Late nineteenth century/early twentieth mouth organ bouts were held between pugilistic fights. Australia’s first mouth organ champion was Walter Omond in 1899, blowing on an Albert’s Boomerang at the Golden Gate Club in Sydney. He only had to beat one opponent to obtain the prestigious title. I had a little dabble in the noble art of fisticuffs back in olden times, but theses days my only passion is for the humble instrument that fits in your pocket, which by the way has never waned and in recent years has had an upsurge. I though it might be interesting to pen a treatise on the connection (sometimes tenuous) between boxing and harmonica over time.
Mouth Organ Bands
At the height of Mouth Organ Bands in the thirties, local bands entertained the fight fans between bouts. On the Simpkins/McDonald card at North Sydney was their Tramway Mouth Organ Band. That’s when the trams ran down to the sea.
“Hit and not be hit.”
Johnny Famechon was my first real introduction to the ring and the skill of slipping punches. He was a boxer in the true style, full of skill jabbing and moving. Fammo’s maxim was “hit and not be hit.” Johnny trained just up the road (a couple of torpedo punts) from our home at the Youth Club (Blue & White Singlets – thought they’d be red and white like our footy jumpers). I can still recall, as a young nipper, lining the Main Street of our township and cheering his return on being champion of the world. Johnny won the World Featherweight title beating Jose Legra at the Albert Hall in London on 21st January 1969. He went on and successfully defended his World title twice against Japan’s Fighting Harada.
“You should have seen the other bloke.”
The inspiration for this article, however was Jeff Harding, a fair dinkum Aussie Rocky and a most underrated Australian champion. It was a magazine segment on a Sunday Sports Show where Jeff pronounced his love for the blues harmonica. He put a vinyl record on his turntable and played Carey Bell’s Hit Man from the ‘Harp Attack’ album. Gotta luv him.
Jeff Harding had only fourteen professional fights when he was offered to fight Dennis Andries for the World Light Heavyweight title in Atlanta. Andries couldn’t get anyone to fight him and an offer was put to Harding’s camp as Australia was the flavour of the month due to the success of the movie Crocodile Dundee. When it came to the twelfth round Jeff was a long way behind on points (having been knocked down in the fifth). He had a broken nose and cuts around both eyes. He stormed out like it was the first with a fury of combinations flooring Andries, not once, but twice. The referee stepped in then and there to put a halt to proceedings awarding the title to Jeff Harding. Jeff was transported to hospital after the bout and when the doctors and nurses viewed his battered visage, they offered their commiseration on losing. Jeff’s response was to retort “No! I’m the World Champion. You should have seen the other bloke.”
The following year a rematch was fought and Jeff lost a brutal battle on points. Then in true Hollywood style a trilogy was formed when they went head to head again. It couldn’t have been scripted any better, with Jeff regaining the World Light Heavyweight Championship. You bloody beauty.
“He can run, but he can’t hide.”
Joe Louis probably needs no introduction as he is widely acclaimed the greatest boxer of all time. He successfully retained his world title twenty five times over a period of twelve years. Joe also knew his way around the ten hole tin can. He and his trainer would often jam to provide a release from the strict training regime. In a rematch against Billy Conn, who had pushed Joe in their previous altercation, reporters asked Joe how he would handle Billy this time. Joe Louis responded “He can run, but he can’t hide.”
“I’ll be there at the finish.”
Dom Volante the ‘Liverpool Fighting Machine’ had a fourteen year professional boxing career. He was also a noted harmonica exponent with a repertoire of operatic pieces. Dom once knocked out Nipper Cooper thirty seconds into a fifteen rounder and to entertain the disappointed crowd he produced his harmonica. A handy step dancer, Dom explained this aided his footwork for boxing and that the harmonica enhanced his breathing. A favourite maxim of Dom’s was, “I’ll be there at the finish.”
“I’m going to go all out this round.”
Battersea’s Frank Hough was known as ‘The Fighting Hussar’ because of his army background. Frank was known to entertain the punters after a fight either with song or harmonica. In 1934 he fought twice a week as he declared that was the best way to retain fitness. Frank once had eleven fights in sixteen days and in 1938 he fought a ten rounder every week. The same year he signed an £80 a week contract to perform with the Louis Levy Band. In one performance he crooned and played harmonica for the 6:30 pm house then headed off to box at the National Sporting Club. Frank was unsuccessful losing (RTD – Referee Technical Decision) to Merlo Preciso a former light heavyweight champion of Europe. He then returned (injuries and all) to the theatre for the 9pm session. Frank at one time was also a member of the Jack Hylton Band where he took a two week sabbatical from fighting to play a stage engagement with the band. His fighting career stretched from 1934 – 47 and consisted of a 158 bouts. Frank was well known for expressing the phrase, “I’m going to go all out this round.”
Big George Brock
“The music don’t hit back.”
Big George Brock hailed from Mississippi and it was said (maybe by himself) that he not only sparred against the legendary Sonny Liston, but he also gave him a whipping. George additionally found himself in blues royalty company when he played with Muddy Waters. His retirement from amateur boxing for music wasn’t a difficult decision, in Brock’s words, “The music don’t hit back”.
Billy Joel & Bob Dylan
“One time he could have been champion of the world.”
Had to throw in these two. Firstly, Billy Joel the harmonica (piano) man, who won his first twenty two fights then lost the next, breaking his nose in the last round and thus ending his pugilistic claims. Secondly, Bob Dylan. He wrote a classic tune titled Hurricane about Reuben ‘Hurricane’ Carter, who at one time could have been the champion of the world – that is if he hadn’t been framed for murder.
Marvellous Marvin Hagler
“If they cut my bald head open they will find a boxing glove in it.”
I don’t follow boxing anymore, those days are long gone. But with the passing of Marvellous Marvin Hagler (when I first started planning this article), I wanted to acknowledge my admiration for his skill and courage as a boxer. A right handed southpaw, which meant his jab had a fair bit behind it. This ability would enable Marvin to switch to an orthodox stance during rounds. His illustrious career comprised of 67 fights – 62 wins (52KO), 3 losses and 2 draws.
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5 thoughts on “Harpin Ringside”
Wow! Who knew so many famous boxers were also harmonica enthusiasts.
Great read. Thanks Ol’Shep.
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The most owned instrument in the world!