Michigan harmonica legend Peter ‘Madcat’ Ruth has long graced stages with his instrumental prowess. Today, he reveals the albums that forever altered his life.
EDITOR’S NOTE: All musicians can trace their inspiration to key recordings that captivated them and influenced their careers. Writer Ross Boissoneau today showcases recordings that changed the world for Ann Arbor harmonica icon Peter “Madcat” Ruth. Scroll down for a Spotify playlist of his picks as well as tracks of his own.
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Peter “Madcat” Ruth has been playing the harmonica for more than five decades, though it wasn’t his first instrument.
“I still play guitar, but in every band I was in there was a better guitar player,” he says with a laugh. “I’m very competent. But I only do it solo with guitar and harmonica.”
That’s because he’s become known worldwide for his harmonica playing in virtually all styles. He first came to prominence with Chris Brubeck’s band New Heavenly Blue, then joined Chris’ brother Darius’ band, the Darius Brubeck Ensemble. That became Dave Brubeck’s backup band, and he toured with that group for five years in the ’70s.
Since then, the Ann Arbor resident has played with blues, rock and funk bands, symphonies, and in radio and television advertisements. He still plays with Chris Brubeck’s Triple Play and the world/improvisational C.A.R.Ma Quartet. His harmonica playing can be heard on more than 100 recordings and instructional DVDs.
On April 19, The C.A.R.Ma Quartet plays a Ukraine Relief Benefit at The Ark, the same venue where Ruth will join Luke Winslow-King and Roberto Luti for a performance on June 10. He also teaches harmonica classes for the Wheatland Music Organization.
1. Junior Wells’ Chicago Blues Band, “Hoodoo Man Blues” (1965)– About 1965, I bought “Hoodoo Man Blues” by Junior Wells. That knocked my socks off. Junior and Buddy Guy. I played it over and over and over. I’d already been listening to some other blues, mostly acoustic/folk blues, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. When I heard Sonny I said, “Oh my god, I have to do that.” The first three years (of playing harmonica) I only listened to Sonny. Then I got this. Junior Wells was so different, so modern. I loved the sound of the amplified harmonica. After that I started listening to Little Walter, Big Walter Horton, James Cotton, Paul Butterfield.
Listen: “Snatch It Back and Hold It”
2. Charlie McCoy, “The Real McCoy” (1968) – Then I got “The Real McCoy” by Charlie McCoy. He was a Nashville session player. It was another mind-blowing experience. I was only listening to electric or acoustic blues. His approach was very different. Clearer in a way. Chicago blues was known for its gritty sound. Charlie’s was clean lines, linear, controlled, precise. It was a great learning experience of how to play in different contexts. During the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s there was a lot (of harmonica) in country music. It was all Charlie. I was fortunate to get to know him.
Listen: “The Real McCoy”
3. Jimi Hendrix, “Electric Ladyland” (1968) – He was a huge influence as well. He was based in the blues, but took it to a different place. It was electric, wild distortion. I still played/play guitar. He was such an amazing player, and he wrote those great songs. I wasn’t trying to play guitar like him, I was trying to play harmonica.
Listen: “All Along the Watchtower”
Currently Loving: Music from the ’20s, ’30s to ’40s – For my own enjoyment it’s almost always something from the ’20s or ’30s. I love Jimmy Rogers. From the ’40s to later to Hank Williams. All the old guys, Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers. It’s like it you trace things back, “What did that person listen to?” They were really influential. They set the template for all the musicians who followed. Henry Thomas: He influenced people like Taj Mahal, and I love Taj Mahal. He played guitar and blues pan pipes in a rack.
Listen: Charlie Poole, “Milwaukee Blues”
ALBUMS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD: Peter Madcat Ruth’s Playlist on Spotify
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