Mark Hummel and his Blues Survivors
By Phil Reser
Story by Phil Reser
Photos courtesy of Mark Hummel
LONG-TIME BANDLEADER, Mark Hummel recalls taking up an interest in blues harp and rock-blues music while in high school. “I listened to Jimi (Hendrix), Cream, Big Brother and The Holding Company, Blue Cheer, all those blues-based bands of the ‘60s,” says Hummel, a Grammy nominated blues music award-winning harmonica player, vocalist and songwriter. “Those guys were riffing on the original songs only I didn’t realize it until I looked at the writer credits. That’s when I really got interested in the blues.”
He checked out blues albums at the library. “Once I got hold of the originals, they made the rock versions seem a whole lot less to me,” he says. “I think the originals just have more power. All of a sudden a whole new world opened up for me.”
Hummel invested time into playing the harp and started playing the instruments in bands when he was about 14. “I got hooked up with all kinds of different blues folks,” he says. “It was an exciting time because blues was still blues in the ghetto clubs in Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond. I was usually only one of maybe a couple of white guys in there playing those joints; it was an exciting time for the blues.”
At age 18, he decided to pursue a career in blues music and started his band, the Blues Survivors, in 1977.
By 1984, he began a life of one-stop touring of the United States, Canada and Europe, sharing the stage with the likes of Charles Brown, Charlie Musselwhite, Lazy Lester, Brownie McGhee, Eddie Taylor and Jimmy Rogers.
With more than 30 blues recordings, including the Grammy-nominated 2013 release “Remembering Little Walter,” Hummel is considered one of the premier blues harmonica players of his generation.
“I’ve always tried to do a cross section of tempos and styles in my music – fast songs, slow songs, medium ones, rhumbas, boogaloos, shuffles, flat tires, Chicago Blues, West Coast Jump, Texas Blues Swing, New Orleans R&B, country delta blues, soul music and some funky beats thrown in here and there,” he says.
He put together the first Blues Harmonica Blowout in 1991 at Ashkenaz, a live music and dance venue in Berkeley. Each player performed a 20- to 30-minute set and everyone jammed together with Hummel’s Blues Survivor band backing them up. “We had about 200 people show up for the first event. You never heard much blues harp on the radio back then, except maybe Blues Traveler, who weren’t exactly blues.”
Over the next five years, the Blowout grew to become a multi-venue event around California. By 2000, it was headlining Yoshi’s in Oakland as a four-night show with Rod Piazza, Kim Wilson, Rick Estrin, James Harman and Billy Branch.
The 2019 Annual Blues Harmonica Blowout (28th year) is headlined by Bobby Rush, the 2017 Grammy winner for Best Traditional Blues Album; Grammy-nominated Kenny Neal; Alabama harp-man/vocalist/songwriter James Harman; New Orleans favorite Johnny Sansone; and Mark Hummel’s Golden State Lone Star Blues Revue, featuring Anson Funderburg.
About his more than 40 years in the music business, Hummel says, “I try to follow the older black bluesmen’s example: Just play the blues and everything else will usually work out. If it doesn’t, put it in a song. To me, the blues is a long, hard road and nobody said it would be easy, make you a lot of money, super stardom or anything else. All I ever wanted was to make an OK living at this. The blues is experience in life, through hard times and good times – you can’t play or sing
without both. You have to have struggled in some way. I’m always trying to improve myself and make peace with myself and others.
The blues can do that through understanding. It’s certainly what the older African American greats were singing about when they said, ‘Times Won’t Be Hard Always’ or ‘The Sun’s Gonna Shine In My Backdoor Someday’.”
Mark Hummel’s 2019 Annual Blues Harmonica Blowout:
Tuesday, January 15th, Sierra Nevada Brewery in Chico
Wednesday, January 16th, Cascade Theater in Redding