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Music Chair Blows his Sabbatical

Shirley EP Furthers the Harmonica Conversation

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Sound Recording Technology department Chairman John Shirley created a five-song recording of harmonica music during his fall semester sabbatical.

By David Perry

As much as any musician, John Shirley knows that imitation can flatter. He could have easily cranked out an ode to Junior Wells or blown his face off, a la Magic Dick of the J. Geils Band. 

But Shirley loves innovation. So the chair of the Sound Recording Technology program used his fall semester sabbatical to compose, produce, record and mix the five tracks that comprise “Not So Blue,” a harmonica recording that blows the dust from the hand-held instrument.

“Three years ago at Christmas, my wife got me a three-pack of harmonicas as a gift,” says Shirley. He was immediately drawn to the instrument. “The portability of it, the diatonic nature of it, I had wanted to pick it up and start.” With the harmonica he could bend notes and growl them out and toy with technique and timbre.

“I’d had one as a kid,” he recalls. “But I never really tried to do much with it.”

But this time was different. Among those he studied with was Howard Levy, the Grammy-winning harmonica wizard who helped found Bela Fleck & the Flecktones and has played on hundreds of albums. Shirley got to know Levy during Levy’s October 2013 visit to campus for three days of workshops and a special concert. Taking harmonica lessons from Levy was “sort of like starting cello lessons with Yo Yo Ma,” Shirley notes.

Besides Levy, he also studied with three other modern harmonica stars – Jason Ricci, Dennis Gruenling and David Barrett, blues and swing-blues players. While learning from the accomplished musicians, he found a community of folks with rock star abilities who didn’t seek the spotlight. 

The more he studied and played, the more Shirley realized that there were more than enough folks playing the blues at a level he may never reach. 

“In the end, if I’m going to do something before my sabbatical is over,” he reasoned, “I’d better do what I can do, write it and play it and record it.”

He came up with five songs that comprise “Not So Blue,” melding blues rock, progressive, metal, a sitar-heavy ballad and Bestie & Other Delusions, the humorous finale. Not only does Shirley play everything but drums, he sings with authority, too. 

“Not So Blue” is available for free via YouTube and available ibn iTunes and CD Baby for those who wish for higher quality files. Shirley is considering making a CD version.