Cityscape
3:38 pm
Fri August 8, 2014

If The ‘Car Talk’ Guys Played The Harmonica, They Might Sound Like This

Phil Sardo, left, and his brother Tony Sardo practice Friday morning at St. Louis Public Radio before "Cityscape."
Phil Sardo, left, and his brother Tony Sardo practice Friday morning at St. Louis Public Radio before "Cityscape."
Credit Alex Heuer / St. Louis Public Radio

If Tom and Ray Magliozzi of “Car Talk” fame played the harmonica, they still wouldn’t be able to rival fellow Boston natives Phil and Tony Sardo.

The Sardo brothers, who are in St. Louis for the annual Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica convention, love to trade barbs, push each other’s buttons, and, of course, play harmonicas.

“I think it’s one of the easiest instruments a person can learn to play,” Tony Sardo said. “Now to play it accomplished, to play it well like I do probably takes about three or four hundred years. But the average person, you can actually learn it very fast. And it’s a great instrument.”

The convention, which wraps up Saturday, brings together harmonica players from around the world.

“It’s the fellowship,” Tony Sardo said. “That’s one of the reasons why we go to SPAH.”

Although tickets are required for classes and lectures, the public can “come and wander the halls” of the Renaissance St. Louis Airport Hotel, said Mark Olesnicki, a member of the Gateway Harmonica Club, which is hosting the convention. “You can hear some great playing by just walking into the place.”

The public also is invited to attend a free country/gospel concert Saturday morning.

Sardo picked up his first harmonica when he was 10.

“I try to play every day, seriously, and I’ve been playing for over 60 years,” he said. “And I’m not that good. Don’t get me wrong, there are players down there at SPAH that can outplay me 10 to 1. But what I do, I do well what I do.”

And as the Sardo brothers demonstrated, all genres of music can be played on the harmonica.

“There’s something fascinating about the harmonica,” Tony Sardo said. “I think it’s probably the only instrument that I can think of that, when you play it, you inhale it and you actually inhale the music. The music actually goes right between your ears, I mean up to your brain. When you blow in, that goes right up and vibrates.”

“After a week or two, you could play with a blues or rock band,” Olesnicki said. Olesnicki started playing the harmonica three years ago; he bought a harmonica for his 66th birthday.

The harmonica’s popularity peaked around World War I, Tony Sardo said.

“They used to actually issue them to the soldiers because it would pick up the morale,” he said. “It was most popular in the ’20s. It has fallen off in popularity, but with the rock and blues now coming in, it’s going to be very, very popular all over again.”

The Gateway Harmonica Club meets Tuesdays, and offers lessons most weeks. Olesnicki said the club’s motto is “have harmonica, will travel.”

“We do gigs, about 25 a year, in nursing homes, clubs, schools; we do parades; we do the ballpark; and we earn a modest fee from them, most of which goes to charity after paying our expenses,” he said. “We’re one of the largest harmonica bands in the country.”

Related Events

Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica convention
Aug 5-9, 2014; various times
Renaissance St. Louis Airport Hotel
9801 Natural Bridge Road

Country/Gospel Show
10 a.m. to noon Aug 9, 2014
No tickets required; the show is free
Renaissance St. Louis Airport Hotel
9801 Natural Bridge Road

Cityscape is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.

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