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For your holiday pleasure, may we recommend this album of Christmas standards rendered by the great Music Maker artist Cool John Ferguson? A quiet record of Christmas tunes played as guitar instrumentals. Perfect for family gatherings and for quiet groups of friends.
Learn more about John and hear more of his music:

UPDATE: Earlier this week, Sugar Harp lost his harmonicas and performance gear in a burglary. In emergency situations like these, Music Maker steps up to get artists what they need and get them to the gig. Donate to Music Maker to help artists like Sugar Harp. Thank you:…/music…/donation.jsp
By Gabi Mendick
When Charles Burroughs was only 8 years old in Tampa, Florida, his peers picked him on because of a speech impediment. To avoid their incessant bullying, Charles chose not to speak at all. Over a much needed summer break, Charles went to visit his great-grandfather in Plains, Georgia, a musician who simultaneously blew harp and strummed a handmade guitar formed from an orange crate and broomsticks. That summer, Charles’ great-grandfather gave him a harmonica and told him, “I want you to take this harmonica and tell the world how you feel.”
If you witness what Charles describes as his “down in the gutter, back alley, storytelling blues” today, you’ll know he has learned to use the harmonica to tell the world how he feels. In the 65 years since he first picked up the instrument, he has more than earned his moniker, Sugar Harp.
Sugar Harp’s music is all his own, and in his songs you can feel the places he’s been. In 1969, Sugar was hanging with Jimi Hendrix at the Fillmore East and hitched a ride to Woodstock on a whim. The following year, he was drafted into the Air Force and began serving in the 56th Fighter Wing in Vietnam. His experiences from New York to Vietnam, the partying and the struggling, shape Sugar’s character and his music.
But a year and a half ago, new Music Maker partner artist Sugar Harp found himself sugarless and harpless. On November 26, 2019, driving his van — packed with all of his treasured belongings, including his harmonicas — through his current hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, Sugar Harp noticed a driver in another vehicle motioning to him frantically. Sugar’s van was becoming engulfed in flames. Moments later, Sugar acted on instinct, jumping out of the moving vehicle and rolling on the ground to extinguish the fire that had spread and caught onto his jacket. Sugar was completely distraught, and soon thereafter, when the pandemic hit, he worried he might be done playing the harmonica for good.
But a year and a half later, with the help of a few friends, Sugar had a new ride, a set of harmonicas, and an optimistic attitude. He joined Music Maker in Birmingham in May to play a few songs and is now recording a new album in Huntsville, Alabama, with three local players: Music Maker Blues Revue bandleader, producer and drummer Ardie Dean, guitarist Microwave Dave and bass player T. Bone Burnett. Upon first introductions back in May, Sugar seemed like a wise, reserved, wordly professor. He came prepared to record wearing a suit and tie and — as Music Maker Executive Director Tim Duffy described it — “a dreadlock down to his belly button in the front and down to his big toe in the back.”
Despite his quiet demeanor, once you get Sugar started talking or singing, his passion and joy for the music is clear. Sugar has a way with words in his songs: His original lyrics are a little raunchy, full of innuendo, but always clever. He guides listeners to draw their own conclusions, never going outright X-rated, just keeping his shows technically family-friendly and keeping the audience cracking up.
Sugar recalls stepping on stage for a gig where he had been directed not to play his “sexy songs.”
“The guitar player, a deacon in a church, said, ‘Sugar, you gonna play us that sexy song?’” Sugar recalls. “He says, ‘My wife loves it. Sing one of those sexy songs.’ And I said, ‘The guy told me not to sing those sexy songs ’cause you all are church people.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but we ain’t in church today.’”
Play What You Feel
Though Sugar Harp’s music is lighthearted, he can get serious quickly, especially when sharing his take on what’s required to play the blues. Sugar believes there is something missing in many of the talented and successful players out there today who are considered blues musicians.
“They always go beyond blues,” he says. “If you look at the old blues artists, them guys couldn’t even read. They played by ear, they didn’t know anything about no seventh chords, about no wheel of fifths. All they had to do was pick up a guitar and sing about how they feel.”
Sugar describes the balance between technically playing in the blues tradition and playing with emotion: “When I play with guys, I always tell them ‘Hey, play the progressions, but don’t stick to the lines, because it won’t sound right. You got to play what you feel.’”
The decades that Sugar has spent playing the harmonica give him a sense of pride and a desire to protect the heart and soul of the music. But he still welcomes anyone wanting to venture into the blues. “Absolutely, I think white guys can be bluesmen,” he says. “But play the blues — not rock ’n’ roll, or acid rock or punk rock or whatever it is.”
Sugar recalls a young musician lauded as a prodigy. He was technically talented, but, to Sugar’s ears, he lacked the life experience and the emotion that makes great blues music.
“His parents bought him Strats and Les Pauls, $5,000 guitars, when he was 9 and 10 years old,” Sugar says. “He never suffered; he don’t know what suffering is. He’s mimicking what he’s hearing, [but] nothing he does is original.”
Sugar Harp’s music is all his own, and in his songs you can feel the places he’s been. In 1969, Sugar was hanging with Jimi Hendrix at the Fillmore East and hitched a ride to Woodstock on a whim. The following year he was drafted into the Air Force and began serving in the 56th Fighter Wing in Vietnam. His experiences from New York to Vietnam, the partying and the struggling, as a hippie and a disabled veteran, shape Sugar’s character and his music.
Sugar Harp can’t change the landscape of all the artists out there playing the blues, but he hopes he can make an impression on some. None of Sugar’s three sons picked up the harmonica, though it was around them and available. Sugar thinks they were intimidated. But maybe the instrument will skip a generation, and one of Sugar’s five grandkids will sit on his lap and learn from him the way he did from his great-grandfather.
“I bring harmonicas every time I go around and they mess around on it,” he says. “I don’t try to teach them anything to make them throw it away. ’Cause you know, you try to teach them something and the kid can’t play it. What do they do? They throw it away. So I just let them experiment on their own until they’re old enough to understand the instrument.”
Sugar contrasts his approach to introducing the harmonica to his grandkids to young athletes with overbearing parents. He uses golfer Tiger Woods as an example.
“This is not what he wanted to be,” Sugar says. “After his daddy died, when he didn’t have anyone tell him what to do, that’s when he lost control and started womanizing. It wasn’t his choice, it was chosen for him. And the fanfare isn’t all that good. When you go home, you’re alone and you have to live with yourself.”
Sugar Harp will perform with the Music Maker Revue at the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival in September.
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When Music Maker heads to the legendary Telluride Blues & Brews Festival festival in September, we will bring along our own beloved Music Maker Blues Revue — a group filled with old friends like Albert White, Ardie Dean, Fred Thomas and Robert Lee Coleman.
We’re taking along some new friends, too — partner artists with whom we’ve just begun relationships. There’s Hermon Hitson, a singer and guitarist who’s played with the likes of Bobby Womack, Wilson Pickett, Major Lance, Jackie Wilson, the Drifters, the Shirelles, Joe Tex, the Midnighters and others. There’s Sugar Harp, a talented harmonica player who’s part of Birmingham, Alabama’s burgeoning blues scene.
And then, there is the Gospel Comforters, an act we knew little about until recently, but one with deep roots among the pioneers of African American gospel.
A pair of brothers leads the group — bassist Tony Grady and guitarist Michael Grady Sr. For many years, Tony was part of the legendary Staples Singers’ band and played bass on Roebuck “Pops” Staples triumphal final album, “Don’t Lose This.” Michael remains a member of the pioneering Soul Stirrers, a gospel group that produced stars such as Sam Cooke, Johnnie Taylor and Lou Rawls. Other members include Patrick Stanton on vocals and organ, Michael Grady Jr. on vocals and drums and Rickey Jerrel Allen, a composer, keyboardist and vocalist. The group’s members are spread across three states. Tony Grady and Jerrel Allen live in Huntsville, Alabama, Michael Grady Sr. lives in Rochester, New York, and Patrick Stanton and Michael Grady Jr. lives in the Chicago area.
The Comforters’ journey has taken many twists and turns since 1968, when the group was first formed by the Grady brothers’ father and uncles. In the 1980s, the group split up and several members began performing under the name the Gospel Hurricanes, and during that time, the Grady brothers began their associations with the Staples and the Soul Stirrers.
Then, in the mid-2000s, the Grady brothers and Stanton felt a strong call to bring the Comforters back together.
“The whole thing of it is that God has been good to us,” Tony Grady says. “That’s why we’re able to sustain and do what we’re doing. Without Christ, we can’t do anything. And I’m not trying to preach, but I’m just telling actually what holds this group together.”
Stanton adds that their conviction to keep the Comforters performing and recording increased when one of the group’s longtime members passed away.
“We just lost one of the last original members about two years ago — James Greer,” Stanton says. “And we promised him that through hell or high water, sink or swim, we were going to hold this group together because he fought a good fight against cancer. And to the last day that he breathed, we promised him that we would not let this group die by any means. Even our children, our grandchildren, will have to be successors. This group is a staple, a foundation.
“Anthony and I — even the way we met — it was just an act of God,” Stanton continues. “He and I are closer than we are to our biological siblings. So this is what we’re doing. It’s not for fame or fortune, it’s predestined. We were called to do this.”
And now — with their upcoming gig at Telluride and their newly established relationship with Music Maker — they believe they can continue to follow their calling.
“It’s really an honor to do that festival because that’s still one of the biggest festivals that’s going on,” Grady says.
Grady adds that he’s inspired by the way Music Maker works.
“Tim (Duffy) actually believed in the dream that we actually had,” Grady says. “The problem was that we were stagnated, because everybody wanted me and Mike to stay with outfits we were with. People that we would talk to kept saying, ‘Well, looks you all are doing fine. Why don’t you all just stay with that?’ But our thing was to keep this rolling. Like Patrick said, there was a promise to the people that were before us to actually keep this going.”
As Music Maker continues to work with the Gospel Comforters, we hope to help them keep their promises and follow their calling. They are a powerful group, and the world deserves to hear them.
Learn more, support, hear music:

In late February, Music Maker was pleased to welcome back Brittany Anderson as our social worker. Brittany had previously served in that position for us from April 2018 through December 2019.
Brittany has been at work for about six weeks now, busy reaching out to all our partner artists, surveying them, and learning everything she can about the conditions they face and how Music Maker can better help them.
“So many of the artists we work with are marginalized by a variety of factors — age, health, race, poverty — and those factors impact every aspect of their lives,” says Music Maker co-founder Denise Duffy. “Having a professional social worker enables us to really try and break down some of those barriers that get in the way of our partners achieving artistic excellence. A social worker can step in when someone’s having a healthcare crisis, whether it’s home health needs or connecting them with a healthcare provider. A social worker can advocate for our artists so they can take advantage of resources that exist in their communities.”
Brittany Anderson has returned to Music Maker as our social worker.
Brittany’s skills will be critical to our efforts in the future. As we reported last week in our COVID-19 Update, Brittany returned to Music Maker and found our partner artists facing the most difficult year of their lives, owing to the loss of gig income during the pandemic. She’s been in constant contact with our partner artists, doing everything possible to help them close the financial gap and gain access to services they need, even working with individual artists to get them registered for COVID-19 vaccinations.
Brittany’s hope for the future of her work with Music Maker is to build partnerships with other charitable organizations that might help us improve the living conditions of our partner artists, as well as the services they receive.
“One of the big things for me is to be a ‘macro’ social worker,” Brittany says. “I want to look at the systems that affect our artists and learn how those systems operate. Then we’ll be equipped to ask our artists the right questions that will make it easier for us as we form partnerships.”



Rolling Stone

just included us in its feature Here’s Where You Can Donate to Help Struggling Music Industry Workers, saying, we are one of “the organizations that have been doing some of the most crucial relief work during the pandemic” and posting our mission video. Honored and grateful to be on this list alongside other wonderful helpers. Thank you, RS!!

Here’s Where You Can Donate to Help Struggling Music-Industry Workers

From our Signifier blog: WARM IN THE WINTERTIME (Donation link in comments.)
It’s officially winter, and freezing temperatures have brought cold nights to towns all over the South, where most of Music Maker’s partner artists live. And every night when the temperatures drop, we never forget to ask ourselves, “Are our partners safe and warm tonight?”
In our 26 years of existence, Music Maker has worked to preserve the musical traditions of the South by directly supporting the musicians who make it, ensuring their voices will not be silenced by poverty. We send out checks to our partner artists every month to help them with groceries, medical expenses, and the other needs of living. And every winter, we take on another responsibility: making sure that our partner artists can stay warm in their homes, that their lives are not threatened by the chill of winter.
It’s a tradition that goes back to the very beginnings of Music Maker in 1994. And I’ll never forget the night I discovered that keeping our artists warm had to be part of what this foundation does.
It all began with the late Willa Mae Buckner, one of the most original performers the South ever produced. Willa Mae, born in 1922, ran away from her home in Augusta, Georgia, when she was just 12 years old to join an all-Black tent show. Over the years, she performed as a dancer with the legendary Ma Rainey, a blues singer, a burlesque stripper, a contortionist, and a fire swallower. The small, all-Black tent shows where Willa Mae made her living were a staple of entertainment in the African American community in the middle of the 20th century. Some such shows, like the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, gained national fame, but it was in the smaller shows where Willa Mae made her name.
Perhaps most memorably, she was known as the “Snake Lady.” In the early tent-show days, she traveled with up to 36 snakes and a chimpanzee, all part of her groundbreaking performances. She was a fiercely independent, amazing performer. She was one of Music Maker’s earliest partner artists, and it overjoyed us to help expose Willa Mae’s work to the broader world. I’ll never forget the night Willa Mae played Carnegie Hall and earned a standing ovation.
And our determination to ensure that our partner artists’ homes were heated originated with Willa Mae Buckner during our first year of our existence, 1994.
An Ice Storm in Winston-Salem
One night that year, there was a terrible ice storm in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where Willa Mae lived. Power was out all over the city. I went down to Winston that night with a friend of mine, John Creech, an early supporter of Music Maker. It was a crazy night as we drove the icy roads to go check on our artists. When we got to Willa Mae’s, she was frantic because she had no heat, and she had two pythons at her house. And she was afraid that if it got too cold, they would die. So John and I went and bought a kerosene heater and some kerosene. She was so happy that she had some heat.
The next day, we returned to visit her again. and we found an emergency vehicle parked next door to her. Willa Mae was visibly shaken. I asked her, “What happened?” She said, “My neighbor froze to death last night.” I was shaken, too. I did not know her neighbor well, but I had seen her and said hello almost every time I had gone to visit Willa Mae.
Willa Mae thanked me for providing the kerosene heater the night before. She said, “I told you, my snakes would’ve froze to death.” But what occurred to me was an epiphany: If Willa Mae’s neighbor had died from the cold that night, she might have, too.
That’s why, throughout our quarter-century of work, we’ve made sure that we check on our partner artists to make sure they have adequate fuel to keep their homes heated. Over the years, the list of musicians we’ve helped in this way has grown long, including departed souls like the great guitarist Boo Hanks and partner artists who are still with us, such as Big Ron Hunter and Willie James Williams.
The Great Willie James Williams
Willie James Williams is one of the greatest juke-joint drummers I’ve ever seen in my life. For 36 years, he backed the legendary Willie King. King didn’t care much about fame, and kept his gigs confined mostly to the late, lamented Bettie’s Place in eastern Mississippi. King called what he played the “struggling blues,” because it focused on the injustices he and so many others like him had suffered in the Jim Crow South.
When King died in 2009, Willie James Williams’ career essentially ended, too. He’s now in his 60s and still living in Macon, Mississippi, close to where he gigged for years with Willie King. But even though Willie James doesn’t play much anymore, he’s still one of our partners, and we still provide him with support he needs.
Earlier this week, one of our staffers got on the phone to check on Willie James. He said it had “yes lord” gotten cold down in Macon, and he called the support he gets from Music Maker “a lifeline.”
“Whenever I need some gas, I call them and tell them, and they’ll provide for me,” Willie James said. “Now, I don’t do that often. I just ask them for what I need.”
The humility of Willie James Williams — really, of all the many unsung treasures of American music with whom we’ve had the pleasure to work over the years — never fails to be a lesson to us. So many of the artists we’ve dealt have suffered tremendous injustices. Our foundation alone could never right the wrongs done to them.
But we vowed 26 years ago — and vow to this day — to keep them warm when the cold of winter settles in.
— Tim Duffy
Here’s Ironing Board Sam (Most Outstanding Musician, Keyboard) andDom Flemons (Most Outstanding Musician, Banjo) with their Living Bluesawards!Check out the full listings here:
Here's @[192421440814881:274:Ironing Board Sam] (Most Outstanding Musician, Keyboard) and @[198900963468119:274:Dom Flemons] (Most Outstanding Musician, Banjo) with their @[169528073086515:274:Living Blues] awards!</p><br /><br /> <p>Check out the full listings here:

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