John Colgan-Davis: Philly Blues Harp

"One of my claims to fame at The John Henry Blues Festival in West Virginia is that I was kicked off stage by Big Joe Williams. Big Joe was one of those guys who played what he felt like and I was one of those guys who learned 12 Bar Blues and Big Joe was not a regular 12 Bar Blues guy." - John Colgan-Davis

John Colgan-Davis, harmonica player and singer, started playing the harmonica in local blues and folk clubs back in the late 1960s while he was still a high school student. He played and recorded with Philadelphia singer-guitarist Jesse Graves and Bonnie Raitt when she lived in Philadelphia in the early 1970s.

Through Bonnie, John met and played with the following people: Mississippi Fred McDowell, Arthur Crudup, Buddy Guy, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, and others. He has also jammed with James Cotton, John Hammond, Charlie Musselwhite, John Lee Hooker, Bill Dicey, and Louisiana Red. He has toured the Midwest and recorded two CDs—Cold and Lonesome on a Train and Heroes and Hard Times—with Tennessee bluesman Sparky Rucker. He played for three years with The John Cadillac Band and currently plays with The Dukes of Destiny.

John taught Social Studies at Friends Select School in Philadelphia for 29 years and has written articles and supplements for The Philadelphia Inquirer on Blacks in the American West, Black Literature, the History of Black Philadelphia, and other topics. He is also a guest columnist for the Chestnut Hill Local. John lives in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia.

John Colgan-Davis


Brant Buckley:

How did you get into Blues?

John Colgan-Davis:

At home, my mom was into Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington. We had a record player and she would play them; especially around Christmas time Nat King Cole’s Christmas album was on. My mom really loved it. I also grew up singing in the church choir so music was always around. I listened to a lot of Black AM radio stations. I listened to WHAT and WDAS primarily.

I was born in 1950, so in the late 1950s into the 1960s music was not yet streamlined. I could hear The Supremes on the same station that I heard Bobby Bland. I didn’t realize I was listening to Blues per say but I liked what I was listening to. The big event was seeing Howlin’ Wolf on Shindig. The Stones were on their first tour of the U.S. and they were on Shindig and they brought him out and Howlin’ Wolf played. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I was fifteen or sixteen. For my next birthday, my dad gave me a grab bag with a bunch of things and one of the things in it was a harmonica. That is how I started playing harmonica.

With radio, the market research had not been done yet. It wasn’t broken down into categories yet, so I heard a lot. I went to a great high-school called Central High-school in Philly which took students from all over the city. I grew up in a lower middle class African American working class neighborhood. Central High-school put me in touch with Asians and different types of white groups: Germans, Jews, and Italians. The school had a folk music club and I was a bit of a hippie. The folk music club put on concerts and it brought in Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, and others. The mid 1960s is when Dick Waterman and Alan Wilson from Canned Heat rediscovered people like John Hurt, Son House, and Lightning Hopkins. It was the folk revival of the 1960s.

I was able to see a lot of the artists live and play with some of them. One of my claims to fame at The John Henry Blues Festival in West Virginia is that I was kicked off stage by Big Joe Williams. Big Joe was one of those guys who played what he felt like and I was one of those guys who learned 12 Bar Blues and Big Joe was not a regular 12 Bar Blues guy. I did a few things with him and at one point he put his hand over the microphone and said to me, ‘Son I think you oughta step down now.’

Can you talk about meeting your idols and what they taught you?

I met a lot of my idols. In 1969, at the first Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival in Michigan, a friend of mine from high-school named Bill Cole and I hitchhiked to Ann Arbor. My mom let me do that. My God. I met Skip James and Dick Waterman through the concerts at Central High-school and he was managing a bunch of people. In Michigan, Dick Waterman was there with Lightning Hopkins along with a lot of other artists. I jammed with Mississippi Fred McDowell and Son House. Dick also managed Bonnie Raitt when she was just starting so I was able to play with her. I look back on the people I met and played with and it is ridiculous. I was very fortunate.

I met James Cotton at the Second Fret which was a legendary folk club in Philly. At the Second Fret, known artists were booked from Thursday through Sunday. I went to see him play and I went up to the dressing room and knocked on his door. I said, ‘Excuse me Mr.Cotton I am learning to play harmonica. Can you show me some stuff?’ He showed me some stuff. Cotton is my favorite artist not only as a harp player but also as a performer. He played with such joy. The band seemed to have so much fun. Every-time I saw him play, he was really into it. I played with Johnny Shines and Sparky Rucker who is a great Blues guitarist and storyteller. He is from Tennessee. Sparky and I have done two albums together. Let’s put it this way, I was on two of his records. Through him, I met Johnny Shines and Louisiana Red.

I was incredibly fortunate as a young performer. There were lots of coffeehouses and the musicians were willing to talk with people. A lot of them were dazed by young people, especially a lot of white people who were interested in their music all of a sudden. A lot of them had stopped playing and depending on music as their main source of income until they were discovered by the folkies. I was very lucky. I played with the John Cadillac Band which was a great Blues band in the Philly area and we opened up for a number of people. We opened up for Charlie Musselwhite.

From the late 1960s until the early 1980s, I was meeting a lot of people. I tried playing full-time and I played with Jesse Graves. I stopped playing full-time after a year and a half as I decided it would be nice to eat regularly. Jesse and I played a bunch as Jesse was connected with the New York state schools. We played a number of schools and ended up playing a festival in Buffalo and we played the Philly Folk Festival. I was very fortunate. It was just the right time and the right place.

What is the harmonicas function in a band?

That is a great question. One of the things I love about playing in a band is playing with and off of other people. Harmonicas do fills behind the vocals, can double what the piano and guitar are doing, and bring power to the band. What I love about playing with The Dukes Of Destiny is that we play off of each other. There are set arrangements but within the arrangement the drummer can hit a certain riff that moves the bass player to do something which in turn moves me to do something. A lot of times the harp is also a front instrument.

What I really love is making music with people. With The Dukes we have an incredible piano player named Chicago Carl Snyder who lived in Chicago for close to forty years and he played with everybody. He played with Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and was the bandleader for Son Seals’ band. One of the things that Carl loves to do is play off other instruments. He may be playing a solo but he is playing in and out with the harp or the guitar. I really love that and it turns me on. That to me is what I love about The Dukes Of Destiny. We play off of each other and we listen to each other. We are not just a backup group, we interact. Ideally that is what the harmonica does. There are times I get to show off but mostly I am trying to support what is going on. I am now playing with Johnny Never and we play riffs off of each other. I may do a certain rhythm and he will counter my rhythm.

I have fun playing with people. I started out as an acoustic player and it is a little different. Jamming with people like Son House, Skip James, and Reverend Gary Davis taught me there are things you can do with your hands that don’t come across as much when you are playing with a band versus acoustically. There is a different type of intensity when you play acoustically. You can still be driving and intense but it is more subtle and I love that. Playing with Johnny Never is great and different than playing with The Dukes. Before Covid I played a couple of gigs a month with Johnny and between three to four gigs with The Dukes. I was in heaven.

How is Blues received in Philly?

Philly has had a steady Blues scene. Sometimes it has been prominent and other times it has been below the surface. There is The Bucks County Blues Society which has been going since 1969 and they put on concerts and have a festival every year. They bring in touring artists. There was a Philadelphia Blues Society. When Doug Waldner lived in Philly he brought in Gatemouth Brown and The Dukes were able to open for and play with Otis Rush. We were Otis Rush’s backing band. That was incredible and that’s when The Dukes of Destiny really became a band. Doug told us that when Otis travels he doesn’t always take his band to all the gigs. He told us we could open up for him and be his backing band. We rehearsed and Otis sent us tapes of the songs. Of course, the first song he called was something that we never heard before. That was what made us a band. We weren’t just a bunch of guys having fun and playing, we were serious.

From the 1970s until the mid 1980s there were a number of clubs in Philly that had Blues: J.C. Dobbs, The 2nd Fret, The Trauma, and The Electric Factory. They weren’t Blues clubs per say but they would feature Blues on a regular basis. It died down a bit in the 1980s and 1990s. Jamey’s House of Music, The Mermaid Inn, and Kennett Flash all occasionally have Blues. It is a lot smaller than it used to be and it’s problematic. There are a number of festivals and we are fortunate to have The Philadelphia Folk Festival which has been around forever. We have done it three times.We also do spring and fall festivals in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia. Bryn Mawr has community concerts and there are concerts in the park series during the summer.

We are in a time period where it is tough booking gigs that pay enough and we are a six piece band. One of the things club owners realized during the recession of 2008 was that there were bands that would play for less money. That became a drag. I have no idea what is going to happen once the shutdown is over. We have booked a couple of festivals with the assumption that things will open up. I doubt that The Dukes will be playing before the fall of 2021. I don’t know what the club scene will look like and there are a number of clubs facing financial difficulty. Some of them are hanging on as there is something called Save The Stage: It is a big national thing that a lot of us musicians contribute to and encourage our fans to contribute. Everything is different and we don’t know who is going to be around. It is a drag. I miss playing and the interaction with the audience and the musicians. It is one of the most important things that I do.

Can you talk about your top performances?

Playing with Otis Rush was absolutely incredible. The first time we played the Philly Folk Festival was absolutely wonderful. It was a rainy and stormy festival and a lot of people were in a tent. We hit the stage and we just kicked ass. I will never forget it. It was one of the highlights of my career as a musician. We played the Phoenixville Blues Festival and the first time we played there we did a remarkable set. It was incredible. Sparky Rucker and I played at the first John Henry Blues Festival in West Virginia. These were all out of body experiences where everything meshed up perfectly. I was outside of myself watching myself play going who is that. It was an out of body experience. Those are some of my favorite playing times.

The first time I played at Jamey’s House of music was great. I really loved the place. Steve Brown founded The Dukes of Destiny and he died from pancreatic cancer in 2000. After that, I became the leader of The Dukes and I continue to do all of the booking. I learned from Steve how to approach being a bandleader and booker. James Cotton and Steve Brown are my biggest influences as they taught me how to perform and work with the audience. Steve was also the nicest guy that I have ever met. I was very fortunate to meet him and play with him. We knew each other from high school. The Dukes started playing together in Germantown, PA.

The Dukes started playing at Takers Cafe and when they were there, I would sit in. After my third or fourth time, Steve said you play over half the night you may as well just join the damn band. That is how I got into The Dukes of Destiny. I have been very fortunate. The Dukes have been together since 1985. We have been together for a long time. Our drummer Bob Holden has been with us the whole time and Rich Curtis our bass player has been with us for twenty years. I’ve been playing with Johnny Never for about two to three years. It has been fun.

What’s next for you?

I want The Dukes to come back. I want to play some festivals and do some new songs. We love playing The Mermaid Inn, Jamey’s House of Music, and Kennet Flash. I would like to start playing two sets with the band; the first set consisting of old material and the second set consisting of all new material. I am hoping we can get to a point where all six of us can get vaccines and we all can rehearse. We are all in different locations and the pandemic has made it hard. Johnny Never and I have a CD out. I want to keep playing and trying new things.

The Dukes of Destiny


*Photo images provided by the artist


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin

Get On
The List!