Listening to one of Sonny Terry’s albums touched Jean-Jacques Milteau to the core, although he did confess, “I’d already heard a bit of harmonica...”. So we can just imagine this young Parisian born in 1950 and living in the 13th arrondissement, not far from the Porte d’Italie, and how his childhood and youth must have been lulled by one of the chromatic instruments of someone like Albert Raisner. The latter, once past the golden age of his second trio (i.e. 1947 – 1953) had now become a radio and TV star, and had been broadcasting bravura pieces such as Le Canari since 1959. Or maybe Milteau, like most of his fellow-countrymen, didn’t even know Jean Wetzel’s name but been nourished, perhaps even to excess, on his mouth organ – Jean was that enigmatic performer (1954) of Jean Wiener’s theme specially composed for the film Touchez Pas Au Grisbi. Here indeed was stuff to render the ears of a young man more sensitive, forge them even, but from there to inspiring a true vocation, there’s a whole world ! And that world is the Blues.
We can imagine Jean-Jacques Milteau much more sensitive to the You’re No Good that opens Bob Dylan’s first revolutionary album (March 1962) – and what do you bet he used to listen over and over again to the new Dylan version of the famous Freight Train Blues ? Then in October 62, Milteau fell under the spell of The Beatles’ first single Love Me Do, a Paul McCartney composition given extra polish by John Lennon with a riff on harmonica inspired by Delbert McClinton (who’d recently scored a hit with Hey Baby ! by Texan Bruce Channel [February 62]). Like most of his contemporaries, he only discovered recordings made by Cyril Davis and Paul Butterfield much later, yet as early as 1963, they were taking up position as real ambassadors for the instrument. But in February 1964, one thing our hero didn’t miss was the Rolling Stones’ first single, Not Fade Away, suffused from beginning to end with Brian Jones’ flaming harmonica, true to his own nature. “I bought a harmonica because there was some kind of rock-folk fashion at the time on the part of blokes like Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Donovan, John Mayall...”
John Mayall was on the scene from 66 and before that, in 1965, there’d been Sonny Terry and his breathtaking Lost John. From that moment on, this was the music, with that special sound, that form of expression that by common accord “could only come from the blues”. That title comes from a 1954 Folkways recording ; the label founded by Moses Asch in 1948 proposed recordings by the heroes of the folk scene at the same time – people such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronck (all Bob Dylan’s idols)... and some survivors of the golden age of Country Blues such as Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Willie Johnson, Brownie McGhee, Jazz Gillum, LeadBelly, Josh White, Big Joe Williams, Reverend Gary Davis... Outside the USA the label was distributed by Le Chant du Monde – and this would be Jean- Jacque Milteau’s first producer.
Surprisingly enough, the harmonica was put aside or remained unknown to all those who took part in the Rock ‘n Roll revolution started by Elvis Presley, with one noteworthy exception : Bo Diddley, who took Billy Boy Arnold on board, whose incisive and decisive style on (most notably) Bring It To Jerome, Diddley Daddy and Pretty Thing struck home. When a so-called rocker wants a “blower” with him, he ‘s usually more likely to take a saxophone ! So it’s not the least of the merits we can credit Dylan with, as we can many of the early idols of English pop, who all worshipped the likes of Presley, Cochran, Berry, Holly and Jerry Lee, but didn’t forget to bring their other heroes lurking in the shadows to our attention too – Sonny Boy Williamson, for example (the real one, n° 1, John Lee Curtis d. 1948 and the fake, n° 2, Rice Miller), Bill Jazz Gillum, Howlin’ Wolf, Peg Leg Sam, Sonny Terry, Walter Horton, Slim Harpo, Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, Junior Wells, James Cotton...
Like Bob Dylan, Brian Jones, Keith Relf, Cyril Davis, Paul Jones, John Mayall in England, Don Van Vliet and Alan Wilson in the USA, were all hammering out the same message through their records, and the Rolling Stones’ first album was typical of what groups such as the Pretty Things, the Yardbirds, The Blues Incorporated, Manfred Mann and so many others were doing at the time... Some famous names and titles are recalled or evoked on their albums : Little Walter, I Just Want To Make Love To You (a Willie Dixon theme first sung alongside Muddy Waters in 54) ; Jimmy Reed Honest I Do ; Billy Boy Arnold Mona – I Need You Baby (by and with Bo Diddley) ; James Moore (ex Harmonica Slim) alias Slim Harpo I’m A King Bee. Jean- Jacques Milteau received the message loud and clear and, fired with delight and passion, he took a new, exciting turn to set him on his personal “road to Damascus”. Soon he knew before many others who DeFord Bailey, Jaybird Coleman and Noah Lewis were... His first harmonica cost him the small fortune of 8.50 FF. No question of lessons or teaching ; like the Jew’s harp, the harmonica always responds to self-teaching. Jean-Jacques Milteau concluded his autodidactic period in autumn 1970 by taking a trip to the USA. This immersion in the home of the blues allowed him to drink at the source and tap into the true roots of this music that was his personal obsession. He got to know of contemporaries who were already fine marksmen on the scene : Charles Musselwhite who’d been recording since 67, and Carey Bell, since 69. There was also talk about a certain Charlie McCoy in Nashville working as a sideman since 61 under Chet Atkins’ leadership, though he’d recorded a promising first album in his own name in 1967.
Once back home, Milteau was aware he was ready to start a professional career, though for the moment he lived off odd jobs (some say he was a cook and a record dealer !). “It was pure chance, I was playing for sheer pleasure. Certain people needed what I could do and I happened to meet them”. (Standing at the crossroads bending on his knees ? History doesn’t tell us). For the moment, one day in 1977, our humble servant met Eddie Mitchell just back from Nashville, where, incidentally Charlie McCoy had become the star not to be missed on any account. In Milteau, Monsieur Eddy found his own McCoy ; it turned into an adventure that lasted till 1987. “I was playing with Eddy Mitchell in the late seventies. He’d had Charlie McCoy come to the Palais des Congrès and we’d played some harmonica duets. I still considered myself a beginner at the time and for me this was hugely exciting.”
Jean-Jacques’ fate was sealed, whether he liked it or not, and from now on he was a professional musician. The offers of jobs weren’t in short supply – concerts, music for advertising, film scores, recording sessions all lined up. In France it was clear as spring water for everyone – he was the one and only ! Recently a commentator called our attention to the fact that it would be easier to list the artists Milteau hasn’t accompanied than try and draw up a list of those he has. In 1973 his first recording for Le Chant du Monde was released, an album devoted to the harmonica in the Instrumental Special series. Then Blues Harp was released in 1980 and Just Kiddin’ in 1983. (The Blues Harp CD released in 1989 brings together pieces selected from both these albums). In 1991 Explorer does as it names suggests, going into all the potential areas for diatonic accordion except the blues. The following year Jean-Jacques Milteau was awarded a Victoire de la Musique (national music awards) for this same album. Meantime, he went on to record another album in 1992 with the Grand Blues Band before appearing as first part of Michel Jonasz’s and Eddy Mitchell’s shows. He was a member of the Enfoirés collective for the show Regarde les riches ! [Look At The Rich !], staged at the Garnier Opera House in Paris. His next album Live (1993) is evidence of his intense work for stage and theatre. In 1994, again with the Enfoirés, he went onstage at the Grand Rex with Eddy Mitchell, Paul Personne and Renaud for the show La route de Memphis [The Road To Memphis]. In 1995 he added texts to of 15 of his own compositions (sometimes penned jointly with Jean-Yves D’Angelo or Manu Galvin) for another album Routes. Then in 1996 came the deliberately chanson-oriented Merci d’être venus ; many of the guest stars here had once been his boss - Francis Cabrel, Maxime Leforestier, Charles Aznavour, Florent Pagny, Eddy Mitchell, Richard Bohringer, Michel Jonasz and Claude Nougaro. In 1997 he worked with the organisation Enfance et Musique by leading a workshop for sick children at the Bullion Rehabilitation Centre in the Yvelines. His assistant on this project was one of his pupils and another harmonica player, Greg Szlapczynski.
In 1998 came Blues Live, a double album with 22 titles recorded at the Petit Journal Montparnasse club during a particularly “hot” evening. Bastille Blues came out in 1999, and consisted almost entirely of his own new compositions, sometimes signed together with producer Michel-Yves Kochmann. This new programme plus his most bravura pieces were his arms for his forthcoming appearance at the Olympia. A new short-lived album of live music entitled Honky Tonk Blues appeared in 2000 as the record of this event. In 2001 another new album, Memphis, produced by Sébastien Danchin and recorded with some of the great names of American blues such as Mighty Mo Rodgers, Little Milton and Mighty Sam McClain, earned him another Victoire de la Musique, followed the next year with a major Sacem award, their Grand Prix du Jazz, the crowning honour for his whole career and his artistic itinerary. In 2003, Milteau went to New York to record the material for his new album Blue 3rd ; his fellow-musicians and guests this time were such notables as Gil Scott-Heron, Terry Callier, N’Dambi and Howard Johnson. In 2006, with a smaller gathering, he recorded Fragile, of much more intimate nature. 2007 saw the release of quite the opposite, Live, hot ‘n Blue, a return to music with a bit more muscle and flesh ! In 2008 he recorded Soul Conversation with singers Michael Robinson and Ron Smyth.
Jean-Jacques Milteau has travelled many different roads in both the geographical and musical sense of the term. From China to South Africa, from Nashville to New Orleans, or Ireland to Mexico, he is a musician whose curiosity knows no limits ; he’s forever searching for new encounters, open to others, ready for every new musical experience that might cross his path. And what about that question on everyone’s lips ? How far is he responsible for France’s annual sales figure of 20 000 harmonicas ?!
Maurice Bernard Translation Delia Morris