If you grew up in the 1990s, you’ve probably jammed out to songs by John Popper. Equal parts John Belushi and Jack Black, Popper’s dynamic vocals and otherworldly harmonica burned up the charts.
You undoubtedly know the hits, but the story behind John Popper is just as fascinating as his solos. His background is full of surprises.
Join us as we take a look at the man behind the harp.
Let’s check it out!
The Story of John Popper
John Popper comes from a long line of musicians dating back to the nineteenth century. His father emigrated from Budapest, Hungary, where his family includes famous cellist David Popper. While the two never met, it’s easy to see where John gets his musical talent.
Born in 1967 in Chardon, Ohio, John started working on his musical career early with piano, guitar, and cello lessons. But, like most kids, he hated to practice and decided that a career in stand-up comedy fit him better. Also, being a bigger kid, he realized that humor could protect him and his friends from bullies.
But he found his true calling when he did a Blues Brothers routine for a high school talent show. Inspired by John Belushi’s character in the movie, Popper took up the harmonica. He got so good that he quit playing trumpet in jazz band and played harmonica instead.
Fresh out of high school, John and his friends left Ohio for New York City. He enrolled in the New School for Jazz but dropped out when his band Blues Traveler signed their first contract in 1990. Popper found the perfect outlet for his electrifying vocals and harmonica playing with this group.
A great songwriter, Popper’s catalog includes nearly all of the Blues Traveler songs. In fact, he started a solo project to try out his new pieces because there were simply too many of them. John released a solo album, Zygote, in 1999 and has gone back to playing with Blues Traveler and solo in recent years.
John Popper’s Best-Known Songs
In the 1990s, before Napster and YouTube shared music online, the radio was king. Blues Traveler broke through the boy bands and Alternative rock with their blues-influenced music striking a chord with listeners. Here are some of their great hit songs.
A hook is a musical idea that catches the listeners’ attention, even if the song isn’t about anything. Popper wrote this tune to the chords of Pachelbel’s Canon in D, the famous wedding march. But the joke is on the listener because the lyrics talk about how easy listeners are to hook.
Popper openly mocked people for liking the song in the lyrics, but it still charted. It reached #23 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1996.
This track started out as a John Popper solo piece in 1994. Then, at New York’s CBGB club, the whole band played Run-Around to a delighted audience. The song tells the story of Popper’s crush on original bass player Felicia. But, because of their friendship, the two never took things further.
The song went to the top, peaking at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also won them their first Grammy Award for Best Duo or Group in 1996.
What began as a typical Blues Traveler song got weird in the movie Kingpin. Popper and crew dressed in Amish clothes playing in a pasture for a start. The song’s lead track on their 1990 album, Blues Traveler, got new life in 1996 with the film.
The re-release tune peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in July 1996, coinciding with their Grammy win.
Is John Popper a Good Harmonica Player?
When it comes to the harmonica, few alive play it as well as John Popper. His nimble, articulate playing shows his mastery of the instrument. Of course, it’s normal to have a virtuoso guitar in the band, but a virtuoso harmonica is unique.
His abilities led him to play gigs with some great bands like the Spin Doctors, Dave Matthews Band, and even the Grateful Dead. He’s also collaborated with jam bands such as Phish, Widespread Panic, and the Aquarium Rescue Unit.
Because of the limitations of harmonicas, he’s had to innovate. Harmonicas are only in one key, so he had a vest made that held twelve, one in each key. It even held a few extras for special moments. The bandolier-like vests were a trademark for several years until Popper’s weight loss made them too big.
He’s also got his own signature harmonica line with Fender, which features steel sheet reeds and a leather case.
What Is the H.O.R.D.E. Festival?
For several years in the 1990s, there were few venues for smaller bands to play in the summer. In 1992, when Popper and friends from other rock bands got together, they realized they had to come up with something. Each of the small bands could pull a few thousand fans on their own.
Popper, inspired by Lollapalooza the summer before, called up Widespread Panic, The Samples, the Spin Doctors, the Aquarium Rescue Unit, and Phish. Together, they concocted the Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere (H.O.R.D.E) Festival.
For seven years, the festival toured around the country and brought together fans of jam bands, jazz, and rock. Because the groups all approached music similarly, a new form of improvisational music came together. The new genre featured rock and jazz in a second wave of jam music growing out of the original jam band scene.
The last H.O.R.D.E. Festival tour closed in September 1998 in Portland, Oregon.
Where Is John Popper Today?
In recent years, Popper’s maintained his place in the spotlight. His success as a musician allowed him to move around the country and indulge in other hobbies.
He’s a well-known weapons collector, so much so that it almost got him into trouble. His collection includes firearms, swords, and a working Civil War cannon. When he got pulled over for drug possession in 2007, there were more than 17 weapons in hidden compartments in the car. He even built a gun range on his property.
In 2016, he released his autobiography Suck and Blow: And Other Stories I’m Not Supposed to Tell with Da Capo Press.
Blues Traveler released their latest album, Travelers Blues, in 2021, featuring traditional blues tunes and several well-known collaborators, including Crystal Bowersox, Wendy Moten, and John Scofield. Nominated for Best Traditional Blues Album in 2022, the band enjoyed their first nomination since 1996.
Popper and the band headed back out on tour in 2022 to celebrate their 35th anniversary.
A Musician With a Unique Sound
John Popper is a dynamic performer with an outsized personality. His impact on contemporary jam music, as well as the blues, can’t be denied. In an era where appearances matter, Popper focuses on innovation and technique to make his voice heard. And when you hear it, you’ll know. That’s John Popper.
What’s your favorite song by Popper or Blues Traveler? Let us know in the comments below.