Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Toots Thielemans & Stevie Wonder: Bluesette

Here’s a little number that features the chromatic harmonicas of Toots Thielemans and Stevie Wonder performed at the Polar Awards in Sweden. The addition of Stevie Wonder was a total surprise to Toots and this obviously unrehearsed and spontaneous performance was wonderful because of the energy of these two mulit-instrumentalists.

Most of this audience is familiar with Stevie Wonder, who needs no introduction. Toots Thielemans’ name is not readily recognized by most Americans; however, most of us have heard his musicianship countless times.

To name just a select few . . .

  • If you’ve heard the whistling on the Old Spice commercials, you’ve heard Toots. 
  • If you’ve seen the movie, Midnight Cowboy, the harmonica on the opening sequence played during the theme song – you’ve heard Toots. 
  • If you’ve heard the harmonica on Sesame Street, you’ve heard Toots.
  • If you’ve heard Billy Joel’s hit “Leave a Tender Moment Alone,” you’ve heard Toots.

Born as Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor Thielemans, he was nicknamed “Toots” after musicians Toots Mondello and Toots Camarata. Toots was influenced at a early age by the music of Django Reinhardt and Charlie Parker. His performance pedigree reads like a musical who’s who with Toots having stints in Benny Goodman’s band, Charlie Parker’s All Stars, the George Shearing Quintet, and as a sideman for Ella Fitzgerald, Quincy Jones, Paul Simon, Pat Matheny, and many others. In fact, it was Toots Thielemans that inspired a young John Lennon to buy his first Rickenbacker electric guitar after seeing Toots play one in Hamburg , Germany in 1959.

Guitar? Yes – Toots got his start playing guitar. In fact, my initial exposure to his music came from an album I purchased at a flea market in the early 1970s. As the title suggested, “The Whistler and His Guitar” featured his guitar work coupled with his unique habit of simultaneous playing single note lines on guitar while simultaneously whistling the same notes. The title intrigued me and it was a very nice album – that also featured today’s song – his composition “Bluesette.” I don’t remember if he recorded any harmonica on this particular album, but it wasn’t until years later that I realized that this same guitarist was better known for his harmonic a work.

Toots has endorsed his own chromatic harmonica that is available through Hohner. The “Hard Bopper” is no easy purchase as it lists for over $200 new. This 12-hole instrument, as Hohner states, has “greater volume and a more aggressive sound than other models.” Each “Hard Bopper” has a unique serial number and signed letter from Toots guaranteeing the harp.

In 2001, the king of Belgium granted Toots the titular nobility of “baron.” He also holds two honorary doctorates. He has won numerous music awards, which is to be expected. I hope you too have gained an appreciation of the multi-talented musical master, Jean “Toots” Thielemans.

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