Tony Glover, master of the blues harmonica, dies at 79
NEW YORK — Tony Glover, a harmonica player who as a member of the group Koerner, Ray, and Glover was at the center of the folk music revival of the 1960s and helped introduce a new audience to the blues, died on May 29 in a hospital in St. Paul, Minn. He was 79.
His wife, Cynthia Nadler, confirmed the death. She did not specify the cause.
A reserved man who rarely smiled, Mr. Glover emerged from the post-beatnik coffeehouse scene in Minneapolis that also helped nurture Bob Dylan, with whom he occasionally played. He was well regarded for his harmonica playing.
“I couldn’t play like Glover or anything and I didn’t try to,” Dylan wrote in his memoir “Chronicles, Volume One” (2004). “I played mostly like Woody Guthrie and that was about it. Glover’s playing was well known and talked about around town, but nobody commented on mine.”
Mr. Glover called himself Little Sun — a play on the names of other harmonica players named Sonny — and in 1963 he and the guitarists and singers Dave Snaker Ray and Spider John Koerner, inspired by such bluesmen as Lead Belly and Muddy Waters, began performing together.
While they could come close to sounding like the blues musicians they idolized, they had a distinctive quality of their own, forged from a mix of down-home blues, ragtime, string-band music, and country folk.
“They were the finest white blues group in the entire folk revival of the era,” critic Dave Marsh wrote in “The Rolling Stone Record Guide” (1979). They were, he added, “highly influential on aficionados of black American folk music.”
Their first album, “Blues, Rags and Hollers” (1963), combined original material with songs by Lead Belly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sleepy John Estes, and others. It was issued by a small Wisconsin record company, Audiophile. After the group signed with Elektra Records, one of the era’s leading folk labels, the album was reissued and reached a wider audience.
“At a moment when much recorded blues was either stiffly reverent or slick and commercial,” Keith Harris, music editor of City Pages, a weekly paper in Minneapolis, wrote after Mr. Glover’s death, “the album’s raucous, ragged take caught the ear of rockers and loosened up folkies.”
They played in nightclubs, on college campuses, and at the Newport Folk Festival. They had gone their separate ways by the late 1960s, a change prompted by Koerner’s desire to travel widely. But they occasionally reunited for live shows — sometimes together, sometimes in pairs.
“Breakup was the wrong word,” Koerner said by telephone. “We didn’t part ways, and we were always friends.”
The three issued an album of live performances from the ’60s in 1972 and one in 1997 that had been recorded in a performance a year earlier. Koerner had the most prolific solo recording career; Mr. Glover and Ray made two albums together, and Mr. Glover and Koerner released an album in 2009.
A review of Mr. Glover’s and Ray’s 1990 album, “Ashes in My Whiskey,” in The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., said it “captures what they’ve done superbly for years: acoustic blues played with a feel for the grit that spawned them.”
David Curtis Glover was born on Oct. 7, 1939, in Minneapolis to Harold Glover, an insurance salesman, and Margaret (Hauser) Glover. Growing up in the 1950s, he read “weird stuff” and hung out in cemeteries after midnight, he told Minnesota Public Radio in an interview. Childhood friends nicknamed him Tony.
He first heard the blues — as played by, among others, harmonica masters Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson — on powerful Mexican radio stations. He taught himself the harmonica by playing along to records and started to seek other musicians to play with.
Around 1960, he was encouraged to meet Ray, who was four years younger. He later recalled standing in the hall outside Ray’s apartment door before he knocked.
“I heard this early Lead Belly song coming from the other side,” he said in an interview in 2005 with Twin Cities Daily Planet, an online website. “There was this kid with a guitar, he had blond hair, red apple cheeks, he was maybe 18 or 19. He had Lead Belly really pretty much down.”
They eventually teamed up with Koerner, playing at coffeehouses and after-hours parties around the University of Minnesota. The Elektra release of “Blues, Rags and Hollers” built their reputation — not just in the United States.
Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra, said in an e-mail that he found out about Koerner, Ray, and Glover’s influence during a meeting with the Beatles in London. He was seeking their permission to make an album of Baroque arrangements of their songs. (The album — “The Baroque Beatles Book,” conducted by Joshua Rifkin — was released in 1965.)
“I explained to them what I wanted to do and John said: ‘Elektra? You do Koerner, Ray, and Glover, don’t you?’” Holzman wrote. “And the others chimed in and said, ‘You’re OK with us.’ You couldn’t get any better approval than that.”
In addition to his work with Koerner and Ray, who died in 2002, Mr. Glover had a sideline as a writer. Building on his Dylan expertise, he wrote the liner notes for “Bob Dylan Live, 1966: The Royal Albert Hall Concert,” a two-CD set.
He collaborated on “Blues With a Feeling” (2002), a biography of the blues musician Little Walter, with Scott Dirks and Ward Gaines. And he wrote criticism, notably for Rolling Stone, which published his reviews of albums by Bonnie Raitt, the Allman Brothers, Chuck Berry, and Jimi Hendrix.
Reviewing Hendrix’s album “Rainbow Bridge” in 1971, Mr. Glover wrote of the song “Red House,” “Hendrix plays Delta blues for sure — only the Delta may have been on Mars.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Glover, who lived in St. Paul, leaves two stepsons, Aaron and Nathaniel Nadler; and a brother, Gary.
Over the years, Mr. Glover opened for performers including John Lee Hooker and Lucinda Williams and became friendly with Patti Smith. In 1972 he accompanied her, on guitar, when she recited poetry at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
“He was a man with an unshakable personal code,” Smith told the Minneapolis Star Tribune after his death. “He was Little Sun Glover, leaving us silently, his rays quietly reverberating.”