Toots Thielemans has died. The 94 year old harmonica virtuoso was also a guitarist and – intriguingly – a whistler. He wrote standards. He played sessions with rock, pop and jazz superstars as well as performing his own shows and leading groups. And even if you haven’t heard the name before you have heard him – most famously it is his harmonica that leads the theme music to Sesame Street. It’s his “voice” on that instrument that gives the sorrow to the movie Midnight Cowboy via its haunting soundtrack.
I can’t remember how this Toots Thielemans CD made it into our house but I do remember – vividly – the night we, as a family, decided to give it a go. No one would own up to owning it, but it was there – it was in the early days of our CD collection and there was this sampler. Lovely jazz guitar was a good start and then this whistle? We burst into laughter. What was this? Who was this?
My folks wrote it off. I was fascinated. I took the liner notes and tried to find out as much as I could about this Belgian guy called “Toots” (Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor, Baron Thielemans). A few tracks down and this incredible harmonica playing took over.
He wrote Bluesette – a standard.
He was Benny Goodman’s guitarist.
I started collecting up whatever info I could – and bought a few LPs when I found them.
Then I heard that he was the sound of Sesame St, music I knew in my heart. Then he popped up on a tribute to the Gershwins; Toots was this incredible master – a guy who had played with all of the big names and outlasted so many of them.
I still love his guitar playing, something thick and warm and rhythmic and perhaps it’s because I heard it at a time when I was most used to hearing flashy soloists. I continue to spot his harmonica lines – and the whistling, such a weirdly wonderful thing (perhaps one of the purest expressions of joy a soloist can offer) still brings a smile; forever linked to that odd evening when the family sat baffled, wondering what that sound was and where it had come from – no one ever owned up to being the one that brought that particular CD into the house.
And I seem to still be spotting his name in the credits in records in my collection.