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Turn it Down: Harmonica Shah brings real blues to Allen Market Place

Detroit blues legend plays ‘A Benefit for Lansing East Side Gateway’


Harmonica Shah

Earlier this month, a devastating fire at Lansing Eastside Gateway (LEG) claimed the life of John Michael-Fredrick Bolan (July 3, 1975-Feb. 3, 2019) and also destroyed the building at 615 E. Kalamazoo St. Supporters of the “hyper-local micromall gift shop” are now rallying around the small business incubator’s owner Yvonne LeFave, who launched the venture in late- 2018.

Friday, the Allen Market Place hosts “Spaghetti Dinner & Silent Auction: A Benefit for LEG,” a multifaceted fundraising event. Organizers say proceeds will “help raise funds to get Yvonne LeFave back on her feet after the recent fire.” Donations can also be made through the Michigan State Federal Credit Union memorial fund under the name “Lansing Eastside Gateway Relief Fund.”

Along with a lengthy list of auction items and a spaghetti dinner (take-out is available), live music will be supplied by Harmonica Shah, a true Detroit blues legend. Backing Shah is Lansing music vets Harry Oman on guitar and Dave Ludington on drums. Fans of classic ‘50s and ’60s-era blues may want to sample Shah’s catalog of raw blues albums, including 2015’s “If You Live to Get Old, You Will Understand” LP, released via Electro-Fi Records. Shah’s wailing harp and rugged vocals harken back to the glory days of Chicago blues, when Chess Records was in full swing thanks to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf — and Detroit’s Fortune Records was issuing stacks of Michigan-made blues albums from Dr. Ross the Harmonica Boss and John Lee Hooker.

Born Thaddeus Louis Hall on March 31, 1946 (he later legally changed his name to Seward Shah), this bluesman was literally born into the genre. As a child, Shah’s love for music was sparked after hearing his grandfather Sam Dawson (who recorded for Alan Lomax and Duke Records) soulfully singing in the fields. By the late 1950s, Shah moved out on his own and scored a salesman job in California with Jet Magazine, which often landed him in smoky bars and clubs where he witnessed Big Mama Thornton, Jimmy McCracklin and Lowell Fulson, among others, perform live.

In 1967, Shah moved to Detroit and worked for Ford Motor Company for 10 years, and in that time he also picked up a cheap harmonica and learned to play. By the mid-’70s, he was mining sonic inspiration from the likes of Junior Wells, Jimmy Reed, and Little Walter, but also honing his own distinct sound. After attending countless Motor City blues jam sessions, Shah landed gigs alongside blues icons like Bobo Jenkins, Eddie Kirkland, the Butler Twins and Willie D. Warren.

After decades of shows, the debut Harmonica Shah album, “Motor City Mojo,” was finally issued in 2000 by Blue Suit Records. Six years later, he recorded “Listen at Me Good” in Toronto — the LP features Blues Music Award winners Mel Brown (on guitar), Willie “Big Eyes” Smith (on drums) and Julian Fauth on piano.

Over the years, he’s continued releasing albums while also touring the country, as well as Russia, Japan, Europe and Australia. Detroiters often see him at the famous John’s Carpet House in East Detroit, a weekly blues and R&B jam series that draws out the area’s best players during the summer months.

For those who want a taste of Shah’s skills, visit YouTube and check out his 2007 live performance of his moody original tune, “I’ve Got to Help My Own Damn Self.”

Harmonica Shah
Friday, March 1 @ Allen Market Place, 1629 E. Kalamazoo St., Lansing. $10 suggested donation, 5-8 p.m.


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