Surviving MS to become philanthropist, music producer

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"You got to be beautiful inside," says Bellows Falls harmonica player Jimmy Gordon, "or it’s not going to come through in your music."

His voice is as light as dragonfly wings, soft as a poppy petal. Then he tells a joke.

"You know, harmonica is the only instrument that you play half the notes on an inhale." His smile gets wider, more impish. "So what’s the difference between a banjo and a harmonica?"

Jimmy straightens as if suddenly inflated by a passing breeze. His face can’t contain his smile much longer.

"With a harmonica, only half the notes suck!"

He throws back his head and cackles. The laugh comes from deep in his belly and twirls in his throat, bursting from him in sharp pops and glides.

"Oh, that one gets everybody," he says. His face settles into thoughtful rest. His voice slides soft again.

He can’t help it. When he talks, when he moves, Jimmy Gordon sings. ***

Jimmy started playing harmonica as a child growing up outside Washington, D.C. He picked up the guitar and other instruments along the way.

His mother, a guidance counselor in the D.C. public schools, was a music lover and piano player who regularly took the family to concerts.

"I remember going to see Airmen of Note, the Air Force jazz group," Jimmy says. "She took us to Sonny Terry, Charlie Byrd. And once, when I was about 12, she says, ‘I got tickets for you and your friend and his mother to go see this guitarist.’ I thought, Bohhhh-ring!"

He laughs again, then grows hushed, remembering the show. "So we get there, and first The Nighthawks opened, and then Roy Buchanan came out, the world’s best unknown guitarist. He started to play ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘Messiah Will Come Again,’ and we FREAKED."

Jimmy’s first big break came just three years later, when he was invited to play harmonica with Jerry Lee Lewis, who saw him play with the house band at The Stardust Inn in Waldorf, Md. A gig with Bonnie Raitt followed not long after.

Music was the only thing Jimmy wanted to do, so he dropped out of high school and played. He loved blues, roots and rock most of all. Eventually, he earned his GED and moved to Boston, where he attended Berklee College of Music and Emerson College, among other schools.

Young and talented and full of vinegar and dreams, Jimmy lived not too far from the edge.

One night, he played a show with Bonnie Raitt in Worcester.

"It was at this beautiful war memorial," he remembers. "When it was over, I had to walk home to Boston!" It’s about 50 miles from city to city.

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"I had to stop in this police station in Natick and ask for directions. They said," Jimmy pitches his voice lower and stiffens his arms, "Go down this dark road -- and you better go soon!"

He cackles again. "Finally I get up on Route 128." If possible, his laughter gets louder. "Oh my god, that was a terrible night. The sun was up by the time I got home. No one ever knew that story."

Though he moved to the Brattleboro area in the early 1980s, Jimmy stayed in close contact with the national music scene. He played with NRBQ, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jimmy Johnson, and many other bands of large and small renown. As part of a tour with the Grammy-winning songwriter J.J. Cale, who wrote the Eric Clapton hits "After Midnight" and "Cocaine," Jimmy even performed at Carnegie Hall.

At the same time he was earning his chops as a musician, Jimmy became a harmonica technician, inventing tunings, building and repairing instruments, and teaching.

All these strands came together in 1997. That year, Jimmy released a well-regarded album, "Come on Over," and found a mentor and friend in master technician Joe Filisko.

He also started feeling dizzy, seeing double, and losing his hearing in both ears.

"It took 12 years to get a diagnosis," he says. His puckishness crumples and hardens. "But those were the early symptoms of multiple sclerosis."

A hard decade followed. He lost his health. He lost a great deal of work. Uninsured, he had to use credit cards to pay for medical care. He had to apply for disability. He feels he lost his looks, moving, he says, "from what someone once called ‘hottie’ to definitely ‘nottie.’"

He did not, however, lose music. When he had the energy, he played open mics, even though friends had to escort him to the stage, seat him, bring him his instruments, place the microphone by his mouth, and reverse the whole process when he was done.

His harmonica friends and music community helped support him through the tough days. When he finally received a diagnosis and helpful treatment in 2009, his friend Mickey Raphael, a member of Willie Nelson’s band, suggested that he put together a compilation CD of harmonica players to raise money for MS charitable organizations.

"I thought it was a hilarious idea!" Jimmy rises again, sun after clouds. "It took two years, and now here it is!"

The CD, "MS Blows!," features 14 world class harmonica musicians, including Jimmy, on tracks as wide ranging as a delicate, heartbreaking version of "From a Distance" to a smooth "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" to a set of traditional dance tunes. Jimmy has created a website for it, msblows.com.

"I think this is the only album in the world with this many top famous players," he says. His pride is exuberant and pure. "Who knows what will happen with it, but I’m confident. I had a bunch of rough years, when I would have given up everything just to feel better. But now this! Now I’m a philanthropist and music producer!"

He laughs and laughs.

"I’m going to have fun with my life. I’m going to use as much energy as I can to catch up with harmonica building, to make some music, to put out more records. I’ve got a gig with my band in November! And hey, today’s a day that ends in ‘y,’ I think I’ll have a drink!"

Jimmy chortles, then sighs, shakes his head, lets loose one more laugh. He reaches for his cane and stands.

The disease turns his first steps into ungainly loops and scary swoops, like the wind is blowing through him, blowing through the holes in his head, playing him hard. He can’t help it.

Jimmy catches his balance. He keeps walking. Jimmy Gordon plays right back.


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