Quick! How many times have harmonica instrumentals only been held off no. 1 by the biggest selling record of the year? In any properly ordered Pop universe, the answer should be none, but in this imperfect world, there was one, and this is it.
I have an umbilical connection with ‘Groovin’ with Mr Bloe’, as this is my Official First Single I Ever Bought (meaning that it’s the one I can feel safe in admitting to, given that it’s marginally respectable, as opposed to the Real First Single I Ever Bought, which was ‘The Leavin’ (Durham Town)’ by Roger Whittaker). Though I’d been listening to Radio 1 daily since just before Xmas Day 1969, I never really started to take things in until, being a tidy-minded person and something of an anal-retentive in psychological terms, I started writing down the Top 30 every week. The England World cup Squad’s ‘Back Home’ was just breaking into the charts, and I was allowed to turn over early to BBC1, just the once, before Top of the Pops had ended, to see the dinner-jacketed squad sing it. And, much lower down, this weird instrumental was starting what would prove to be a lengthy chart spell.
I say weird, because I couldn’t work out what was making that sound. There were only four instruments on the disc, and you could hear each of them, clear and separate. A crisp, metronomic drumbeat. A flexible but distinct rubbery bass. Deep bass-register piano chords. And this completely un-pop-like sound twisting and wailing its way through the melody. What the hell was it?
I ended up playing it to my Uncle, whose opinion of pop music mirrored that of my parents. He identified it instantly as a harmonica, which I should have recognised for myself, but had failed to do so because I simply did not associate harmonicas with pop (I had heard no blues up to this point). In those very early days, and based on my parents’ attitude to the music, I kinda thought of all pop music as occupying an insulated cocoon, with no bearing on or from any other kind of more respectable music whatsoever. And never would the twain meet.
But here was this bouncy instrumental, which I loved hearing, and it’s climbing the charts. It’s into the Top 10, it’s actually climbed as high as no 3, I’m considering buying it. It sticks at no 3 for a week. Mungo Jerry’s ‘In the Summertime’ is no 1, and Free’s ‘Alright Now’ has leapt 23 places to no 4. The following week, Mr Bloe goes up to no 2. This is the week when my purchase will be of the greatest strategic use, when it will help push it up that essential one further place to no. 1. I beg the money off my mother and buy it at Sykes’ Records, on Lane End Road.
In this, I am being doubly naive. Firstly, in thinking that a two-bit, hole in the wall local shop like Sykes contributes to the chart returns, and secondly that Mr Bloe is more likely to overtake Mungo Jerry than Free. The following week, I am bitterly disappointed to find that ‘In the Summertime’ is still no. 1, which it will go on to be forever that summer, or for seven weeks, whichever is sooner, and that free and Mr Bloe have swapped places. Neither will break past Mungo Jerry.
‘Groovin’ with Mr Bloe’ falls away. Apparently, there was a live appearance on Top of the Pops which I missed due to the weekly parental ban, though ‘Mr Bloe’, so far as this single is concerned, is a rhythm section assembled by arranger Zack Lawrence (who plays the piano) and a session harmonica played by jazz harmonica veteran Harry Pitch, whose harmonica can otherwise be heard on such diverse items as Frank Ifield’s ‘I Remember You’, and the theme music for Last of the Summer Wine. So, a session outfit, playing an instrumental written and first recorded in America in 1968.
There is a follow-up, ‘Curried Soul’ (on which the piano is played by aspiring sessionman Elton John) which, despite it being the follow-up to a massive hit, Radio 1 is curiously reluctant to play, even as something for the DJs to talk all the way through. A third single, ’74-78 New Oxford’ (the record company’s address) doesn’t even get that exposure. The record company sponsors a tour, with progressive band Hookfoot as Mr Bloe which means, in practice, that they start off my playing ‘Groovin’ with…’ then playing their usual set.
In much later years, when I am married, I occasionally baffle my stepchildren by pointing out that an old record they are listening to with contemporary disbelief actually was a smash hit. They can’t understand why, and I find it hard to believe myself. This never actually applied to ‘Groovin’ with Mr Bloe’, but it would have fit that description perfectly
What I now understand, decades out of date, is that like a lot of improbable and obscure visitors to the Top 30, Mr Bloe was a favourite of the Northern Soul Scene, of which I did not become aware until 1974. It all fits, the hi-energy metronomic beat, the pounded piano, the fizzing bass. The harmonica, the melody that attracted me then and which still tickles my nostalgia, was the least important factor in the track’s success.
So a harmonica instrumental, played by the man whose most widely-recognised piece of music is the Last of the Summer Wine theme came close to being number One in the singles chart, in 1970. If not for Mungo Jerry, damn them (never liked ‘In the Summertime’ anyway).