Kansas City Bluesman Little Hatch Dead at 81
"Harp players are a dying breed." So once said a man who knew.
Little Hatch likely was the best harp player ever to make Kansas City home. He died Tuesday night, 81 years old, and with Hatch went Blues as thick and dirty as the smoke-filled air in the bars he ruled.
Little Hatch was born Provine Hatch Jr. in Sledge, Mississippi in 1921. He picked up the Blues harp for good at 8 years old. By his teenaged years, after his family had moved to Helena, Arkansas, Hatch was under the direct spell of Sonny Boy Williamson II. The Blues, and that harmonica, overcame him. "I slept with it, ate with it and everything else I could do with it," Hatch said of his first harmonica in an APO Records interview about a year ago.
The obsession turned into a profession for Hatch once he added vocals to his act. The Navy drafted Hatch in 1942, and he served in World War II until 1946. On his way home to Arkansas, Hatch stopped in Kansas City. He liked the city's feel, Hatch told his family, and after meeting a woman he decided to make his home there. Hatch worked as a trash-hauler, owning his own truck and accumulating 650 stops. He worked for Hallmark Cards for 32 years as a security guard and as a mailman, earning a pension. But the Kansas City Mayor's Office several years ago declared his October 25 birthday Little Hatch Day because Little Hatch played Blues at night.
For more than 40 years, Hatch was a Kansas City star. On and off, he was the bedrock of well-known KC clubs like Cotton-eyed Joe's, Nightmoves, The Levee, the Grand Emporium and B.B.'s Lawnside BBQ. Hatch first picked up the nickname Little Walter Jr., but he dropped it when he decided his music needed a unique tag. He was named Little Hatchet, which gradually became Little Hatch. His legend made him a hero and a reluctant tutor to harp up-and-comers. "I can sit down, and I can play and play and play, and then we'll just have to see what you can do," Hatch said about teaching harmonica. "Some of them just don't have it, you know? They ask, 'How did you get that?' I can't tell them. I don't know what I did myself. See, those keys have numbers, but you don't have no eyes in your mouth."
In his prime, Hatch's performances were raucous. He'd dance and stomp his feet until his audience felt a fever. Sometimes Hatch would blow solos 10 minutes long. And as he aged, Hatch's voice grew as rich as his favorite whiskey. Hatch was a Bluesman of the real variety. But it's those Bluesmen who are most often overlooked. Hatch's fame and most of his gigs were limited to Kansas City. Still, for the world that was listening, Hatch could be heard. A tiny German label, M&M Records, released The Little Hatchet Band (LP-30001) in 1972 but distribution was very limited. In 1992, the Modern Blues Label released a second live Hatch performance with Well, All Right! (MBR 1204), but the album suffered the same small-scale fate.
APO Records owner Chad Kassem couldn't believe that Little Hatch wasn't a recording star when he first saw him perform in the early 1980s. By the late '90s, Kassem had established Blue Heaven Studios and the Blues label APO in Salina, Kansas. He of course remembered Hatch, and the two formed a relationship that produced Goin' Back (APO 2007) in 1998 and Rock With Me Baby (APO 2012), which will be in stores around the world next month. A third Hatch album remains in the APO can.
Hatch leaves behind three daughters, two sons, seven grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and his 10-year companion Debbie Dennis. Artists are never replaced. Neither are legends. That's to say nothing of harp players, a species Little Hatch once called "a dying breed."