The Stolen Harmonicas

Around 1987-88 I was sitting in the kitchenette at Streeterville Studios in Chicago after playing on a jingle. I had brought an amp, and it was sitting in the hall right next to the room I was in, along with my coat and my harps, which were in a fishing tackle box inside a fancy- looking triple-trumpet case that I used to carry over my shoulder.

It was about 5 pm on a cold winter afternoon. I filled out my W-4 slips, finished my coffee and got up to leave, but when I got to my stuff, just 10 feet down the hall, I saw that the harps were gone. I was stunned and I immediately knew that they had been stolen. It was the second time it had happened to me- all my harps had been stolen out of my car several years before, and the feeling of having it happen again was sickening. People in the studio said that they had seen a man who they thought was a courier running out of the place with a blue bag- my case – over his shoulder. I was frantic, but I thought that maybe once he saw that he had stolen a bunch of harmonicas and not 3 trumpets, he would throw them out.

I ran down to the alley and looked in the dumpsters, to no avail. I was half crazy and panic-stricken, and I started walking off into the night, hoping that by some miracle, I’d find them or the thief. I walked for miles through the Loop, ending up at the pawn shop district in the South Loop, but they were all closed. It was about 10 degrees out and I was freezing. I gave up, took a cab back to my car, drove home, and numbly played a gig at The Green Mill with The Ed Peterson Quintet, playing piano and, for obvious reasons, no harp at all.

The next morning I still felt catatonic. The phone rang, and my wife told me that a bartender from some bar down on Rush Street wanted to talk to me. I told her I didn’t want to talk to any bartender- if the place wanted me for a gig, have the manager call me. He was insistent, so I came to the phone in the worst of moods. His name was Patrick Davis, and he said “I’m a bartender at O’Leary’s Saloon. Last night around 6 pm a guy came into my bar. He had watches under his coat he was trying to sell, and this blue bag with a tackle box full of harmonicas in it. I bought the harps for $35.”
Well, I jumped in the air and shouted some happy profanities. I got his address and raced down there- no breakfast, no coffee- I had to get there. Here’s the strange part- my name was nowhere in or on that case.

Somehow, I had never thought about putting it there, and that might have been what got the harps back to me- how could the thief have sold them with my name plastered all over the case?

In addition to the harps (at least 40) I had several mics, a tuner, some effects pedals, tools, all sorts of stuff. How did the bartender find out that the case was mine? My friend Craig Sieben had just returned a Harmonica Jazz demo tape that I had given him before I put it out- he didn’t need it any more, and I flipped it into the case absent-mindedly, never imagining that my phone number on the cassette label would get my harps back to me!
When I drove down to Patrick’s place, I realized that it was just a block south of the pawn shops I had walked to the night before. I walked up the stairs, rang the bell, and was greeted by a tall kid of 22 who handed me the bag. I opened it up just to see my harps- everything was there- harps, mics, pedals, etc- and took one out to play just to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming. It was a Golden Melody harp in A and it was real.

He said, “You know, I was listening to the tape- you’re pretty good- wanna play a tune?” It was getting stranger.

“Are you a musician?,” I asked.

“Yes, I’m a college student, part-time bartender, and I sing and play guitar- wanna play a blues?”

“Sure”.

So he starts playing in E, coincidentally the perfect key for the harp I had taken out. I close my eyes to play and he starts to sing. I opened my eyes to see who had walked in the room- this kid from the suburbs sang exactly like Muddy Waters.

We got through playing and I asked the obvious question- “How the h__ , ? etc.”

He pointed to his turntable that had a stack of Muddy Waters’ records on it.
“I’m starting a Muddy Waters tribute band. My partner plays harp, and when this guy walked in and opened up the case and I saw all the harps, I thought, ‘what a great price for all those harps- my partner could use them’. Later, when I looked through the case and saw how many there were, I figured that whoever owned them must be a serious player, and I felt wrong about keeping them. Then I found your name and number on the cassette and called you”.

I was speechless. I thanked him in amazement, paid him $50 and took him out to breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s, a great Chicago breakfast place nearby. I told him that he was on my guest list for life, anywhere, anytime. And I never saw him again. Truth is stranger than fiction.


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