Blues lovers who missed harmonicist and singer Steve Guyger at the recent Blue, Brews, and Barbecue Bash (at the Ewing Elks Club) can make up time with a quick summer night drive to Doylestown (Thursday, July 23) or Dunellen (Friday, July 24) to hear the legendary musician. He likens being a professional blues harmonica player to being a professional jazz singer: You have to be open to new groups and venues and invest years of living day-to-day and dollar-to-dollar to get established and get a name.
This has certainly been the case for Guyger, a Trenton-area bluesman who in 1971 left Bucks County Community College after a year to jump into the life of being a full-time traveling musician.
Guyger grew up in Lower Southampton Township in Bucks County, just across the bridge from Trenton, where he still lives. In the last 20 years he has transitioned from strong regional act to national and international act, taking his suitcase of harmonicas to far-flung places like Norway, Austria, other parts of Europe, Brazil, and to West Coast blues festivals and festivals and clubs from Maine to Florida.
Asked about his first awareness of blues, Guyger credits PBS-TV and a concert documentary with B.B. King and T-Bone Walker for first sparking his interest in the music when he was a teenager.
“The first thing I saw was B.B. King playing for a PBS show, I think it was on his birthday, at Newport, and years later I got to see that same documentary again and realized it was [influential] guitarist T-Bone Walker playing with him,” Guyger says by phone from Maine, where he was visiting his brother and sister-in-law. He got his first harmonica as a gift in 1969 when he was 17, from the same sister-in-law.
“I played a little bit of guitar, good but not great, and I was always interested in music,” he explains, adding, “there wasn’t that much blues being played on the radio, and the Bucks County Blues Society didn’t come into existence until later.”
He began messing around with harmonica, playing along with old blues LPs he found, and in 1971 met John Gunning, who had a fabulous collection of blues LPs.
“The first night I went to hang out with him he was pumping gas on Route 1 at a Hess station. He went back to his house and brought a portable radio-cassette player back. That was my first year of college, and I heard cassettes of Little Walter and all these other people. John turned me on to Little Walter but also other harmonica players like George Smith, Rod Piazza, Paul Butterfield, Sonny Boy, Howlin’ Wolf. I didn’t know much about any of these guys, so a whole world just opened up in front of me.”
Guyger, the youngest of three brothers, was raised in lower Bucks by a Maine-raised public school teacher mother and a father who worked as a draftsman at a facility that made Amtrak trains. His decision to leave college after a year hurt his mother initially, he recalls, but when she saw the kind of success he was having playing music for a living, she was supportive of his decision.
From 1971 through 1973 Guyger continued his education with blues and jumped in a van with a funk band from Trenton, Progressive Funk. He began singing as well as playing harmonica shortly after joining his first band, which stayed busy playing clubs in the Bucks County-Trenton-Princeton corridor.
“I got to see Howlin’ Wolf [Chester Burnett, who died in 1976] for the first time in 1973, at a little place on 5th and South Street in Philly called Grendel’s Lair. He was there for a week and had Detroit Junior on piano, Hubert Sumlin on guitar, S.P. Leary on drums, Eddie Shaw on sax.” Guyger rattles off all the players in Wolf’s band at that time like it was yesterday.
In 1975 Guyger met up with Brooklyn-based harmonica player Paul Oscher, who lived and played with influential bluesman Muddy Waters for several years in Chicago in the late 1960s.
“I also met [harmonicist and guitarist] Richie Yescalis, and a year later, we went out to Chicago together for three weeks,” he says. There they learned first-hand from the masters of contemporary urban electric blues, harmonica players Big Leon Brooks, Walter “Shakey” Horton, Junior Wells, and pianist Sunnyland Slim.
By 1976 Guyger was a serious student and historian of urban blues. He knew by that point he most wanted to play with Chicago blues guitarist Jimmy Rogers, later brought into the national spotlight via recordings with Keith Richards and other members of the Rolling Stones. “The whole sound that Muddy and Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter [Jacobs] were putting down from the late 1940s to the early 1960s — that was it. They really changed the course of music. They were something to be recognized,” he says.
A turning point in Guyger’s career happened when he began playing with Rogers in Boston in 1980, with a group called the Excellos, a band name he still uses today. Ola Dixon, a Bronx-based African-American woman drummer, a rare thing in those days, played drums with the group. Guyger made several East Coast and Midwest tours with Rogers and with Dixon on drums.
“We traveled up and down the East Coast with Jimmy Rogers in 1980, and that’s really when my career began to take off,” says Guyger. “In 1981 I booked Jimmy into J.C. Dobbs, a club in Philadelphia, and that really got us a lot of attention. I would do most of the front work and singing before Jimmy would get on stage. I did it just to get us some gigs and didn’t know it was going to make a huge splash for me, because we became hugely popular after that and it kind of changed the course of things for us. We made some recordings from those shows, and I’m planning on eventually putting it out on LP.”
Since his time on the road with Rogers and his bands, Guyger has mostly fronted his own band, the Excellos, and has recorded several critically acclaimed albums on compact disc for Severn Records, a Maryland-based independent record company. He’s also made short tours with Big Bill Morganfield, Muddy Waters’ son, and Chicago blues guitarist and singer John Primer.
Guyger’s latest recording is “Radio Blues” on the Severn Records label, and many of the original songs on that album break new thematic ground in the idiom.
Asked where he’d like to be in five or ten years, Guyger said he’d like to be doing just what he has been doing for the last 20 years, touring internationally and finding new clubs closer to home in Philadelphia, Bucks County, Mercer County, and around the rest of New Jersey and in New York City.
“A lot of clubs have just disappeared over the years, and you just have to find new venues to play in,” says Guyger, who is single with no kids. “I’ve been pretty much married to the music for the last 35 years. I just want to be able to continue to do what I’ve been doing in the next 10 years.”
Harp Showdown, Puck, 1 Printers Alley, Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Thursday, July 23, 8 p.m. $12. Guyger performs with New Jersey-based harpist Dennis Gruenling and his band, Doug Deming and the Jewel Tones. www.pucklive.com.
Harp Showdown, Roxy and Duke’s Roadhouse, 745 Bound Brook Road, Dunellen. Friday, July 24, 9:30 p.m. $10 cover. www.roxyanddukes.com.
For more on Steve Guyger and his upcoming New York City shows, go to steveguyger.com.