Let me see a show of hands before I begin this column. How many of you have, in your lifetime, heard of “The Harmonicops?” How many even knew such a group existed? Well, it did. And that’s the subject of today’s sermon. First of all, their name should be a clue to the fact that they played harmonicas, and the rest of their name might indicate that they might have a relation to a police force in some town.
So far we’re batting a thousand. The Harmonicops were, indeed, policemen — three of them — and they represented our own little town, Centralia. Chief Ken (or Kenny) Payne played the melody on a chromatic harmonica: that’s one that can play all the sharps and flats. Officer John Ritchey played a large bass harmonica and patrol officer Joe Hatfield played a chord harmonica. That’s an instrument nearly two feet long with small groups of holes in both the top and the bottom. It took a dexterous person to play it as he flipped back and forth all over that instrument. Need I say he was usually the most watched of the three? Officer Hatfield sort of “faded away” in later years and was replaced by another patrol officer—and later police chief — Toni Breckel.
Toni is the only one still on the right side of the grass these days and I’m indebted to him for all of the history of the group. The name “Harmonicops” was in tribute to “The Harmonicats” a popular group in the 50s and 60s — led by a man named Jerry Murad. Over a period of two decades that group recorded 27 albums! To my knowledge our local group, the Harmonicops, did no professional recordings but played together for approximately fifteen years until the late 80s.
One of my memories involves being asked to attend one of their rehearsals, and to bring my harmonica with me. But, since my being mayor at the time also included the fact that I held the title of Commissioner of Police, that may have had something to do with the invitation. Let’s just say I was unable to keep up with their standards.
Where did they play? Where didn’t they play might be an easier question to answer. They played in nursing homes, private parties, grange halls, the legion hall, for the Washington State Police in Tacoma, jam sessions, picnics, a tavern at Hood Canal and were filmed by a Portland TV station while playing in Vancouver.
What sort of songs did they play? Well, just the opposite of today’s small groups, who mostly play songs that they’ve written. The Harmonicops seldom played an unfamiliar song that couldn’t be hummed or sung right along with them. They could play polkas, waltzes, even a technically challenging Tarantella as well as songs from the 20s, 30s, and currently popular songs. The amazing part to me is that they never used music! Not even in their rehearsals! They’d “woodshed” melodies until the songs came out sounding right. Come to think of it, that wasn’t an uncommon way to approach any challenges for people who grew up during the 1930s.
Toni summed up their entire career whenever they got together by saying, simply, “We had so much fun!”
In the space left in this column let me suggest another candidate — whom I’ve written about before — to join the overcrowded race for President of our country: My alter ego, Crotchetyman! Think of the dashing figure he’d present as he travels from one campaign location to another in his classic MG roadster with the top down and a long white silk scarf trailing in the wind behind him. Think of the confidence he would inspire that everything is finally all right in our nation.
Bill Moeller is a former entertainer, mayor, bookstore owner, city council member, paratrooper and pilot living in Centralia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.