How FreedM Got His 1st Harmonica Lesson from Howlin’ Wolf 

Find out how FreedM went from mobile dress salesman to house hash dealer at the Montreal during the Golden Era of Rhythm & Blues. Read Part II of the Behind-the-Scenes Bottles & Blues story featuring the mafia, foreign drugs, beer smuggling, and a harmonica lesson with Howlin’ Wolf himself - written by FreedM. 

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Part I 

In Part I we learned about FreedM’s formative years growing up as an immigrant kid in the inner city of Montreal, and how it led him to his first set of harmonicas. 

Make sure to read Part I of the Bottles & Blues Behind-the-Scenes story to get caught up before you read Part II. Here, FreedM picks up where he left off in Part I talking about being a young, hippie-freak entrepreneur-kid in Montreal. 

FreedM of Montreal

Hash & The Mob 

At about that same time of my life, I was selling small quantities of hashish mostly to friends and other kids in the neighborhood. Montreal was a renowned hash town. It was and is a port city and in those days a lot of ships came in from Morocco and other French-speaking North African countries. 

We became a gateway port for hash smuggling. Afghanistan and Kashmir had yet to be utterly consumed by war and our fair city was awash in fine hashish. I sold dimes, two-gram pieces wrapped in tinfoil for $10. I remember one night taking my earnings to the local ice cream parlor and consuming four banana splits. 

Things changed when one day a friend, Robert, who was higher up the dealer food chain called me. He asked me if I would replace him at the Esquire Show Bar, the legendary jazz, blues, and R&B club. 

The Esquire had all the glitzy trappings of a mafia club, which I believe it probably was. Robert had been dealing dimes and quarters of hash out of the club for a while. 

Not to worry "they" were expecting me. So dressed in a trench coat where I had hidden a few beers, and totally looking the part of a spaced-out freak with my outrageous Jew-fro, I headed downtown. The door staff and waiters were dressed in monkey suits. "Robert sent me," I told Johnny, a burly Italian guy who greeted me at the door. 

And so I entered the great Esquire show bar accompanied by a tough guy maître- d and given a fine table near the stage where on that night I would get to see the fabulous Willie Dixon and band. " Robert he told you the score," says Johnny. I had my plastic bag of prepared dimes and quarters. "You sit here... don't call us... we'll call you".

 Esquire Bar

Workin’ for the Man 

So I was, for now, the club hash dealer. The crowd was a mixture of hippies, wise guys, pro - gals, and music aficionados of all stripes. I was to learn that there was another guy at the club for the cocaine and a club pimp or two. I was generally sent to serve the young dope-smoking crowd 

This became a semi-regular gig. Nobody seemed to care that I wasn't yet of legal drinking age, although, Johnny did tell me to not smuggle beer into the place. He had spotted that right away. "Take it easy, kid," he told me. " Make a bit of money and have you some fun". Johnny really had that classic movie thug accent down. 

Muddy Waters @ Esquire Show Bar

And so in my time there I was blessed to see some of the finest musicians who ever graced the good earth. The phenomenal Rhassan Roland Kirk was a hi-light. I also got to see Bo Diddly, Etta James Patty Labelle, Lightnin' Hopkins, Sonny and Brownie, and a parade of great, mostly black, performers. But it was the Chicago and Louisiana blues players that really blew me away. Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, with sidemen like Pinetop Perkins and Otis Spann. 

Back at the farmer's market, there was a lot of downtime, which I'd fill by fooling about on my harmonicas. Now here I was at the Esquire seeing the blues harp giants, Junior Wells, Jerry Portnoy, Butterfield, James Cotton, Big Walter. 

I would arrive at the club early and sometimes toodle away a bit on my harps by the backstage steps. It came to pass that a few times I was told go backstage cause one of the musicians wanted some hash. This one night, Howlin' Wolf and his band were playing. Along with Muddy Waters, the Wolf was my favorite performer. 

FreedM performing @ La Chabol Cabarete, DR

FreedM’s First Harmonica Lesson 

He had a voice like razor blades; slide guitar and a super harp player. I was sent backstage to a guy who I believe was Hubert Sumlin, as legendary a blues guitar player as they came. After selling him a dime I heard a guttural sound from the edge of the room. A giant of a man, Howlin'Wolf himself was beckoning me. 

Completely star struck I approached him. He was sitting in a chair (on top of the world) and still seemed to hover over me. 

"You the young feller hangin' around the back tootin' on a harmonica" he growled. I stuttered my response." Yes, sir that would be me, sir." His big eyes met mine. 

"I'm going to show you somethin'" Now that man had the largest hands I've ever seen. They looked like a pair of baseball mitts. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a blues harp, which seemed like a toothpick in his giant paws. He cupped the harp and began to blow this sublime wawa sound. "Now, why don't you try something," he instructed me. So I did my best to imitate his movements. 

From my instrument came a feeble Too-ee-weet. The big man looks at me with an almost fatherly sense of sympathy and says "Yeah, anyway, you just try that for a while." 

"Thank you, sir, uh Mr. uh Wolf. 

And so it was that I got my first harmonica lesson from Mr. Chester Burnett, AKA, Howlin' Wolf. 

FreedM of Montreal

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