By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
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From the outside, the mobile home where Joe Harless launched his journey to musical fame and fortune looked like just another tin can on another street in Chandler: There was a faded Chevy van with smashed windows and a flat tire, browning palm fronds littered the yard, a cage of parakeets perched on the porch.
But you can't judge a single-wide by its cover.
Besides being home to five, this trailer also was the cradle of the most unusual and far-reaching musical innovation in recent Arizona history: the Shaker harmonica microphone.
The living room--a mix-and-match collection of furniture--was where clients were entertained. An end table held well-thumbed copies of Success magazine and various music publications, one of which offered "25 Blues Licks You Must Know."
Wedged in a corner of the bedroom was a desk containing a personal computer, fax machine and file cabinets. This was where Harless' wife, Dawn, processed orders and sent out bills.
The bed itself was the shipping department. Lined horizontally in neat rows were finished microphones, each nestled in a felt drawstring bag. Each had a tag indicating its destination and future owner.
Out back, behind a heavily bolted door, was the mike factory itself: a cramped, plywood shack jutting from the side of the trailer. Black plastic mike shells stood upright on a peg board. A scavenged stained-glass window let light in along the length of one wall. A drill press stood in one corner. A wall rack of homemade cassettes of harp heroes like Junior Wells, James Harman and Muddy Waters hung over a battered boom box.
Seated on a stool in the middle of this stifling, cluttered room, excitedly recounting his fairy tale, was Joe Harless. Clad in an untucked Shaker microphone tee shirt that bulged in the middle, Harless looks more like a house painter than an entrepreneur.
Once he starts talking about his microphone, you can't shut him down. He steadfastly believes in his invention. And with good reason. Besides truly being a better mousetrap, the Shaker microphone is the biggest and best thing that ever happened to Joe Harless.
Although Harless and his family relocated to Payson two weeks ago, the Chandler trailer will always be the birthplace of the Shaker, a hybrid microphone made specifically for blues-harmonica players. So named because it is about the size of a saltshaker, the mike is smaller, more durable and, to some ears, has better sound properties than anything previously available. At $69, it's also about half the price of its established competitors. All the best blues harpists now use Shakers alongside their older mikes.
The Shaker saga began in the mid-Seventies when Harless, a self-described "inventor" (he was then building custom redwood furniture), bought his first harmonica. After Harless was thrown out of his Ohio high school band for convincing his bandmates to cancan while playing "Yellow Submarine," his first musical experiences came playing the trombone and, later, guitar. His job making furniture gave him another. Faced with an hour commute between the furniture shop and his home in Groveland, California, Harless decided to keep himself company by playing the harmonica.
"I began playing every night while I drove home. Still do, in fact," Harless says. Soon, though, he found himself practicing his harp at home after his commute was over. He began to develop into a decent amateur harp player.
Harless has had his share of great ideas that came to naught. There were toys he designed and built but couldn't sell. Then there was "Uncle Bob's Rowboat Brand Lures," a revolutionary line of fishing equipment that hooked no investors.
But Harless' jackpot idea was hatched when he began to emulate famous blues-harmonica players. After attending several live shows, Harless began to notice the microphones that are a critical part of any harpist's gear. Initially employed to make the harmonica heard over the rest of the band, harp mikes are now valued for the specific properties they add to a player's sound. Some mikes rarely distort and produce a clean, bright sound. Others give a gutbucket, "dirty" quality to a player's attack. Like guitarists who switch guitars to get different tones, harp players routinely carry not only a sling of harmonicas, but also a gaggle of different harp mikes.
One night in 1991, Harless' own microphone died. When he heard that it would take nearly $150 to replace it, he decided to build his own. "The basic design for harmonica microphones hasn't changed since the 1930s," Harless says. "If anything, they've cheapened them since then. I asked every harp player that came to town what they wanted and didn't want in a mike. I ended up with a list of 23 things. That's where I started from."
The first beef on the harpists' list was the awkward size of most mikes. The first mikes to be used with harmonicas were pirated from public address systems. These so-called "bullet" mikes were about the size of a baseball. Today that same design predominates among Hohner, Shure and Astatic, the three large companies that until now have split the harp-mike market.
To compete, Harless decided he needed to first understand how harp players grip the mike. "To figure out the ergonomics," he says, "I went and got some clay and squeezed it. Real high-tech, huh?"