of our high school.
What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had? What were the first songs you learned?
1. First time I sat in with a band. I was sixteen years old and the band played Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy”.
It was my cousin’s band and they were performing overlooking the indoor pool at Grossinger’s Hotel in the Catskill Mountains in New York. I had never played into a microphone before. I was scared to death. After I got off stage, I stayed in the bathroom.
2. The next was jamming in an AM/PM gas station with a first chair guitar student from CalArts (California Institute of the Arts). I had stopped to buy gas after a formal evening out and I was wearing a suit. This kid with a guitar case in his hand who has a safety pin holding his glasses together comes in thinking it’s his shift and the person behind the cash register tells him he’s got the wrong night. I look at him and ask him if he wants to jam. He looks at me like I’m from another planet because I’m wearing a suit. I pulled out a harmonica and we jammed for over an hour while the cashier played his drumsticks on the cash register.
Two weeks later, the cashier tells me that the recording sounds great! I asked him, “What recording?” He had taped the whole jam! It even had people talking in the background buying gas, cigarettes and beer!”
What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?
Blues is a feeling that we all experience in our lives. It is about pain and heartache and loss and luck and it is about the relief from the pain we have all felt and the possibility of future happiness.
What characterize the sound of Herbie Katz? Cool nickname “DOCTOR FUN”. How did you come up with it?
When I play harmonica, I hear it in my head as either a muted trumpet, a French horn, a saxophone or a flute. The harmonica is the closest to the human voice that any instrument will ever be. I use whatever musical image in my mind that works best to accompany the music I am asked to play.
The name Doctor Fun came to me one night many years ago when I walked into the Road House in Santa Clarita, CA. I had just come from my day job, was wearing a suit and had a black ammo bag full of harmonicas in my hand. I was joining CC Collins and Kevin Dahill on stage and didn’t know where the bar was. When I asked where the music was, someone said to me “Are you a doctor?”
What experiences in your life make you a GOOD bluesman?
I HEAR what people tell me. I have been a good listener since I was little and someone who has comforted others by listening to what they needed to tell someone – at times when they could tell no one else.
I wonder if you could tell me a few things about your experience from the road with the blues like hitch-hiking.
I’ve hitch-hiked all across Canada, all over Europe and all around the outskirts of the United States. I met all kinds of people and all of them were really nice to me. I regret that it’s not as safe today as when I did it.
Here’s one story. I was hitch-hiking on the East coast with a friend of mine. A car pulled over and the man handed us his keys and told us to put our packs in the trunk. I opened the trunk and almost died of shock! There were two artificial legs in his trunk! We got in the car and he then told us about his experiences in Viet Nam. That visual image is still vividly in my mind to this day.
Alive or dead, who is the one person that you’d like to meet face to face if they were alive, and talk to over jam?
Whenever anyone would ask me what I wanted for my birthday, I always answered, “A cup of coffee with Frank Zappa.” Frank was and still is a very musical genius! The first album I ever owned was “the Mothers of Invention” album. I have more Zappa CD’s in my collection than any other artist!”
Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
The best AND the worst moments of my career are yet to come!
Do you know why the sound of harp is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of Harmonica?
We’ve heard the wail of the harmonica for years. It is connected to a cry or a moan or a howl of a wolf, a man or a woman in our minds. Sometimes we hear the sound of a harmonica “see” the train going down the tracks.
The biggest secret of the harmonica is that it is more expressive than most people assume. A lot of people grew up thinking it was a toy. Listen to what Toots Thielman or Larry Adler do with one!”
Are there any memories from the Wumbloozo, which you’d like to share with us?
Michael Richard’s lyrics are incredibly visual! I SEE what he sings about and just play!
One night I walked into his house and he was playing a new song I hadn’t heard before. I just sat down and listened. When he finished, he looked over at me and saw that I was crying. The story behind this comes from the time I took my 4 year old son to New York City just before Christmas. He had seen a man sleeping in a doorway and asked me, “Why doesn’t he go home?” I told him he didn’t have a home. He asked, “Why doesn’t he go to his Mom & Dad’s house? “ I told him the man was “Homeless” and that ended the conversation… until the following November when I asked him what he wanted to do for Thanksgiving. Without hesitation, he replied, “Feed the Homeless!” So, I called every homeless shelter in Los Angeles and as soon as I told them I had a five year old who wanted to help, they said, “No Thanks.”
Finally, one of them said, “Sure, bring him down!”
On Thanksgiving Day, we arrived and he was given the task of wrapping up a plastic fork, knife and spoon in a napkin, and putting that and an apple into a paper bag. He finished the task of putting together hundreds of these and then asked for more work. Next, he cut apple and pumpkin pies into sections. About that time, all the celebrities arrived to have their photos taken showing they were helping out. Just when they had on their best smile, they noticed this little boy in the corner working so fast that it humbled them.
We took a short break and went up to the roof and looked down and saw all the homeless people lined up around the block waiting to be fed. We went back down and my son was allowed to carry a tray full of Thanksgiving dinner from the steam table and set it down in front of one of the homeless men who sat patiently at one of the many tables. Remembering he look they exchanged still brings tears to my eyes.
Fast forward 15 years later: My son (who is in college now) tells me he was in downtown LA the other day. I ask him what he was doing and he tells me he was helping out at the Rescue Mission downtown. My son’s got a big heart.
The song is titled “Preacher’s Liver” and will be on our new acoustic CD.
Do you remember anything funny or interesting from the Blue Baron and the Stretch Club?
Baron is a great guitar player and singer and I played with his blues band for over three years. He had one hard and fast rule about never letting anyone “sit in” with the band. I stopped by to hear his band about a year after I left the band and he wouldn’t let me sit in. There, on his mixing board, was still written “Doctor Fun” above one of the mic inputs.
What advice Lee Oscar given to you about the harp? From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
Many years ago, Lee held a workshop at the Baked Potato and taught us how to take harmonicas apart and tune them! I love playing Lee Oskar harmonicas and all of the harps I use (except two) are Lee’s.
Are there any memories from your “studies” with Lee Oscar and David Barrett, which you’d like to share with us?
David Barrett is the BEST HARMONICA INSTRUCTOR in the world!! He is one of the only ones who can not only PLAY, but can TEACH! I had tried countless books, tapes and CD’s before I found David Barrett and whenever anyone asks me if I teach, I tell them, “No, but I can recommend the best teacher – David Barrett . You can reach him at www.harmonicamasterclass.com
Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES
Because we are humans with emotions.
My one wish is that the Blues gets greater recognition as an art form in this country.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
Start now! Listen to every player you can and steal every lick you can until you can create your own! Turn off the radio and play while you’re driving in your car!
And…don’t forget to brush your teeth before playing your harmonica!
Any of blues standards have any real personal feelings for you & what are some of your favorites?
Help Me, All Along the Watchtower, Amazing Grace, Summertime.
Is there any similarity and difference between the “white blues boys” and the blues cats?
I think it’s their singing. The truth that’s told in their voices is as telling as the words they sing.
How you would spend a day with John Mayall?
Hopefully, just taking a nice walk together and listening to him tell me some stories.
What is the “think” you miss most from the “Old good days of Blues”?
They were before my time. What I miss is not having been around then.
I've heard two sayings about the blues, which are a little bit confusing. One is "Blues is a healer". Another one "You have to feel blue to play Blues". If it's suppose to be a healer, why should it make one feel sad?
Step One is you have had something that made you feel blue.
Step Two is you either sing about it or communicate with your instrument about it and it not only heals you, it heals those around you!
“I just wanted to add that my current favorite harmonica player is Mark Ford (Robben’s brother). Check out The Ford Brothers band CD and you’ll see why!
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