The harmonica virtuoso

June 02, 1994|By Steve McKerrow

QUICK, NAME your favorite harmonica player. OK, then, name any harmonica player.

Baltimoreans might have one answer: Larry Adler, the Baltimore-born virtuoso of the mouth harp who recently celebrated his 80th birthday in London, where he has lived for decades.

Any others? Aficionados might cite jazz artist "Toots" Thielemans, bluesmen Charlie Musselwhite and Sonny Terry and pop or folk stars Stevie Wonder, John Sebastian and Bob Dylan. Older fans would remember The Harmonica Rascals and The Harmonicats, popular novelty combos of the 1940s and 1950s.

Did anyone name Herb Shriner?

Until recently I wouldn't have, either, in spite of a long fascination with the mouth organ.

My first harmonica was a Marine Band model, a gift from my musician father when I was 7 or so. In third grade, I played a Stephen Foster medley at a PTA musical program on the instrument.

My next harmonica -- which I still own -- was a 12-hole Super Chromonica. It turns out I was exactly the kind of boy Herb Shriner was looking for when he launched his campaign to put a harmonica in the hands of every child in America.

I learned this, however, only after coming across a genuine Herb Shriner "Hoosier Boy" harmonica at an antique show in Atlantic City.

The instrument was in its original orange box, which bears a smiling picture of Herb Shriner. A caricature of his face also adorned one side of the 10-hole instrument, whose red and blue cursive lettering read "Herb Shriner Hoosier Boy." On the other side, block letters in blue and red read "Herb Shriner's Hoosier Boy Harmonica."

I bought it merely as an oddball addition to a small collection of instruments made by the M. Hohner company of Germany. Since 1871, the firm has been the world's leading manufacturer of harmonicas.

This particular Hohner instrument, in the key of C, seemed pretty much the basic Hohner except for the lettering and packaging.

"Who's Herb Shriner?" I asked the dealer, who had the little box tucked in a corner display case full of jewelry and other items.

"I have no idea. I forgot I even had that in there," he said.

"Who's Herb Shriner?" asked my wife when I showed her the instrument. (She no longer asks on such occasions, "Why did you buy that?")

Who is Herb Shriner, I wondered? The name triggered only a vague association. As television writer for The Evening Sun some years ago, I had interviewed a genial young man named Wil Shriner, who was launching a short-lived daytime talk show.

Hadn't he talked about his father as a well-known performer of the 1950s? A look into The Baltimore Sun archives and a check of some TV reference books turned up the story.

Herb Shriner was, indeed, a popular TV personality of the 1950s, best known as host of a game show, "Two for the Money." For about half a season, he also had his own variety show in 1956 on CBS.

A native of Bloomington, Ind., he became a spinner of homespun yarns and often was called "The Hoosier Humorist."

Sadly, his obituary also turned up in the files. On April 21, 1970 he and his wife were killed in a car accident in Florida. He was just 51.

Shriner was survived by three children: a daughter, Indy, and twin boys, Wil and Kin. Wil and Kin have since became entertainers -- Wil as a comedian and TV host, as noted, and Kin as an actor on the soap opera "General Hospital."

But the key to my harmonica mystery lay earlier, in a 1956 story by Sun entertainment writer Donald Kirkley, who interviewed Shriner before the debut of his CBS variety show.

Eureka! Before he was a Hoosier humorist, the article related, the entertainer was known as "Harmonica Herb."

Indeed, he got into show business because of his ability on the instrument, and at the age of 17 had led a harmonica band that performed at the "Hoosier Hop" of his high school.

The story also recounted Shriner's hopes for reviving interest in the instrument. It mentioned that Shriner himself had more than 100 harmonicas, including a one-note model and a 1/3 -inch long model. He also tried his hand at manufacturing harmonicas.

He contracted with "a German company" -- obviously M. Hohner -- to make a basic, inexpensive harmonica to distribute to school children in this country. My "Herb Shriner Hoosier Boy" seems to be one of those instruments.

A subsequent letter to Mr. Kirkley from a Sun reader recalled a harmonica boom in Baltimore in 1932, which the writer said brought Mr. Adler to the fore.

But what happened to Shriner's harmonica crusade? How many "Hoosier Boy Harmonicas" did he manufacture and distribute? Why did we not see a horde of harmonica players emerging from the late 1950s?

That's a mystery yet to be explored. Can any readers shed some light?

Steve McKerrow is a reporter for The Evening Sun.

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