Peter ‘Madcat’ Ruth: The Albums That Changed My World

Michigan harmonica legend Peter ‘Madcat’ Ruth has long graced the stages with his instrumental prowess. Today, he unveils the albums that changed his life forever.

A love for ‘All the Old Guys’; Peter ‘Madcat’ Ruth performing at Farmfest 2021. (Photo/Sean Miller)

EDITOR’S NOTE: All musicians can trace their inspiration to key recordings that captivated them and influenced their careers. Writer Ross Boissoneau presents world-changing recordings for Ann Arbor harmonica icon Peter “Madcat” Ruth today. Scroll down for a Spotify playlist of her picks as well as her own tunes.

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Peter “Madcat” Ruth has been playing the harmonica for over five decades, although it wasn’t his first instrument.

“I still play guitar, but in every band I was in there was a better guitar player,” he laughs. “I am very competent. But I only do it solo with guitar and harmonica.

This is because he has become known worldwide for his harmonica playing in virtually every style. He first rose to prominence with Chris Brubeck’s band New Heavenly Blue, then joined Chris’ brother Darius’ band, the Darius Brubeck Ensemble. It became Dave Brubeck’s backup band, and he toured with that band for five years in the 70s.

Since then, the Ann Arbor resident has performed with blues, rock and funk bands, symphonies, and in radio and television commercials. He still plays with Chris Brubeck’s Triple Play and the improvisational quartet CARMa Quartet. His harmonica playing can be heard on over 100 recordings and instructional DVDs.

On April 19, the CARMa Quartet performs a Ukraine Relief Benefit at The Ark, the same venue where Ruth will join Luke Winslow-King and Roberto Luti for a performance on June 10. He also teaches harmonica lessons for the Wheatland Music Organization.

1. Junior Wells’ Chicago Blues Band, “Hoodoo Man Blues” (1965)– Around 1965, I bought “Hoodoo Man Blues” by Junior Wells. This knocked my socks off. Junior and buddy. I played it over and over and over again. I had already listened to other blues, mainly acoustic/folk blues, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. When I heard Sonny, I said, “Oh my god, I have to do this.” The first three years (playing the harmonica), I only listened to Sonny. So I got this. Junior Wells was so different, so modern. I loved the sound of the amplified harmonica. After that, I started listening to Little Walter, Big Walter Horton, James Cotton, Paul Butterfield.
Listen: “Take It Back and Hold It”

2. Charlie McCoy, “The Real McCoy” (1968) – Then I had “The Real McCoy” by Charlie McCoy. He was a Nashville session player. It was another mind blowing experience. I only listened to electric or acoustic blues. His approach was very different. Clearer somehow. Chicago blues was known for its gritty sound. Charlie’s was clean, linear, controlled, precise. It was a great learning experience on how to play in different settings. During the 60s, 70s, 80s, there was a lot (harmonica) in country music. That was all Charlie. I had the chance to know him.
Listen: “The Real McCoy”

3. Jimi Hendrix, “Electric Ladyland” (1968) – He also had a huge influence. It was based in the blues, but took it to a different place. It was an electric and wild distortion. I used to play/still play the guitar. He was such an amazing player and he wrote these great songs. I wasn’t trying to play guitar like him, I was trying to play harmonica.
Listen: “All Along the Watchtower”

Likes the moment: Music from the 20s, 30s to 40s – For my own pleasure, it’s almost always something from the 20s or 30s. I love Jimmy Rogers. From the 40s to later to Hank Williams. All the old ones, Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers. It’s like you’re tracing things, “What did this person listen to?” They were really influential. They set the pattern for all musicians who followed. Henry Thomas: It influenced people like the Taj Mahal, and I love the Taj Mahal. He played guitar and blues flute in a rack.
Listen: Charlie Poole, “Milwaukee Blues”

ALBUMS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD: Peter Madcat Ruth’s playlist on Spotify

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