Memphis Grooves — an Interview with Brandon O. Bailey

Brandon Bailey
Brandon Bailey

While I had been aware of Brandon O. Bailey before I actually met him it was not until Memphis while I was walking through a breeze-way at my hotel that the familiar riffs of Jason Ricci’s “Snowflakes and Horses” caught my attention. In a park across from the hotel a young man sat playing a most compelling harmonica solo. Nothing doing but I had to check this out more closely. Before crossing the street to the park the familiar J. Geils “Whammer Jammer”, began followed by the Sonny Boy Williamson/Willie Dixon tune “Bye Bye Bird”. I was totally captivated as this tall, angular, handsome teenager as he shifted his effects and swung into “Billie Jean”, a Michael Jackson classic. Needless to say, that I hung around for the total performance so that I could learn more.

The following explains why Brandon has caught the attention of master harmonica players. In 2008 he rose through the ranks of several hundred contestants to make the finals of the Orpheum Star Search competition in Memphis winning it handily. The Blues Foundation has awarded scholarships to Brandon two summers in a row to assist in his further advancement and studies of the harmonica. Brandon adapted the post-modern harp-boxing style made famous by Son of Dave: blues riffs intertwined with beat-box rhythms. This brings the art form to a new level of awareness for a much younger generation of music fans. Although still in his teens, he’s already played with some of the best harmonica players and bands in the country including Adam Gussow of Satan and Adam, Jason Ricci and New Blood, Billy Gibson, Charlie Wood, and Blind Mississippi Morris. He has performed at B. B. Kings Blues Club in Memphis, The Rum Boogie Cafe, The Orpheum Theater in Memphis, TN the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival in Helena, The Mid South Fair, and the Jefferson Awards in Washington D.C.

How did you choose the harmonica, or did it choose you?

I began playing the harmonica after my grandmother told me that my great grandfather (her father) used to play harmonica train songs around the house to entertain the family. This prompted me to ask my mom to purchase a harmonica, and I started from there.

What prompted you to learn the looping technique? When did you first find out about that?

I was searching through some music videos on YouTube one day around two years ago, and somehow stumbled upon the work of a former member of “the crash test dummies” named Benjamin Darvill who now goes by the stage name Son of Dave. He was using a looping pedal to layer beat boxed grooves and bass hummed harmonies, and was playing harmonica and singing over the top. This style completely fascinated me, and I imagined that if I had a looping pedal, I would probably be able to play similar music. So fortunately some months later, I received a looping pedal from my aunt Lasonia Harris (who is also the executive producer of my album) and began studying EVERY Son of Dave video on the internet.

Jason Ricci admires what you play and I have heard you play his material. Has his Levy method had an influence on you in any way?

Although I am a HUGE fan of Howard Levy, he has never been one of my particular sound influences. The closest influential link that I have to Howard’s playing is from my friend and mentor, the late Chris Michalek. Chris was a friend of Levy’s and was one of the few master jazz harmonica players who could keep up with Levy’s technique.

When did you come under the tutelage of Adam Gussow?

I actually learned how to play from watching his series of instructional videos on We first met after I had progressed to the semi-final round of a mid-south talent competition held yearly called the Orpheum Star Search. Mr. Gussow attended that semi-final round and was became interested in my ability after seeing me play the J.Geil’s bands instrumental harmonica piece “Whammer Jammer”. When I progressed to the finale round of the competition, Mr. Gussow offered to come to Memphis to give me some stage coaching for the finals. Fortunately, the stage training worked, and I won the competition. We have been friends and he has been helping ever since.

Harp musicians are very devoted to their particular brand, and model of harmonica. Charlie Musselwhite praises Harrison harmonicas for giving him the quality he demands on the road. How did you happen to pick this manufacturer? What models do you prefer?

I was originally introduced to Harrison Harmonica’s through my friend and fellow harmonica player Jay Gaunt, who had purchased some of their customs, and is friends with the company owner, Brad Harrison. After playing his custom harmonicas for a while, Mr. Harrison informed me that he would be manufacturing his own brand of harmonicas in Chicago, and that he wanted me to be one of his endorsees. Currently, the Harrison Harmonica’s B-Radical is my favorite harmonica due to its easy of playability and workmanship. There is no other harmonica being manufactured in the United States and with such amazing quality to allow me to do what I do.

Having met both your mother and grandmother how has their role in your life with music developed.

My mother and grandmother have been the biggest supports since the very beginning. They have been through a lot because of the music I am involved in, and have invested a great deal not only financially, but of their own time, energy and patience. I am extremely thankful to them for that.

There are three of your self-penned tunes on “Memphis Grooves” as well as the covers you do. What might we expect to hear on your next album?

The next album will featured more prominent vocal arrangements, and will feature some of Memphis’s incredible live musicians as my backing. The looping will still be there, but in more of a live band context, with less emphasis on solo arrangements.

Where do you see yourself with the harmonica in four years?

It is difficult to say where I will be with the harmonica in four years, considering how much of a whirlwind journey these last 3 years have been. I never really know what is going to happen next, which keeps things very exciting for me. I do hope that my overall mastery of the harmonica will have improved, as well as knowledge of the inner workings of music and theory. It would also be a wonderful thing to have a major record deal by that time. However, in four years I am planning to be in medical school, so we will have to see how things are going with the harmonica.

You are in a select group of young men in this country right now who are perfecting their craft on the harp. You told me about being friends with Jay Gaunt. Are there other young harp musicians close to your calibre that you jam with from time to time?

As young harmonica artists, we are a very close-knit group of people. Therefore, I try to stay in contact with all of the other young players that I can find in the world. Some players of particular note in my generation include my friends Nic Clark, of Colorado, Zack Pomerleau, of Main, RJ Harman, of Florida, Zhin Wong, of Malaysia, Alex Paclin, of Russia, and LD Miller, of Indiana.

I heard that you wanted to study medicine and become a doctor. If this is true, where do you see your skills with the harmonica going? Will you continue to play and study or have it as a hobby/outlet?

My primary career goal is to become a paediatric neurologist, and I am currently a pre-med student at the University of Memphis. However, pursing music is important to as great a degree as possible without interfering with my medical training. Having heavily invested in music at this point to have it a state of being a hobby is not an option. However, during medical school I will definitely have to slow down a bit with that career.

Now you can see why I was so impressed with this young artist. We look forward to his next ‘adventure’ in music and wish him much success in life. With wonderful goals like these he is to be encouraged and congratulated. The music of tomorrow is in good hands for the next generation with forward thinking such as Brandon O. Bailey.