The Blues From Both Sides


By Coy Hurd

“All the mighty oaks are falling, like victims of a cross-cut saw…” Mark Sallings, 1992

Many of us lost a good friend on Feb. 25. The Blues Scene in the Natural State will never be the same since Mark Sallings left the building. He will certainly be missed.
It is really impossible to reflect on the music of Mark Sallings and the Famous Unknowns without considering the continually compelling influence that the harmonica had on Mark’s life. He was argumentatively one of the best blues harp players on the planet. He studied it on a fundamental level, taught it at Memphis State, and even won a Grammy for his mastery of this very versatile blues machine. Mark was able to explain the basic mathematical secrets of the harp as well as the raw emotional impact that it has held on many generations, from the Delta cotton patches to the sophisticated salons of New York City.
The harmonica was at the center of one of Mark’s first memories. Among his first recollections was sitting on the knee of Ronnie Hawkins (the Fayetteville patron saint) while Ronnie played the harp and sparked Mark’s aunt, Joy Sue. Ronnie and Joy Sue were babysitting Mark at his grandmother’s home in Combs, while his mother went for a swim in the White River. Hawkins’ early tutoring started the boy on a lifelong road of playing his brand of the blues for many diverse audiences.
Mark recalled Benny Goodman as another strong influence. Before Goodman became a big band star, his hot combo included such greats as Count Basie and Lionel Hampton. His father’s old records planted in Mark a blue note that was bent through Bennie Goodman’s clarinet.
At age 10, Mark played his first song in public (“St. Louis Blues”). In the seventh grade, Mark was invited to play with a group of older boys in the local talent contest. He had been playing the sax for two weeks. His band won the show and that was his start in show business.
Like most of the truly authentic blues players, Mark’s epiphany came in a Delta cotton field one summer, or rather in his efforts to escape it. In the 1960s at age 15, he found out that he could make more money chopping saxophone in the Newport bars than he could by chopping cotton in the dusty, hot fields of nearby Woodruff County. At that point he put down his hoe for good.
While playing at the original Porky’s Rooftop and other beer joints around Newport, he was exposed to the more primal blues strains of Howlin’ Wolf and Lightin’ Hopkins. That revelation made the connection that seemed to explain to him the genesis of those more refined chops played by Goodman and company. One can still hear both of these perspectives in Mark’s recordings.
Later, Mark left college to embark on a lifelong odyssey of making music a full-time profession. Before long he was a serious player in the Memphis sphere of influence. He never looked back and gave his concentrated focus to the blues and the musician’s life in a four-piece road band.
Mark Sallings and the Famous Unknowns released four CDs: “Up Close and Personal” (1992), “Let It Be Known” (1995), “Talking to Myself” (1998), and the prophetic “Temporary Life” (2008). Mark had recently recorded for two other artists: Ruby Wilson’s “Show You a Good Time” and Jim Dickinson’s “Jungle Jim and the Voodoo Tigers.”
Mark’s abilities on the harp really had to be seen and heard to be appreciated, and blues aficionados who had the chance to catch him in concert were indeed lucky to hear his blues from both sides. Mark, from all of your friends, thank you so much for all you did and for the righteous blues that you left behind.

Bending The Notes
Mark approached the harmonica seriously, not as a novelty, and from a horn player’s point of view. Here’s his explanation of his technique.
“If you have an A harmonica, it is designed to be played in that key. All of the notes of an A major scale are in it. If you blow on the harp, you will get an evenly set up chord in that key. The notes of the draw side will be the five-chord of what is stamped on the harmonica, so if you have an A harmonica and draw on the bottom end of it, you get a B chord. But after the first four holes, the way the cross cord (the E) is set up, inherently, you have a ninth chord.
“The harp is set up to play songs like ‘Oh Susanna’. But when the blues players started looking for a sound to get out of it, they realized that here’s a big, sweet sounding ninth chord that will come out of this thing too, so they started picking around trying to find the notes that would allow them to play blues melodies based on that chord instead of the major chord that it was meant to be played in.
“The problem is that there are some notes that are not there, so you work around them and you bend notes that will bend to try to achieve those notes that are not there. For instance, there is no major seventh in the middle of a harmonica. You can make one on the 2 hole drawing; you can bend it a half step down and you get a major seventh. On the top end (on hole 9) you can bend the blow-note a half step down and you have a major seventh.
“What I figured out is that there is one place where you can make part of the five chord for E (in hole 4 drawing) which would be a B. I use that and it is one of the things that seems to baffle people. Also, you can play octaves. In an A chord, you can play the two E’s by blocking the two notes between them, and you’ve got a big fat octave.”

Categories: Music