ATOMIC H: The Harrington Blues Dynasty

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By Bonni McKeown

In Macon, Mississippi, where Hilda Spiller was born in 1930, she had a father and an uncle who played the mandolin and the violin.  Her brothers and nephew were musicians too--and then she married one, a fiddler and inventor, Houston Harrington. Houston began recording his fellow musicians. on a portable disc-cutting machine. After he and Hilda moved north and settled on Chicago's West Side in the early 1940s, Houston started a short-lived record label called Atomic-H in the 1950s and revived it briefly in the early 1970s.

Atomic H put out a few good records by Houston's successful blues-touring nephew Eddy Clearwater,  Sunnyland Slim, Morris Pejoe, JoJo Williams, and Louisiana-born piano player Henry Gray.  These were re-released on a  1972 Delmark record:  http://delmark.com/delmark.624.htm

Hilda and Houston divorced-- "we were married too young," she said in our 2007 interview, three years before she died of cancer.  But the music didn't end for Hilda.  "My second husband was Alfred Ray, and Ray is still my legal name today.  He died in 1994. I can't prove it but I believe he was also the father of (blues guitar great) Freddie King.  Alfred was from Longview, Texas—it was right next to the little town of Gilmer, Texas where Freddie was born in 1934.

"Freddie looked just like Alfred, and Alfred spent a lot of time with him when he was little. Freddie's mom's nickname was "Sang" and I knew her mom, too.  Ray brought Freddie over when he was just learning to play guitar. He was a chubby, dark-skinned, shy teenager, about 13. I told  Freddie, "Don't be afraid. Come on with it, you can't make any money being shy on the stage."  

Two of Hilda's sons, Vernon Ray Harrington and Joe Harrington, became musicians, both starting on guitar and then Joe switching to bass.

Vernon said: "Ernest Spiller, my mom's oldest brother, used to bring Magic Sam over to our house, 1340 S. Lawndale, around 1964.  When I was about 11, I'd sometimes play hooky from elementary school, go over to Sam's house and get guitar lessons. He stayed on the 1500 block of S. Hardy in a yellow courtway building; it's all rowhouses now.  My mom didn't know about me playing hookey." Hilda interrupted the story to scold her grown son: "Or I'd've been beating you up and down the alley."

Vernon continued: "At my uncle Ernest's place, 1543 S. Karlov, they named it Magic Sam's back yard. Every holiday they'd have a barbecue there, because at Magic Sam's apartment there was no place to have a barbecue. Some of the musicians who came were SP Leary, Hip Linkchain, Shakey Jake (Sam's uncle by marriage) and Mack Thompson (who gave Magic Sam his nickname based on his last name of Maghett).

Vernon was 16 and Magic Sam was 32 when Sam died in December 1969. But Vernon never forgot what he learned. His renditions of Magic Sam's "Feel So Good" boogie are just like the master.

The Harrington West Side dynasty's Atomic H fallout continues. Harmonica virtuoso Carey Bell (1936 -2007), another Macon, MS musician whose real surname was Harrington, http://www.msbluestrail.org/blues-trail-markers/black-prairie-blues also came to Chicago, played with Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon and others. Carey Bell is honored by a Mississippi state blues trail marker, and Eddy Clearwater's website claims him as a Harrington cousin.  http://www.eddyclearwater.com/Mississippi_Blues_Marker.html )

Carey fathered a brood of blues musicians, including renowned guitarist Lurrie Bell and Mississippi harmonica protege Steve Bell.  Lurrie  http://lurrie.com has been happily touring the world as one of Chicago's finest traditional electric blues guitarists.  

Lurie and his cousins Vern and Joe Harrington were among the young bluesmen who toured Europe as the New Generation of Blues in 1977, led by the late bass player and song producer Willie Dixon and Jim McNeal of Living Blues Magazine.  In the early 1980s, the Harringtons, who are residents of Austin formed  a band with fellow West Sider Larry Taylor, a singer and drummer, called the Atomic Souls.  Vern, Joe and Larry reunited in 2007-08 to play several shows together.  Vernon appeared just recently, Nov. 24, 2013 at BLUES on Halsted in a Delmark Records tribute to Magic Sam.

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