Nearly 30 years ago, while still enjoying the crest of success with the jam band, War, Lee Oskar started making harmonicas.
It’s an almost unique story, a fully paid-up member of rock’s elite getting involved in the grimy day-to-day of instrument manufacture, but one that will ring bells of recognition for virtually anyone familiar with either side of this murky, yet addictively satisfying business.
Today, while no longer at the top of the charts, Oskar is still very much at the top of his game and manages to combine two very successful lines: Lee Oskar harmonicas and the Low Rider Band (no longer allowed to use the name War, but more of that later).
“People are always asking me how I manage to combine the two,” he begins. “But, you see, if I’m playing a gig, I get to do some brand sponsorship, and if I’m at a show like Musikmesse or at NAMM, then I’m playing. It’s not as though I’m doing two different things – they go hand in hand.
“The harmonica is my tool,” he explains. “It’s how I live, but I was always frustrated with the instruments I got, maybe because of the quality of the supply. For years, of course, like most other struggling musicians, I had no money and I had one harmonica, so I had to make do. I had been playing since I was six years old, so I was always on the look out for something better, it was like a quest. But then, once I started playing with Eric Burden and War, suddenly I had all the money I could want to spend on harmonicas.
“All that happened was that I got even more frustrated, having to buy ten instruments to get one decent one.”
It is tribute to Oskar’s ‘quest’ that it was when War was at its commercial peak in 1976 and 77 that the ‘how’ part of that question was answered.
“I had been looking around for someone to make me a harp for some time, but I hadn’t had any luck,” he recounts. “Then, on tour in Japan, I was on my way down to the lobby to give an interview, when I heard this harmonica playing. I never made it to that interview.
“This harmonica sounded amazing. I hunted around to find the room it was coming from and knocked on the door. This little old Japanese man was in there, he couldn’t speak a word of English. His name was Kan Manaka and when we found a translator, I was able to explain who I was. Kan was a clerk, but played a lot of concerts in those days. I loved his harp – and I saw it was made by Tombo, so I set about making contact with the Manno family.”
And there it started, but it is tribute to both sides’ determination to get the Lee Oskar harmonicas right that the launch of the first models did not take place until the Summer NAMM Show in 1983.
“I actually wanted to go to the big NAMM Show in California, but I was too late registering, so I went to the summer show in Chicago.
“Not long after that, I strolled into Mannie’s in New York and asked to see the manager. ‘My name’s Lee Oskar,’ I said, ‘and these are my harmonicas’. He just hollered at me: ‘Get the fuck out of here and don’t come back. Get yourself a distributor!’”
Oskar went through several distribution models, using agents, before heading for Kaman.
“Kaman was widely seen as the best, so everybody told me I would never get them, but I approached John McGraw, who was the head of Coast Music, which was part for he Kaman set-up. I was surprised how keen he was to see me, but it turned out that a lot of retailers had been beating up his reps asking them for Lee Oskar. I was straight in and I’m still with KMC today.”
In the UK, Tombo and Lee Oskar has been with FCN Music for some 20 years now and is a staple of the British supplier’s catalogue.
“Tombo has been making harmonicas since 1917 and is renowned for its technical expertise,” explains FCN’s commercial director, Julia Thompson. “It has a large range of harmonicas including chromatics and tremelos – and we also sell the full range of accessories.
“As for Lee, well we receive huge encouragement from him. He is very hands-on with product support. He just generates enthusiasm and respect in the harmonica community.”
To all intents and purposes, that is the story of how Oskar began (and continues) straddling the music business and the world of MI, but it is worth pointing out exactly what he and Tombo have done to the harmonica.
Back in 1977, harmonicas were made with a wooden comb, which expanded and contracted according to temperature and humidity. Eventually they can splinter and even injure the player’s lips. Oskar wanted a plastic comb, which does none of this and is easier to clean.
He then wanted the plastic comb to hold the reeds in a completely airtight sandwich, thus giving a cleaner sound and better projection. In this way. Tombo was able to make the reeds longer, thinner and with a higher copper content than normal reeds – adding to their longevity. The result was a harp that is easy to play and provides a smooth vibrato and ease of note bending.
Oskar insisted that the harmonicas should be modular, enabling any reed to be put into any harp, and introduced a colour coding to make it easier for both the retailer and the player when it comes to buying and storing the instruments.
“We celebrated 25 years in business in 2008 and it was a big moment for us. Once you’ve manufactured a product, that’s it until you make the next one. Thank God we got the most important things right – we celebrated with the same instrument we started with. Development is all about new things.”
Lee Oskar makes harmonicas in any and every key and across four ‘styles’, with the original being the major diatonic, which is most commonly used for rock, blues and country. Now there are three other tunings: the Melody Maker, which enables single note playing without the need for bending (although player can ‘bend’ if they want to); the Natural Minor, which plays what it says on the tin, making minor blues, rock and jazz far more accessible; and the Harmonic Minor, which opens up eastern styles for the harp player. It’s an impressive collection.
“My tunings mean the nuances of the keys suit the style being played. I was the first to come up with natural and harmonic minor harmonicas, we’ve opened up the whole market – but at the same time, we’ve hardly made a dent.
“We’re now looking to attach harmonicas to bands. You know, get as many harp-playing bands as possible. They don’t have to be virtuosos, but I just want to see more harmonica players in bands.”
And if ever there were someone likely to do that, it is Oskar. His expansive blues and staccato funk are major factors in the success of War’s biggest singles, playing the harp alongside War’s sax player, the late Charles Miller. “People ask me who played trumpet on Low Rider,” he laughs. “But Charles and I were so together, it made a sound so tight that it was hard to believe it was just a sax and a harmonica.
“Charles was a great player – and he was so accommodating. He would hear me doing something and go along with me – in the end it would happen spontaneously. You can’t learn this stuff. It comes from playing together.”
War’s trademark, apart from some killer hooks, was that it was a jam band, a band that went for it by the seat of the pants, and thus found itself blurring the parameters of any particular style. Today, the band known as War is more of a tribute band, playing the old hits – and needless to say, it angers Oskar considerably.
War’s manager, Gerry Goldstein, owns the name, along with the original keyboard player, leaving Oskar and the remaining members of War to function under the Low Rider moniker.
“We’re not even allowed to say ‘formerly of War’,” he says. “This is another part of the drive to get more young bands with harmonicas. I want to share what I know now with them, help them take responsibility for their own music, understand how to control their copyright. You know, when you love music, you tend to trust people who say they want to help… And then you find yourself looking back and wondering where those 30 years of royalties are.
“Then again, there’s no point in being paranoid – there’s a balance there between needs and musts.”
Oskar lives in hope that one day a deal can be cut with Goldstein that will see the remaining original members of War performing under that name again. But in the meantime, he is enjoying jamming with his band and taking on any challenge that presents itself to him. That could be anything from learning Sentimental Mood on a plane flight to Japan or pulling together an album of Brazilian music.
“I just love melodies – and the harmonica is my voice. I’m particularly lucky because through finding my own voice, I’ve made it easier for other people to find theirs. That’s what makes me happy these days; hearing that someone has broken through using one of my instruments – music to my ears.”
FCN MUSIC: 01892 603733