Bill Tarsha and the Rocket 88s led the 18th annual blues harmonica blowout last week at the Rhythm Room.
More than 35 blues harmonica players performed. Tarsha and his band opened with a couple tunes. The blues harmonica players put their names in a hat and after each performance they would pick the next name out of the hat and that blues harmonica player would play two songs.
The Rocket 88s backed up most of the harmonica players. The harmonica players started at 7 p.m. and didn't stop until almost 1 a.m.--and a few harmonica players still didn't get to perform.
The others included Rhythm Room owner Bob Corritore, Larry Polk, John Semora, Hans Olsen, Paul Clapper, Gypsy and six-year-old Sonny Boy Hayden.
"The kid was pretty good for his age and the crowd loved him," Tarsha says. "Three pretty women came up on the stage, walked right by me and went right for the kid. I learned that you never want to come on after a good-looking girl or a young kid."
Tarsha emphasized that the blues harmonica blowout was not a contest. He has watched harmonica and guitar contests in Los Angeles and thought some ruined their songs trying to impress judges. So, this harmonica blowout was just for fun.
"The crowd can make their own decisions on who they like best," he says. "The harmonica players put on a really good show. It gets better every year."
Tarsha started playing the drums when he was nine years old, but he had a relative who owned a club who introduced him to the blues.
"I started listening to Little Walter, Big Walter, George Harmonica Smith, Jimmy Reed and Slim Harpo. By the time I was 15, I got going on the blues harp," he said. By the '70s, his band was touring with Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and several other famous blues bands.
"It was incredible. I was born in '48 so I was around when many of the legends were still alive. Now, there are few legends left," he says.
Tarsha played the blues harmonica for 46 years before switching to drums three years ago. His three piece band includes his wife Susie on bass and drums and Dave Forester on lead guitar and keyboards.
The trio in the Rockets 88s can all play drums.
"There's a real lack of good blues drummers in the Phoenix area--maybe a handful, but not many," he said.
Tarsha also noted that most musicians in the Phoenix area have day jobs, but the Rocket 88s are full-time working musicians.
Singer Gary Beloma often joins the band.
Tarsha and the Rocket 88s lead several jam sessions in the valley. There's one almost every Monday night at the Rhythm Room.
Every Sunday from 6-10 p.m., the blues jam session is at the Blooze Bar in Phoenix. Blooze Bar owner John Tumbleweed plays the harmonica and loves promoting the blues.
Tarsha and the Rocket 88s will start with four or five songs and then the other blues musicians will join in.
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Tarsha and the Rocket 88s also lead a jam session every fourth Friday from 7-11 p.m. at the Desert Eagle Brewing Co. They perform periodically at O'Connors, Queen Creek Olive Mill, Dillons, Janey's in Cave Creek and every Wednesday at Wineburgers.