ARIZONA'S MR. MICROPHONEBLUES HARPISTS ARE BLOWN AWAY BY JOE HARLESS' HARMONICA MIKE
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?"
Harless produced a design that was easy to hold and half the size of the old mikes. Made of poly resin instead of cast zinc like the old mikes, the Shaker weighs 3.25 ounces. The typical bullet mike exceeds a pound.
After he had a shell design, Harless embarked on a trial-and-error process with electronic components. Cannibalizing parts from old TVs and radios, Harless finally came up with a "guts" that he thinks is the right mix of clear sound and durability. The element in the Shaker "floats," meaning that dings and dents on the body of the mike won't transfer into the microphone. The Shaker also comes standard with a volume control, a feature that harp players have been routinely adding to older mikes for years.
"What I wanted was a mike that had an extended frequency range but would still retain the classic, thick and hot sound of Chicago blues," he says. "The older mikes lack the ability to reproduce all the things that the harp can do. Harmonicas drive dogs nuts because they can hear frequencies out of a harmonica that humans can't. That's why it's such an emotional instrument. Your brain is hearing things your ears aren't."
Just as everything was coming together, Joe Harless' road to success developed some bumps. Harless nearly lost his invention. The hoop of fire was lighted in January 1991, when Harless decided to take his invention to the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) convention in Anaheim, California. Although he had seven prototypes built (only three of which actually worked), a Plexiglas pyramid display case and a local harp player to go with him to demonstrate the mikes, Harless needed nearly $5,000 to make the trip. He accepted what he thought was a generous offer from an investor.
When the NAMM show turned out to be a crashing success--Harless came back to the Valley with 260 orders--his investor offered to help Harless get started. The deal was simple: In exchange for the cash to manufacture and market his microphone, Harless would pay investors a 25 percent return on their money. He signed an initial agreement. But then, Harless says, the lead investor tried to force him to relinquish a percentage of the patent for the Shaker. Harless balked.
"If you sell any part of your patent, you lose control," he says. Harless hired a lawyer and fought. After a lot of legal saber rattling, Harless and the investor settled in May 1992. Harless had to repay the $5,000.
"Basically," Harless says, "the settlement said we forget you exist and you forget we exist."
Unfortunately, the legal tussle caused Harless to lose credibility with buyers, because he couldn't fill orders. He's also had problems sorting out the international patents for his microphone, a dilemma he's currently in the midst of solving. Preparing for the possibility that his mike might be copied, Harless has taken a page out of Harley-Davidson's marketing plan.
"Harley's basic idea is that you can buy a better motorcycle, but not the original Harley," Harless says, holding up a Shaker. "This is a little American Harley. A blues-harp mike made by a blues-harp player."
If you ask the customers, Shaker's success has been spectacular. In two years, Harless has managed, mostly by giving his mikes away, to convince most of the major blues-harp players to endorse his product. The list has all the right names: Junior Wells, Carey Bell, Charlie Musselwhite, James Harman, Snooky Pryor, among others. Although opinions on the Shaker's sound vary from "dirty" to "clean," depending upon which harp player you're talking to, everyone agrees that Harless has hit on something. He has succeeded in getting older players who have used the same mike for 20 years to try his invention.
"I like it very much," Junior Wells says in a phone interview from his home in Chicago. Best known for his mid-Sixties stint in Muddy Waters' band, Wells carries two Shakers in his harp bag. "This is the first new mike I've used in I don't know how many years. That guy's got something, though. It's tough and it's small. I've had more than one harp player look it over and want to know where I got it. I've even started carrying his [Harless] business cards with me on the road."
Local singer-songwriter and harmonica player Hans Olson, who was among the first players to use and critique the Shaker, attributes much of the microphone's success to the personality of its inventor.
"The coolest thing is that Joe's ego's not involved--too much," Olson says with a dry chuckle. "I mean, anytime a harp player mentions something to him, he's open to change anything. He doesn't get mad or hurt. He honestly just wants to make it better."
Texan Gary Primich agrees. "The guy's a freak. But I mean that in a good way," Primich says from his home in Austin, Texas. Having just released his second album, Primich is one of the younger generation of harp players that has taken to the mike.
"He's bucked the norm. What he's up against are the blues purists who'll only use the old mikes. That and competition from the big microphone companies," Primich says.
So far, Harless has sold 1,600 Shakers. He's still a long way from jumping into a higher tax bracket. In fact, now that Shaker is the sole source of income for his family, he's scraping to make ends meet. Harless knows that to survive and prosper, he must diversify beyond the limited market for harmonica microphones. A guitar company has shown interest in some sort of distribution agreement. And Harless has already brought out a higher performance model of the original "Crystal Shaker" which he calls the "Dynamic Shaker." Harless also claims to have designs for five "new musical products" that he hopes to begin manufacturing. He says he's had requests to modify existing Shakers for use at racetracks and with other public address systems.
Two weeks ago, Harless made a move he hopes will allow Shaker to grow. Unable to find an affordable work space here in the Valley, Harless moved his family and business to Payson. On September 6, he opened a combination music store, microphone factory and showroom near downtown Payson. Along with Shakers, the store carries a variety of bizarre musical instruments--everything from handblown crystal flutes from Florida and cherry wood banjos from Tennessee to a selection of African stringed and percussion instruments. Whether such a music store will survive in a small town like Payson remains to be seen.
Harless has already discovered one problem about living in Payson-- the long drive back to the Valley. Now that he's a celebrity of sorts, Harless comes back to see blues shows, partly for business reasons and partly because he enjoys his newfound access to the music business' privileged circle. He yearns to recount his brushes with greatness.
"I went to the Cardinals game two weeks ago and sat in seats that Huey Lewis gave me," Harless says. "After the game, he came up and we played harp and talked about my microphone. He loves it. And I love being able to meet these people. Three years ago, people like Huey Lewis wouldn't have even talked to me, and now he's calling me.
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