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Old salt spreads his love of harmonica

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By RON MATUS
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 28, 2002


Tampa Bay's heritage resides in Early J. McMullen, an ex-ferryman and Cracker musician in the Harmonica Hall of Fame.

DAVIS ISLANDS -- Wherever Early J. McMullen goes, music follows.

And wherever he has been, it lingers.

Sometimes it's upbeat. Other times, blue.

Here's how it happens.

McMullen, 81, scrunches up his face. His big, weathered hands flap and flutter. His cheeks pump.
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[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]
McMullen enjoys performing impromptu concerts. It’s what earned the Davis Islands resident a spot in the Harmonica Hall of Fame.

And a harmonica hidden in there somewhere kicks out a tune as sweet as sunset.

The faster ditties rumble. "Chuggity-chug," McMullen said -- like the motor on the ferry he used to shepherd across Tampa Bay, in those days before the Sunshine Skyway bridge.

"My music is rolling music," he said after an impromptu performance at the Pink Flamingo restaurant on Davis Islands Saturday morning."I don't want any rocks getting in the way."

Customers cheered and clapped. Waitresses beamed.

McMullen, winded, grinned and looked down at half-eaten pancakes.

But he's not done yet. He's not content to just play his harmonica for random strangers every day.

He wants random strangers to play, too.

Every few weeks, South Tampa's contribution to the Harmonica Hall of Fame buys seven to 10 harmonicas, at $4 a pop, at Don Banks Music on Henderson Boulevard. Then he hits the road, searching for people in need of a random act of kindness.

Male, female; young, old; rich, poor. Doesn't matter.

McMullen figures he has given away 700 harmonicas. Free lessons come with each.

One day a year ago, McMullen stopped at the Geary & Associates real estate office on S Himes Avenue. He was looking for a new home. Office manager Kim Tarpley ended up with a stream of colorful stories -- and a new harmonica.

"We talked for four hours," Tarpley said. "Happy Birthday To You -- I learned that one."

Why does McMullen do it?

Tarpley guesses he has a "heart of gold."

McMullen can't say why, just that another harmonica player once told him, "Our soul is coming out when we play."

Maybe that has something to do with it.

"Early J. from Tampa Bay" is McMullen's stage name.

He was born in Tampa. He has lived on both sides of the bay. His great-grandfather was a Pinellas County pioneer who came down from South Georgia in a covered wagon.

In Clearwater, there's a road named after his family.

For 28 years, McMullen's father captained a ferryboat between the southern tip of Pinellas and the northern tip of Manatee. McMullen followed in his footsteps.

He spent 20 years on the water, cruising past leaping mullet and lumbering manatees, under Tampa Bay's puffy white clouds.

"From the time I was a little kid my dad would set me up on the ledge next to the compass. I could see everything," McMullen said. "I felt more at home there than everywhere."

The state ended ferry service in 1954, when the bridge opened. McMullen never got over it.

"Do I miss it? Damn right," he said in a low Cracker drawl. If the ferry was still there, "I'd be sleeping on it a good part of the time."

McMullen still looks like a sailor. He turns up the floppy part of his golf hat like a Navy "white hat" would.

His ruddy cheeks are covered with white stubble. His eyelids sag at the far corners. They make him look like he's forever squinting at the light dancing on the water.

McMullen soaked the bay into his bones. Now it's in his harmonica.

He learned to play when he was in grammar school, from a tomboy named Eva Hudnell. (If Eva's still out there, Early says thank you.)

But it was on the ferry, in between chores, that McMullen got good.

He found out how good in the early 1980s, after a Gong Show contest at MacDill Air Force Base. Someone who watched McMullen's performance -- which won the contest, of course -- got in touch with the Harmonica Hall of Fame. McMullen was invited down to South Florida to perform in front of a hall representative.

And that's all it took. He was in.

Since then, McMullen has played before hundreds of volunteers at the White House, and before 5,000 people at a Fourth of July celebration at the Governor's Mansion in Tallahassee.

The White House invitation came after McMullen wrote President Reagan a letter, asking him to restore ferry service in Tampa Bay. McMullen included a copy of his one-and-only tape.

McMullen doesn't know why the late Gov. Lawton Chiles invited him to play. He suspects a friend must have told the governor about him, but he doesn't know which one.

He has made a lot of friends.

McMullen called it his "mission."

Four or five years ago, he hit the road. Drove in a big circle from Tampa to Bushnell to Leesburg to Lake Wales, then back to Tampa. Then did it again and again and again. He called it his "gypsy tour."

Along the way, he chatted, performed and handed out harmonicas.

"Like a traveling preacher," he said. Except, "I ain't no preacher. I don't know much about soul talk."

McMullen does know about trials and tribulations.

His wife died six years ago. He and his only son are often at odds.

After World War II, McMullen needed counseling.

He served on a destroyer in the Pacific. Once a kamikaze crashed next to the boat while he was on deck, swamping him with sea water.

Another time, he watched as a Japanese aircraft carrier was blown to bits. Body parts rained down. He said he saw the image over and over for years in nightmares.

After he lost his job on the ferry, McMullen never really stuck to another line of work. He was a school bus driver, a security guard -- even a toll booth operator.

Along the way, he developed and then conquered a drinking problem. He says he has been sober for more than 20 years.

On his road circuit, McMullen said he wouldn't take more than seven harmonicas at a time -- enough to give away one each day. He said he had to be picky.

Carole Winter's customers were among the lucky ones.

"He walked in one day to have a cup of coffee," said Winter, the former owner of the Plaza Sidewalk Cafe in downtown Bushnell. "One thing led to another and he whipped out his harmonica."

He returned many times, often leaving one behind.

"He's just holding on to heritage in this crazy world," Winter said. "He's one of the characters I will always remember."

McMullen has played for abused children in Sumter County. He played for patients in a dentist's office in Clearwater. Once, when he was hospitalized with pneumonia, he played She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain for an even sicker, elderly patient across the hall.

"She had tubes all in her," McMullen said.

But after a few verses, she was clapping her hands and smiling, he said.

McMullen can't drive much anymore. His vision and reflexes aren't what they used to be. He moved to Davis Islands a few weeks ago so he could be within walking distance of shops and restaurants.

Before that, he lived in the Regency Cove mobile home park on Gandy Boulevard.

Now the islands' bustling business district is his circuit.
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Early J. McMullen serenades waitress Nicole Sottile, 23, outside the Grecian Island Restaurant on the Davis Islands strip. The former ferryboat captain spreads the music -- and free harmonicas -- wherever he goes.

He makes his rounds with a walking cane and a wicker basket. He keeps his harmonica in there, along with a teddy bear.

At Yeoman's Road Pub, regulars greet McMullen with hellos and hugs.

Then he plays The Saber Dance, a long song that he ends by pumping his arm in unison with the final drawn-out notes.

"That took about all the breath I got," he said. "Sometimes I wonder if I can still do it."

To dispel any doubt, he repeats the deed a few minutes later at the Davis Islands Pharmacy.

Employee Sondra Burton skips down the aisle when she sees him.

"Hey, Early, I learned Three Blind Mice," she tells him.

"Well, all right," McMullen says.

He saunters to the back of the store to see how his other students are coming along.

They're only getting a few notes down, they tell him.

Well, he says, you only need a few notes to make a good song.

He reaches for his harmonica.

"Let's see what we can do."

-- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com.

* * *
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Early J. McMullen, 81, shares his music “like a traveling preacher.”

OCCUPATION: Retired ferryboat captain.

CALLING: Harmonica teacher and player.

MARITAL STATUS: Widower.

STYLE: "Rock 'n' roll without the rocks getting in the way."

FAVORITE SONG: St. Louis Blues.

TOP VENUE: The White House.

SONG REQUESTED BY GOV. LAWTON CHILES: When the Saints Go Marching In.

HARMONICAS HE HAS GIVEN AWAY: About 700.

COST: $4 apiece.

CLAIM TO FAME: Harmonica Hall of Fame, 1982.

DREAM GIG: Playing on his own yacht on Tampa Bay. All he needs is the yacht.

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