Benny Harp Blows People Away
You haven’t been blown away until you’ve listened to Benny Harp play harmonica and sing.
If a harmonica company would manufacture an instrument that could make anyone sound as good as Harp, it would have to be called a harpmonica.
“My grandfather, Tomas Alvarado Sr., played piano and accordion. My father, Tomas Alvarado Jr. used to fool around with a bajo sexto; and my uncle Robert Alvarado played accordion in the 1950s, so conjunto music was in my blood, but not in my calling,” Harp said during an interview at Barriba Cantina.
“I was a heavy rocker, so I learned to play guitar, but not that heavy metal crap; and in 1973, I joined Zophar Band.
It was also about this time that I had no choice but to join the Edgewood High School choir because it was either that or take typing.
“In choir, we had to do glee club stuff like sing “Ave María,’ classical and opera pieces, but you know what? I learned a lot, like how to use your diaphragm and that’s helped me to this day. Choir was good, it was great and I really got into it.
“As a member of the choir, I was required to learn some piano as part of my homework and my grandparents had a piano. One day, after practice, I saw a little harmonica on top of the piano and I was baffled because there were no kids in the house, so I asked who it belonged to. Nobody knew, so I took it home with me,” Harp said of its eerie unexplained mysterious appearance.
“I was intrigued with the different sounds and in fiddling around to learn the sounds it could produce. I really got into it, so I learned how to create different sounds before I learned how to play a tune.”
As to his stage name, he owes that to a classmate named Johnny Rubio, who the harmonica genius described as a little rocker who had a habit of writing the names of rock bands on his notebook and miscellaneous pieces of paper.
“One day he must have been out of paper because he listed a string of rock band names on my desk top and in a little corner he wrote ‘Benny Harp.’ He denied it, but the name stuck in my head. So one day after a girl heard me playing my harmonica asked for my name, I answered, ‘Benny Harp.’ From that point on, everyone called me Benny Harp.
Incidentally the dictionary defines the harmonica as a mouth organ and some synonyms are mouth harp, jaw harp, French harp and blues harp. Therefore the name fitted him to a tee.
Harp was still in school when Laurel Cruz, who went to Kennedy High School, invited him to a practice session that the Solís brothers – Albert, bass; and Dalbert, drums – were having and after hearing Harp sing, the he wound up becoming the lead vocalist for their band, Live Wire.
“Once I started singing, I put the guitar aside.”
The following year, the band lost their guitar player, broke up and Harp free lanced with different groups. Then in 1978, he started hanging out with the Pérez brothers, who through Bobby Escobedo, he had met in the past.
Henry, guitar; and Roy Pérez, bass; had a rock blues band called the Rhythm Kings and who mainly played Chicano styled blues. Through them he learned about blues artists such as Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, plus American blues harmonica icons Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter. Besides guitar, Wolf also played a mean harmonica.
By now Harp was pretty good harmonica player, so needless to say, this music was heaven sent as he set out to hone his skills and entered a new dimension.
“I really didn’t want to play harmonica, but the harmonica found me and up to now, no one knows how it got on top of my grandfather’s piano,” Harp said of the instrument that made him a star.
“Henry Pérez took me under his wing for five years during which I played and lived the blues.”
In 1986, he wed the former Elida Westcott and their marriage lasted until 2008 when she passed on and left a void in his life because she was helpful and supportive in every sense of the word.
A year later, Harp joined Danny Zertuche’s Pure Poison Blues Band in 1987 and as is the case with most local musicians, they have full-time jobs and Harp was no exception. He was a crane helper by day and a bluesman by night. His job was to navigate the crane operator from the ground. Still he was living a blissful life until 1989 when the crane operator cut into a cable. It busted, the live wire snapped, fell across Harp’s chest, electrocuted him and knocked him to the ground.
“Before that, my body was in mint shape and perhaps that’s why I lived. I don’t know how many volts or amperes went through my body and knocked me to the ground, but I was barely conscious and up to this day, I still have some nerve damage,” Harp said as he showed this writer the large scars on his left arm.”
Barely able to walk, it took Harp years to recuperate. Thus it took him years out of his beloved music. Meanwhile the company took care of his expenses and once he got back to normal the first band I joined was Charlie (Cruz) and the Cool Cats.
“In 1997, Zertuche called me for a 10-year reunion and the Pure Poison Blues Band came together again. A couple of years later Tony Cuellar took over it changed its name to Blues Land,” Harp continued.
“Danny Salinas, a former bass player with The Lavells, and Richard San Miguel, a really polished guitar player who is well known in old school music circles had the Beta Blues Bland, were looking for a front guy and I joined their band.”
In 2004, he finally went solo when the Beta Blues Band became the Benny Harp Blues Band and he went on to be known everywhere. His “Sold My Soul” compact disc was released to rave reviews in 2008 and the fact is that one of the testimonials, which could almost fill an entire newspaper page, elevated Harp to international status.
Tunes in the CD convey his inner feeling, great story telling and spiritually. To date, Harp will not reveal his real name, but buy the CD and check out the songwriter credits for this top secret.
The cumulative result is that in 2010 he performed in California with Joey Fender and The 55’s; and in New York City with The Krayolas after he recorded five songs in their “Tipsy Topsy Curvy” CD. He also recorded a CD and performed with Augie Meyers.
This is the same year, he met Nancy Clauss, a classy lady who knows a lot about music and that he considers his soul mate.
Jack Barber on bass, Rene “Mad-Dawg” López on drums plus Danny Aaron and Greg Galindo Jr. alternating on guitar make up the rest of the band.
There’s a strong possibility of a new CD release on Joe Treviño’s Tarantula Records, but meanwhile our readers can enjoy seeing the Benny Harp in action when they perform every Tuesday from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. at Barriba Cantina on the Riverwalk.
Other opportunity to see Harp in October are as follows, the 11th with the Krayolas at the Arneson River Theater, on the 20th at Somebody’s Bar off Rigsby Avenue, on the 21st at the Musicians for Veterans Patio Andaluz Reunion, El Final, at 8 p.m. at Plaza Guadalupe and on the 27th with Augie Meyers at a Sunken Gardens blues show.
If you’re curious and can’t wait to see and hear Harp perform, check out his many videos on www.youtube.com. For bookings or to buy his CD, call Harp at (210) 430-6314.