"Toots" Thielemans, Rickenbackers & the Beatles

Walkin' & Hummin'

Over the years I bought a lot of jazz LPs, some of which featured a captivating harmonica part. Examining the jacket credits, this guy "Toots" Thielemans kept cropping up over and over. On Quincy Jones' excellent Gula Matari release (very hard to get on CD!), several recordings by Bob James ...the list goes on extensively. I always loved his work, but had no idea who this "Toots" guy was—other than he was apparently very much in demand.

Sometime later I heard The Flying Monkey Orchestra's I Like the Orange Thing while listening to KYOT in Scottsdale, AZ. Chasing down the Monkeys' excellent Back In the Pool CD (recommended!), the credits listed a veritable who's who of the contemporary jazz scene—including Toots.

Then I read yet another bio on the Fab Four, in which I learned the following: it was this 1958 photo (left) that John Lennon saw one day in Hamburg, Germany, and thought, "Gee, if a Rickenbacker guitar is good enough for Jean "Toots" Thielemans, then the George Shearing Orchestra's guitarist, it's good enough for me!" When the Byrds (David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, et al.) saw A Hard Day's Night at the theater, in turn they rushed right out and got themselves 12-string Rickenbackers, providing that distinctive Byrds sound. All from this one photo and Thielemans' reputation (he had earlier been a member of Charlie Parker's All Stars).

Now I was really curious about Thielemans, perennial winner of the Down Beat readers' and critics' poll in the "miscellaneous instruments" category. So when I discovered he was coming to the renowned Yoshi's sushi restaurant and jazz club two years ago this month, I dragged the wife off for dinner and Toots' act.

On our way to drop our son off at the Oakland airport for a flight back east, we had previously dined in the restaurant section of Yoshi's—located in Jack London Square. Served Japanese fashion (sans shoes), we found the sushi to be of the best quality and knew we'd be back at the first opportunity. This time, though, Joanna and I opted for a stage-side table in the jazz club in order to assure us of a good listening/viewing vantage point. Again we were not disappointed, the sushi being every bit as good as we had remembered.

Then the show began, with Toots, then 83, being helped onstage. Enthralled by his natural charm, we were captivated by his performance, especially given his ability to keep it all going at his age! The lineup also featured Kenny Werner on piano and, by the end of his performance, we had been treated to Toots' command of both the harmonica and electric guitar. Sorry, I don't remember if it was a Rickenbacker.

Now if Yoshi's would only book Oakland's own Pharoah Sanders again...

"Toots" Thielemans performs Sophisticated Lady