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.
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.
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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.