While practically every other blues harmonica player of his generation fell under the spell of Little Walter, Birdlegg is, and always was, different. Instead, he was captivated by the generation before Jacobs—the one which inspired the virtuoso to completely redefine postwar blues harmonica in the early 1950s. Harking back to a style reminiscent of two of the greatest early postwar and country blues harmonica players, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) and Sonny Terry, Birdlegg’s expressive, full-tilt playing and singing also brings a fresh and distinctive approach to traditional, gut-bucket blues—something which has become all too rare these days.
Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1947, Gene “Birdlegg” Pittman grew up listening to his Georgia-born grandfather, who was a professional touring musician himself, play country and Delta blues on his National steel guitar. While in his twenties Birdlegg started picking up the harmonica, learning every Sonny Terry lick he could wrap his ears around. After a brief stint in college and a few restless years hitchhiking across the country looking for answers that he couldn’t find in school, he bought himself a one-way bus ticket and hopped a Greyhound to California determined to make it as a musician, landing in Oakland in the mid-1970s.
Once there he dove headfirst into the thriving Bay Area blues scene, sitting in at every jam session he could find and honing his chops at such notorious local blues joints as the Eli Mile High Club, the Shalimar Club and the Fifth Amendment. A natural performer with boundless energy and enthusiasm, Birdlegg quickly befriended and began performing with some of the best bluesmen in the area like Sonny Rhodes, Massala Talbert, Haskell “Cool Papa” Sadler and Mississippi Johnny Waters.
After several years of gigging as a sideman throughout the Bay Area and encouraged by some of his mentors to branch out on his own, he formed his own group, Birdlegg and the Tight Fit Blues Band, in 1980. The band’s lineup would change from time to time but regularly included Texas-born bass player and singer Country Pete McGill and even once featured legendary Chess session guitarist Luther Tucker.
Birdlegg slowly started making a name for himself around Oakland with his high-octane performances, appearing regularly in area clubs and at festivals throughout the Bay Area. His popularity also eventually led to several tours in Europe. As self-confident and assured as ever, his band became one of the hottest around the area for many years as he realized his dream of making a living playing music. As he liked to tell people, “I don’t do floors, windows or shoes—I play the Oakland blues!”
He made his first record in 1990 which was issued on 45 RPM on his own Tight Fit label, and then followed with a short-run cassette before releasing Meet Me on the Corner more than a decade later. But the excesses of a musician’s life eventually began taking its toll and after 35 years of ups and downs on the Oakland scene, Birdlegg decided to make a major move and start over in Austin, Texas, where he reunited with his ex-wife who he hadn’t seen in decades. His transition was seamless and he started gigging regularly around Austin in a matter of weeks, quickly becoming one of the most exciting and active bluesmen there in recent memory.
The claim “hardest working man in show business” has become somewhat overwrought since its originator passed away on Christmas Day several years ago. But if anyone in the blues business today is truly qualified to live up to the high standards set by the master of funk James Brown himself, it certainly is Birdlegg. From the moment he hits the stage to the very last song of the night which characteristically ends with Birdlegg soaked to the bone with sweat and five pounds lighter than when he started, the energy level doesn’t let up for a second.
Gene Tomko, Living Blues Magazine