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#askNat – concerning who taught John Lennon how to play harmonica

This time around on #askNat Billy Patscher Jr. from Clifton, NJ has written in with this question:

How did John Lennon get started with playing harmonica and who taught him?

Good question Billy and I’m going to use it to address an urban legend concerning this very subject, for those interested enough to read on.

On June 21, 1962 The Beatles, with Pete Best still on drums, were on the bill at the Tower Ballroom in New Brighton, Wallasey, U.K. supporting the headliner of the evening, Bruce Channel. Three months earlier Bruce had scored a 3-week number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. with “Hey! Baby.” Other supporting acts for this big night besides The Beatles included The Big Three, The Statesmen and The Four Jays. The harmonica player used on Bruce’s “Hey Baby” single was also along for the tour – a session musician known as Delbert McClinton.

Delbert has had a remarkable career in the music industry, but in the sixties was still paying the bills as a side man. His prominent harmonica riff in “Hey! Baby” won him a stint in Bruce’s touring band and so it happens that he was present this night at the Tower Ballroom.

In 2012, Delbert had this to say to The Bradenton Herald in Florida:

“The Beatles were on the show we were on. We all hung out backstage as we always did. It was a magic time. John was one of the guys who came back to our dressing room and wanted me to show him how I played on ‘Hey! Baby.’ We shot the breeze. He came out to three shows, and we hung out maybe 18 to 24 hours total during two weeks. Then I came back, and about a year or two later, in an interview, John said he was influenced by ‘Hey! Baby.’ Now, it’s morphed into ‘I taught John Lennon how to play harmonica!’”

And that is the urban legend I want to put to rest – Delbert McClinton did not teach John Lennon how to play harmonica. In fact, John played his harmonica on “Love Me Do” at the very first recording session for EMI, with future producer George Martin, on June 6th, 1962, a couple of weeks before John even met Delbert. This early version of the song appears on The Beatles Anthology 1 CD set.

John Lennon & Delbert McLinton, 1962

John Lennon & Delbert McLinton, 1962

This doesn’t mean that McClinton’s harmonica playing did not inspire Lennon’s performance on “Love Me Do.” In fact it very likely did. John Lennon confirmed in a subsequent interview that at the time they recorded “Love Me Do,” “Hey! Baby” had not only been a hit for a few months, but The Beatles actually had the song prepared to record as a cover on their first album. So it’s clear that John was familiar with McClinton’s style and although Delbert did not teach him how to play the harmonica, he did personally teach John a few tricks that he may have used on “Love Me Do,” when it was rerecorded in September 1962, without Pete Best.

So if Delbert McClinton didn’t teach John Lennon how to play harmonica, the question remains. Who did?

The answer is himself. John Lennon was given a harmonica by his uncle George (Smith) when he was still a child, and after his uncle’s death from a liver hemorrhage in June 1955, John began to learn the instrument on his own. John didn’t start to develop his technique more seriously until 1962 after meeting up with Delbert McClinton. And, of course, John plays harmonica on many of the early Beatles recordings including the follow up singles after “Love Me Do” (“Please Please Me” and “From Me To You.”).

Extra info: Ringo Starr covered “Hey Baby” (removing the exclamation point from the title) on his 1976 album Ringo’s Rotogravure.

Thanks for a great question Billy! I know you had a few more that you sent me but I’ll have to get to those at a later time. I invite everyone reading to add to the topic yourself in the comments below.

Thank you to everyone who has sent in their questions! Keep #askNat going by sending your questions to me in any of the following ways:

1) There is a designated form that you fill out right on the website where you can give your name, location, email address and submit your question. The form is right here and is the same form used to submit requests for BROWs (Beatles Rarity Of The Weeks), but modfied to do both BROW requests and #askNat questions.

2) If you are a Facebook user, you can submit your question right on TheBeatlesRarity FB wall at www.facebook.com/beatlesrarity. If you think about it, try to remember to flag your question with “#askNat”.

3) Similarly, if you are a Google+ user, you can submit your question on TheBeatlesRarity Google+ page at www.gplus.to/beatlesrarity. Google+ supports hashtag searchability so it will be helpful if you preface your question with “#askNat” here too.

4) For you Twitter users, www.twitter.com/beatlesrarity gets you to the right place. Post your question and be sure to add “#askNat” somewhere in the tweet.

Here are some Amazon links to read more on, or purchase music related to this post:

1) Please Please Me 2009 stereo remastered CD of The Beatles first album which includes the harmonica-enhanced “Love Me Do,” “Please Please Me” and lots of other great early Beatles classics.

2) Past Masters 2-CD 2009 remastered collection of non-album Beatles tracks including those early singles tracks with John Lennon on harmonica such as “Love Me Do,” “Please Please Me” and “From Me To You.”

3) The Beatles Anthology 1 1995 2-CD compilation of Beatles out-takes and extras from the earliest recordings through early 1965. Includes the first recording of “Love Me Do” at EMI with John’s original harmonica passages and Pete Best on drums (June 1962).

4) Ringo’s Rotogravure 1992 remaster of original 1976 LP featuring Ringo Starr’s cover of “Hey Baby.” Note: CD has limited availability but mp3 downloads are readily available – as are vinyl copies.

5) Hey!Baby – 1995 CD remaster of Bruce Channel’s 1962 Hey! Baby LP, featuring the title track with harmonica by Delbert McClinton.

6) Beatles Music: The Beatles, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.

17 people think this is FAB!

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  • Adam says:

    Isn’t there another urban legend that claims, while in Hamburg, John Lennon stole the harmonica that was used on “Love Me Do”?

    • Happy Nat says:

      Yes, but the account I got was that he stole it in Arnheim (Netherlands) while visiting a music shop on the way to Hamburg. Someone was kind enough to just write to me about that very thing this morning.

  • Elliott Marx says:

    Is Oh Yoko! the latest account of John using a harmonica? I always figured it was. I love that solo – such wild abandon, more like Dylan than Lennon’s earlier composed playing.

  • Clare Kuehn says:

    COOL! Thanks, Nat.

  • hi, thanks fo putting my qesution on your website. thanks billy hope i see thrm all i asked u. theres many more quesutions i could ask that no one ever does. with all the beatles books& media u would think that someone would have the smarts to ask them these like where’d they get there stage& street clotherse from. how did they choose there instruments Theree boots. etc. i don’t read the beatles books any more for the same reason i don’t read the elvis books theres too many versions of the same story& what’re u suppoed to believe. gwtiing ready to go to beatles fest in april. take care billy thanks billy

  • will u be at beatlesfest here in nj . i always go. i usally by=uy alot of stuff i shouldn’t . but its fun& i wait all yr for this show. what’s our full name& will u bw there. thanks billy

  • Lennonista says:

    Nat, I have read that John played harmonica as a child, before Uncle George died. If Norman is to be believed (and, for the most part, I do believe him), John’s first mouth organ was given to him when he was about 7 or 8 by one of Mimi’s boarders. He then taught himself to play using a book. And, according to his Cousin Stanley, John used to play the instrument on the bus on his summer trips to Scotland. In fact, one summer, he impressed the bus driver so much that he gave young John a Hohner that a previous rider had left behind.

  • carol says:

    Wow, I didn’t know The Beatles knew Hey Baby and could have put it on their first LP. I’d love to hear them do that song. I wonder if any recordings exist of it. I’ll check Happy Nat’s collection!

  • carol says:

    I checked in Mark Lewisohn’s book The Beatles Recording Sessions 1962 – 1970. Hey Baby isn’t listed. I wonder, did Mark list every single thing done, or just what ended up on record?

    • Happy Nat says:

      Studio logs of what was actually put on tape (not necessarily having survived, but being in the log as recorded). Many rehearsals, warm ups that weren’t committed to tape are not necessarily documented other than by memory.

  • Paul says:

    Hello there,
    As mantioned above, there is indeed this story about the Beatles, on their way to Hamburg in 1960, travelling through the Netherlands, visiting the war memorial (a photo of this occasion excist) and they came through Arnhem visiting a store (Bergmann) with musical instruments. The story (of the owner of the shop) is that The Beatles (unknown at that time) were in his shop and Lennon there stole a harmonica, exactly the type that 2 years later came to fame with the “love me do’ and other singles.
    true or not, who knows?

    And of course poeple make money out of every Beatles-thing, so here’s a special edition harmonica, the stolen edition, so it must be true haha

  • hi, i had a great time at beatles fest. i aw& listen to peter noone i listened to the whole interview. he told many great beatles stories. i didn’t hear him sing cause i never stay till that late. i wait all yr for that show. it wasn’t really crowded cause we had hurriane sandy her so alot of people^ dealers never came. take care the beatles are as fresh& as fun& funny as they were back then. its something that’sll never happen again. peace& love forever. billy

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