This article tells the story of Chris Bathman, who claims to have introduced the harmonica to the professional stage. I can’t find any information about him outside of this article, but here is his story:
“I was born in the town of Thun, canton of Bern, Switzerland,” he said, “in 1846. My parents were manufacturers of cheese, dealers in cattle, etc., and in the near-by town I had an uncle who owned a cheese cellar and exported extensively to England and Germany. I cannot remember when I did not play the harmonica. It seemed to come to me naturally, and when, at the age of about 9, my parents sent me to live with my uncle in town, the natives would keep me playing for their amusement as long as I was able to supply the breath.
“My uncle understood something of the value of the gift as a novelty, and when a man named P. T. Barnum came to our town from America with a small concert company in which was a lady named Jenny Lind, the subject of my unusual musical aptitude on that one instrument was broached. Being so young I was not consulted as to the details of the arrangements that were made between my uncle and Barnum but it resulted in my engaging to travel with the concert company.
“We played in our town for a while, my work on the harmonica being to do solo stunts between acts, and to play with the small orchestra when Jenny Lind sang. My recollection is that the orchestra had four pieces besides my wind instrument. We drew large crowds, and my recollection now is that the performance on the mouth-organ was considered a most wonderful freak of a boy wonder.”
I don’t know if Chris Bathman was really the first professional harmonica player, but there have been several notable players since then.
Back in the 1930s and 1940s there were some famous harmonica orchestras playing vaudeville. My favorite of those (you just knew I had a favorite vaudevillian harmonica orchestra, right?) was Borrah Minevitch and his Harmonica Rascals.
In the 1940s, Warner Brothers produced a 10 minute short featuring Borrah and his Rascals called Borrah Minevitch And His Harmonica School. If you ever get a chance to see the whole thing, I highly recommend it. They do things with harmonicas that you’ve never heard before.
The most I was able to find is this low-quality clip on YouTube which, if memory serves, is the first two minutes of the Warner Brothers short:
Today I think we most often associate harmonica with country or blues. But the harmonica is still played in diverse genres. Few people can match Larry Adler‘s skills in multiple styles in a career which spanned several decades. Here, watch Adler and Itzchak Perlman performing George Gershwin:
HARMONICA ARTIST WHO TOURED WITH JENNY LIND: Barnum Discovered Him in His Early Days and He Proved to be a Novelty and Made a Hit. (PDF)
From April 9, 1911