Interview with harmonicist John "Honeyboy" Turner - Just pure tone from the gut, throat and embouchure

"People identify with it (Blues). It’s personal. The songs are about hard times, relationships, sex, having no money, or having a lot of money."

John "Honeyboy" Turner: Candy Harp 

John "Honeyboy" Turner and Harvey Brindell go back two decades to when they put together Honeyboy Turner & Cryin' Heart. They toured together throughout the nineties opening for Mighty Joe Young, James Harman, Jimmy Thackery, Magic Slim and many others. Honeyboy embodied the spirit of the great front man harp players that he so idolized. They released "Preachin the Blues" on the ismest label in 1994 and "Billiard Playin' Mama" (2013). Honeyboy moved to Madison Wisconsin in 1997 and joined Cadillac Joe and the Blind Wolf Blues Band. They released an album and quickly began getting attention in Mad Town. Honeyboy moved back to Lincoln in 2000 and had a short run with a band called the Blues Cruisers who jammed with Magic Slim, Nick Holt and Chubby Carrier.

During his playing with the Cruisers, he joined forces with Sean Benjamin and recorded Sean's fantastic self-titled cd "Big Highways". Their harmonica and guitar duo were featured on River City Folk with Tom May. When Honeyboy and Harvey realized their paths were crossing again, they both jumped at the opportunity for a blues reunion that's been a long time in the making.

In addition to having played many major blues venues, these guys have also had the chance to play with many national blues artists. They've been the backup band for Chicago legends, Taildragger, Mary Lane and Rockin' Johnny. They've opened shows for or played on the same show as Magic Slim, Bernard Allison, Smokin' Joe Kubik, Kilborn Alley Blues Band, Corey Stevens, Davina & The Vagabonds, The Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings, Mighty Joe Young, Jimmy Thackery, James Harman, John Hammond, Chubby Carrier, and Mike Zito. Honeyboy was also a featured artist on River City Folk, a nationally syndicated radio program out of Davenport, Iowa.

Interview by Michael Limnios             Photos by Jon Pearson

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

When I first heard the blues, I was already interested in the harmonica, but I had never heard it played like that before. The first blues sounding harmonica that I heard would have been Mick Jagger and Elwood Blues (Dan Akroyd). Then I saw the movie Crossroads in 1986 and heard the stylings of Sonny Terry. Completely blew me away.  Then I took the journey with Muddy Waters playing with Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Junior Wells. My first blues record was the 1967 Chess Records Super Blues, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Little Walter Join Forces. All I had back then was a C harmonica marine band, and I would play along to that record. I remember the song “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” and jamming to that tune. Everything seemed to just fit perfectly with my C harmonica and that tune. I realized that the blues was a feeling and I was feeling good playing along. Playing the blues and especially playing blues harp and singing the blues has helped me become a leader, it built confidence, it helped push me to be a front man...hell...it pushed me to join a band. I started in 1985 and I haven’t stopped.  I am playing more now then I ever have. 

"The sound that drew me in was the sound of Chicago Blues. Old Charlie Musselwhite, Little Walter, Muddy Waters and Junior Wells. I have always loved Junior Wells singing and his style of playing. Funky, soul, rich sound right out of the PA mic. No green bullet or astatic. Just pure tone from the gut, throat and embouchure."

How do you describe and what characterize your music philosophy and sound? 

After all these years of playing, I am still learning so much. I am still trying to find my sound. I started out watching players. First it was on TV, and movies, but after I moved to Lincoln Nebraska, I was able to see real harp players in person. Now, you can go on YouTube and watch everybody, but back then it wasn’t so easy unless you had a blues club in your town. The Legendary Zoo Bar was that club for me and so many other players. The first blues harmonica player I saw was Charlie Musselwhite when I was 19 years old. I was playing harmonica with Dr. John Walker (folk blues) while going to college in Lincoln.  I heard Charlie was going to be at the Zoo Bar, so John told me to call the owner and ask if I could come to the show. You see, you had to be 21 to get in a bar back then. Larry Boehmer, the former owner of the Zoo Bar, was a great friend of Charlie. He let me come in to watch the first set and I got to sit with Charlie before the show. It was fantastic. After that I saw Kim Wilson, James Harman, Sam Meyers, Little Mike and the Tornadoes, William Clarke, Rick Estrin, Rod Piazza, and the list goes on. It was watching and learning from these players that taught me stage presence and harp technique. The sound that drew me in was the sound of Chicago Blues. Old Charlie Musselwhite, Little Walter, Muddy Waters and Junior Wells. I have always loved Junior Wells singing and his style of playing. Funky, soul, rich sound right out of the PA mic. No green bullet or astatic. Just pure tone from the gut, throat and embouchure.

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

People identify with it. It’s personal. The songs are about hard times, relationships, sex, having no money, or having a lot of money. The songs are real and most artists write songs about their own personal experiences. Plus Blues Concerts are typically pretty intimate in smaller venues. You can connect with the band because they are right in front of you and the band thrives on your energy. We play small clubs all the time. Some places have more live energy than others.  Some have more drunk energy as the night get’s later ha ha ha. Oh man, do we see some drunken behavior. I have had my harps spilled all over the floor a few times, microphones get knocked over, and that’s just the band, ha ha ha. Just kidding. However we do like to have a good time when we play. We are all good friends and we have been playing together for 20 years. But, yes, the audience can get out of control also. Good times….good times for sure. 

"I realized that the blues was a feeling and I was feeling good playing along." (Photo: Honeyboy Turner Band with Kevin Selfe, Mitch Kashmar and Deak Harp)

What’s the best jam you ever played in?

The best jam was just last weekend on May 17, 2014 with Kevin Selfe and the Tornados, Mitch Kashmar and Deak Harp. Unreal. You can see videos on YouTube. I also need to mention my friend, my brother from another mother...Jon Pearson. He is the best band photographer that I have seen and he is one hell of a harp player. Really good in 1st and 3rd position harmonica style. Back to Mitch Kashmar and Deak Harp though. These guys are unreal. Deak is raw and soaked in Mississippi Tone. Mitch is the absolute best. When he plays that chromatic, or the high register of a diatonic. Forget about it! His solos stand out because he takes them places that no one else does. His phrasing, tone and solo “story telling” are stupifying. 

What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Ditto from the last question, but another great time we have is when our good friend Rockin' Johnny Burgin from Chicago comes to town. I have learned so much from Johnny about performing and I learned from his friend Martin Lang, Chicago Delmark harp player. Johnny is also on Delmark. Last year Johnny came to town with Martin Lang, The Taildragger and Mary Lane. That’s on YouTube as well. Another great show. As I am typing this on Sunday May 25, Johnny is currently in Nebraska and we have been gigging with him the past two nights. Last time he was hearing we were sharing a bill at the 21st Saloon in Omaha, Nebraska with JW Jones. At the end of the night we all got on stage and jammed to John Lee Hooker and Magic Sam. 

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Meeting and conversing with William Clarke at the Zoo Bar. I opened for John Hammond at the Zoo when I was 19 and didn’t realize who he was at the time. He blew me away with his one man show. I had never heard someone play harmonica on a neck rack like that before.  Speaking of neck racks, last weekend hanging out with Deak Harp was a treat for sure. He has taken the neck rack to a whole new level.  Both Deak Harp and Mitch Kashmar were incredibly nice and supportive to my playing and gave me some tips to think about as I move forward in my playing. I have been playing harmonica since 1985 and I keep learning so much when I get to hang with these players. Like Taildragger told me “You never stop learning until the day you die”. True

"Music has always been a huge part of my life, but working 50 hours a week and then hitting the road and rolling into bed at 3am in the morning is very taxing."

Are there any memories from The Honeyboy Turner Band which you’d like to share with us?

I have been playing with these cats for 20 years. We have had some good times over the years and lots of laughs. Some of my best memories are when we pile into the van at the end of the gig and head home. That’s when the laughter hits and the stories start flying.  Especially when we stop for breakfast at a diner aka “greasy spoon” on the way home. Nothing like stories at 3am in the morning with a full order of biscuits and gravy. If those van walls could talk, right? Our very first lineup of the Honeyboy Turner Band featured Harvey Brindell’s brother Mike Brindell. Mike lives in Florida now. We had some good times with Mike and he is one hell of a guitarist. He has become a Guild Guitar collector. You should check his FaceBook page “My Guild Guitars” out sometime. And of course, I need to give a shout out to our dearly departed friend and former bass player. Eric Byorth. Eric loved the blues and he was a hoot in the band. We had all kinds of nicknames for Eric. He used to drive so slow that we called him “Grandma Moses”. He used to carry a knife for protection so we called him “Mad Dog Byorth”. We miss Eric. His brother and Eric’s now grown up kids come out to see us, and it is always a treat to see them. 

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

My hopes and fears have to do with being able to keep this up. My life is all about “balance”. Balancing a family, a full time job and fronting a very busy blues band is not easy. Music has always been a huge part of my life, but working 50 hours a week and then hitting the road and rolling into bed at 3am in the morning is very taxing. A lot of touring blues guys I know talk about being tired because they don’t get sleep very often. Mitch Kashmar said “I’ve been tired for 35 years”. People really seem to be enjoying what we are doing right now. Our music brings people together. We aren’t the best band around, we make mistakes and we play by the skin of our teeth sometimes, but the audience appreciates our rawness, our humor, our passion for what we do. They keep coming back for more. Plus, we look so damn good.

My hope is that I continue to get better as a harp player and singer. I am really focusing on improving my harp playing. I need to unlearn some styles that I have fallen back on and develop my own style. When we start playing harmonica we may not learn some technical steps that will help you with tone or stamina AND we spend some much time learning other people’s riffs. Starting from Little Walter’s Juke, Junior Wells’ Messin With the Kid, Sonny Boy Williamson’s Help Me, Muddy’s I’m A Man, Howlin’ Wolf’s Moaning at Midnight, etc…At some point you need to develop your own thing. I am still doing that. And don’t get me started on tongue blocking. Deak Harp said to me a couple of days ago “Tongue blocking is what separates the men from the boys”. In that case, I have some growing up to do.

"The harmonica is unique in that it really does become a part of you when you’re playing it. We you start tongue blocking and using that vibrato in your diaphram and throat is becomes an extension of you."

Which memory from Mighty Joe Young, James Harman, Jimmy Thackery, and Magic Slim makes you smile?

Mighty Joe Young and I had a quick conversation about how good each other looked.

James Harman caught me stealing some of his riffs on a song I wrote. Whoops! I saw him many times and still think he is the best songwriter of the blues in the 80’s and 90’s. 

Jimmy is a killer player. I played and recorded with Sean Benjamin for a couple of years. Jimmy and Sean would good friends and had written the song “Freddy’s Combo” together (A tribute to Freddy King).

It was an honor to share the same home city as Magic Slim. I always stepped my game up when I saw Slim in the audience. He had a tremendous impact on Lincoln’s music scene. It was Slim’s brother Nick Holt that schooled me on the chromatic one time. I was jamming with him many years ago. He said “let’s do this one...it’s in Dminor”. I started to leave the stage and he grabbed me and said “Where you going...Aint you got no chromatic” I pulled out my C chromatic and what followed after that was a memory that I will cherish forever. We tore that slow blues song up that night.  You never stop learning. 

Do you know why the sound of harmonica is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of? 

The harmonica is unique in that it really does become a part of you when you’re playing it. We you start tongue blocking and using that vibrato in your diaphram and throat is becomes an extension of you.  The same muscles we used to laugh or cry are part of what makes that harp sound so good. When you first start playing a harp, you may not realize that, but the more you playing the more it grabs hold. So the blues is a feeling...we know that...the harmonica cries and laughs and shouts and whispers. It’s all coming from within and when you feel that, you know that you are home. I like another piece of advice from Mitch Kashmar about “if you can visualize it in your mind, you can play it” You don’t need a harmonica in your mouth to practice.  Listening to a song you want to learn or writing a melody in your head is just as important. In that case...I practice all the fucking time. 

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

It’s either on the streets of Chicago in the 50’s to see where the urban electric blues started. Maybe popping over to Chess Records while I am there and then off to the Checkerboard lounge. Or...how bought in the audience of Montreux 1974 when they recorded Drinkin TnT Smokin Dynamite Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Bill Wyman. I have always loved that record and I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be in that audience watching that performance. 

 

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