She has been called "one of the world's leading female Blues harmonica players." A moniker not easily labeled to someone who has been in the music business for only ten years or so. But when you hear Geneva Red's style and grace on the instrument you immediately know why the reviews have been so kind. Just by hearing her play you feel she's not only paid her dues on the circuit, but has also educated herself in the tradition of so many great harp players who have come and gone before her. Heroes like Sonny Boy I and II, Slim Harpo, Little Walter and DeFord Bailey.
Born in a small town in Illinois, Geneva was raised in a show biz environment. Her parents operated a theatre troupe where she began performing at a young age. It was during those early years that Geneva honed her skills in front of an audience. By the time she graduated high school already a seasoned stage performer, she still had not found the blues . Not until she attended the Chicago Blues Festival did she know where her destiny would lead her. There the blues did something to her that it has done to so many others -- it changed her life. Some unknown reason had driven her to the harmonica, and the first time she played the thing she nearly injured her lungs. From there on out she practiced and listened to the great recordings from the older veterans of harp and finally began finding her own tone and style.
In 1996 the small label Spank Money recorded two songs performed by her and her band the Roadsters, and placed them on a cassette of various artists entitled "Stateline Blues Volume 1." It was in 1997 that Full Cyrkle Records took over, recording a 45-rpm record of the same two songs that were on the Stateline project. "Red's Tea." and Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me to Do." Full Cyrkle also stood behind her on her first two CD recordings entitled "Alley Ways" in 1997 and "In the Red" in 2000. On that second CD Red had Sam Carr on drums and Memphis great Floyd Murphy on guitar. Her newest CD entitled "Gettin' Cocky" on Bottle Cap records has been getting great reviews from all over. Even Europe has caught on to Red's performance. Her energetic stage presence and interaction with the audience have also earned rave reviews. Now that she works the circuit in full swing her fans and critics have been good to her.
Residing in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Red has been playing the upper Midwest as well as the Mississippi Delta region. Some of her better known venues other than the famous blues clubs of Chicago include the Chicago Blues Festival, Chicago's House of Blues, The King Biscuit Festival and the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in Clarksdale, MS. She has found a love in the more contemporary sounds of players like Jerry Portnoy, James Harman, and Billy Boy Arnold who have all been wonderful inspirations to her. Her biggest pet peeve is trying to get club owners and promoters to take her seriously. She can and does hold her own along side male performers, and has been getting the recognition she deserves by performing with a long list of veteran musicians helping to boost her reputation as a no nonsense harp player.
She currently works two performance outlets. One being her duo dubbed The Original Delta Fireballs Juke Band in which she and long-time guitarist for the Roadsters Jackie "5 & Dime" Wolworth plays a style they refer to as "Juke Joint Music." Jackie plays guitar, bass drum and cymbal in the same traditional manner as the one-man bands of Beale Street Memphis and Chicago's Maxwell Street. Her four piece band the Roadsters include Jackie "5 & Dime" on guitar, and Snapper Mitchum and David "Tu Sweet" Anderson on bass and drums respectively. Both of whom worked with Son Seals at one time. She also signed on guitar great Jimmy Johnson to play on the Gettin' Cocky CD as well.
We at Big City Rhythm & Blues invited Geneva to answer our interview questions about the music and instrument she dearly loves, and here's what she had to say.
-What kind of harp do you use?
I endorse Hohner harmonicas and I use their Special 20s, Marine Bands, 64 Chromonica's and Chromonica 270s.
-Your hero of the harp?
I have many there's not just one. They're all the usual suspects; Sonny Boy I, Big and Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, George Harmonica Smith, and a few others that have influence me are DeFord Bailey, Frank Frost and Billy Bizor. Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II) played great harp, sang really well, had a great way of interpreting a song and was an incredible songwriter. I've done an homage on each of my CD's to one of my favorite harp players and on the new CD, ironically, I did one for Rice Miller called Who's that Lurkin'. Some players I enjoy listening to today are James Harman, Jerry Portnoy, Kim Wilson, Paul Oscher, Mark Hummel, and Norton Buffalo. I've really been diggin' Norton lately.
-Do you play any other instruments?
No, one's enough for me. I feel trying to learn more than one instrument would distract me from learning all I can about the harp. It still holds my attention and keeps me interested every time I pick it up.
-Who gave you your first harmonica?
Actually it was my guitarist Jackie "5 & Dime" Wolworth who gave me my first harp. Years ago he worked for my folks' musical theatre company and he knew I had an interest in blues harmonica, so he offered me an old Hohner he had lying around.
-Who gave you your first lesson?
In the beginning I was able to pick up a lot on my own from records. I think my personal style of phrasing has been most influenced by guitar players. Working with guys like Jimmy Johnson, Floyd Murphy, John Primer, Phil Guy, and my guitarist 5 & Dime, has given me some of my most valued insights. Early on though, I had a chance to talk "shop" with Sugar Blue. I was one of the performers at the Memorial Tribute for Junior Wells at Rosa's in Chicago, and I'll never forget, I'd just gotten my Fender Bassman amp and Sugar Blue asked me if he could use it on his set. Afterwards we were at the bar talking and before we knew it we looked around and we were the last ones there and still talkin' shop. His advise was important and it meant a lot to me at that time. Another fine harp playing friend of mine, Mr. Downchild, kindly gave me some good tips on my equipment back then too. Thanks Steve.
-Favorite harp song?
Can't really think of one in particular, there are so many, but I do enjoy performing the song My Tribute to DeFord (Bailey) off my second CD In The Red. DeFord's style incorporated a lot of fun things and I enjoy trying to recreate those sounds.
-Do you have a name for your harp?
Well there's Ab, A, Bb, B, C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, F# , and oh yeah, I can't forget "Big G". Ha, ha, I'm just kidding. No, I don't name my harps.
-If your harmonica could talk what would it say?
Was it good for you?