You heard Sugar Blue's harmonica on the Rolling Stones hit "Miss You." Now you can hear him Monday at Jazz Alley, in Seattle.
The blues harmonica player Sugar Blue is perhaps best and least known for his contribution to rock ‘n’ roll — the defiant and despondent solo he played on the Rolling Stones hit “Miss You.” That point was made by Blue’s own brother and his reaction to the song, which was a No. 1 hit in 1978.
“I knew the song was a monster hit,” said Blue, who was playing and living in Paris at the time, “when my little brother, who was living in the heart of Harlem, called me and told me ‘It’s the jam!’ My little brother was nothing but Motown, period. He had no idea it was me on the song. He said, ‘Man, you have to hear this harmonica player!’ I was just laughing my [butt] off.”
Sugar Blue, who will make a rare Seattle appearance Monday night when he performs at Jazz Alley, went on to record three albums with the Rolling Stones: “Some Girls,” “Emotional Rescue” and “Tattoo You.” The collaboration both helped make his legend and threatened to obscure him, so after several years as a sideman for the group, he left, following the advice of his longtime mentor, the late blues pianist Memphis Slim.
“He told me, ‘Well, son, if I were you, and you were my age, I’d sit on my laurels and just stay here (in Paris), make little gigs and do sessions, but since you are a young man and still have a lot to learn, I would suggest that you go and hang out with people like Big Walter and Junior Wells and James Cotton. They’re not going to be around forever, and you will learn more from listening to them than you will ever understand from a record.’
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“Two weeks later,” Blue said, “I was gone.”
Having tasted a bit of rock stardom, Sugar Blue — he took the nickname from the Sidney Bechet song “Sugar Blues” — grew to understand that he had a larger mission for his instrument and for the kind of music he played, Chicago blues.
The harmonica has few true virtuosos, but Blue, 61, is one. He plays with a velocity and range that makes you regard very differently what the humble harmonica is capable of. His solos are technically sophisticated, probably owing to his early immersion in bebop, yet equally wild and unpredictable. At times, Blue’s harmonica can sound like an electric guitar.
Blue, who will play many songs from his 2010 album, “Threshold,” Monday night, is neither from Chicago (he grew up in Harlem) nor does he live there now (he resides in Memphis, not far from Graceland). He has probably played more in Europe, where he tours regularly, than in America.
He was born James Whiting; his mother was a singer and dancer who worked at the famous Apollo Theater. The music that surrounded him early in life was mostly jazz. He was particularly drawn to tenor saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Lester Young. He played the saxophone and dabbled on other instruments, like the guitar, violin and flute, but “the harmonica spoke to me,” Blue said.
He moved to Paris in the 1970s, also on Slim’s advice, becoming part of the American jazz and blues scene there.
He recalled playing in one particular jam session in a Paris nightclub with Ray Brown, Dexter Gordon, B.B. King and Ray Charles until 2 a.m.
Blue was not discovered by the Rolling Stones, as some stories have suggested, busking in the Paris Metro. A business associate of Mick Jagger’s heard Blue play at a party and later gave his phone number to Jagger.
“Mick called me,” Blue said. “I thought it was my friends pulling my leg. I thought, ‘Sure, right, whatever.’ But I thought, what the hell, I’ll go find out anyway.”
Hugo Kugiya: email@example.com