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What's New: Will Scarlett Interview

David Barrett Admin's picture

Harmonica player Will Scarlett has been described as outstanding, original, cosmic, visionary, unconventional and pioneering. Since the mid-1960s, Will Scarlett has played with a wide range of musicians and in a host of different musical styles. He collaborated regularly with guitar virtuoso Steve Mann and toured with folk blues master Brownie McGhee. He recorded with Hot Tuna (an offshoot of the Jefferson Airplane), the bluegrass group Old and in the Way, legendary guitarist Dave Bromberg, folksinger Rosalie Sorrels, mandolinist and composer David Grisman and guitar singer cult hero Jerry Garcia. He has performed with Zydeco accordion players Clifton Chenier, Andre Carriere, Andre Thierry, and Buckwheat Zydeco and French-Boss Nova-Latin-Jazz-Folk guitarist Albert Benichou, among others.

Born in New Hampshire in 1948 and raised since the age of 2 in Berkeley, CA, He played bugle in elementary school and trombone in junior high school, and sang in a church choir. Harmonica playing took the front seat sometime during high school and has been driving ever since. Will’s musical career took off in 1966 when he hooked up with Dan Paik, Carlin Arriola, “Dynamite” Annie Johnson, Hank Bradley, Phil Marsh, and Richard Saunders to form the Cleanliness (is Next to) Godliness Skiffle Band. They served as the house band for the legendary Jabberwock Club in Berkeley (predecessor to the now famous Freight and Salvage). At the time, Will was the live-in janitor for the Jaberwock and Dan Paik was the club’s manager. A “freight train” style rhythm harmonica player, Will credits Dan with teaching him 12-bar blues.

In the crazy heat of 1967, Will Scarlett played the Berkeley Folk Festival at the Greek Theater with the Skiffle Band. The following year, Scarlett accompanied Brownie McGhee on a six-week tour of eastern Canada (filling in for the ailing Sonny Terry). Will’s fond memories of the tour include a show at Le Hibou that was filmed by the CBC and a chance to play “Blackwater Blues” with Brownie and Lonnie Johnson. Returning to the Bay Area, Will was asked by Jorma Kaukonen to play and record with him and Jack Cassady during twelve consecutive shows at New Orleans House in Berkeley. Will’s harmonica graces the first two Hot Tuna albums, where he can be heard overblowing a single G Hohner Navy Band harmonica in all keys.

Will played on Dave Bromberg’s first two albums (the song “Delia’s Gone” is a particular beauty). On folksinger Rosalie Sorrels’ album “Traveling Lady,” Will played “Lovin’ of the Game” in the key of A Flat on his G harmonica. He appeared with the band Old and in the Way at the Keystone in Berkeley, and provided harmonica on their soundtrack to the Angie Dickenson film “Big, Bad Mama.”

The years have brought gigs and collaborations with blues, jazz, folk, bluegrass, rock, traditional and old time musicians too numerous to list. Among those highlights, Will had the opportunity to sit in and play with musicians Rev. Gary Davis, Doc Watson, Lonnie Johnson, Doug Kirshaw and many others.

Reading Helmholtz’s “On The Sensations of Tone” led Will to explore music science and the system of tuning known as just intonation. Which in turn, prompted Will to study with composer, theorist and eccentric musician Harry Parch at UCSD. (A note to the musically literate: Parch’s instruments included the 11th and 13th harmonics, a tuning that Will applied to his G harmonica in ’72).

Will is always happy to share his experiences and pass forward his knowledge. In 1973, he helped lead a songwriting workshop at the Berkeley Blues festival with T-Bone Walker and Luther Allison. As recently as 2009, he took part in workshops with Joe Filisko at the SPAH (Society for the Preservation and Advancement of Harmonica) Convention. Today, Will teaches harmonica by appointment, records with a variety of musicians, and performs throughout the Bay Area.

Videos Include: Early Years, Part 1; Early Years, Part 2; Discovering Overbends, Part 1; Playing with Hot Tuna; Will’s Hand and Mic Usage; Will’s Third Reed Design; Overbends, Part 2; Tongue Blocking and Bending; Positions and Tuning; Closing; Bonus Footage: Brownie McGhee Story