It was just another workaday gig for session musician Paul Harrington. He laid down a three-and-a-half minute harmonica line, never asking where it might end up.
"So much of what you record never gets used, so, generally, you don’t hear it again," Harrington says.
Oh, but he did hear this one again. And again and again. If you listen to Top 40 radio with any regularity, you've heard it, too.
Harrington's harmonica is featured on "Timber," released as the lead single on rapper Pitbull's Meltdown EP.
It's currently No. 2 on the Billboard charts.
The track features Ke$ha, an eccentric singer and reality TV star who likes glitter in her face paint and lends strong country pipes to raunchy party-pop anthems. She's sold more than 55 million records internationally.
You can call him 'Harp Lips'
Harrington, 60, could join this cast of characters under his occasional nickname "Harp Lips." The Rockwall musician moved to Dallas in the '80s, when the city was the jingle capital of the world.
“I came to do jingles," he said. "I moved from Aspen, Colo., and I knew they were doing advertising in Dallas. So I came here trying to get a crack into the studios.”
And he did, turning out tunes for everything from Wolf Brand Chili and Tabasco to McDonald's.
“If I can just squeeze a harmonica in somewhere, I don’t care what it is, I try and play jazz whenever I can pull it off," he said.
"It's me in the wrong place"
Harrington’s kids are used to hearing him in the background of ads for Chevrolet or Shell, but never in a track that features twerking instructions.
“My son? He about fell to the floor laughing," Harrington said. "My daughter, she roared, she got her kids laughing. They think it’s funny, it’s me in the wrong place.”
But Harrington’s performance fits right in to the rotation on Top 40 stations right now. “Timber” is close kin to hits like Florida Georgia Line's hit “Cruise” featuring Nelly and Avicii’s “Wake Me Up.”
Harmonica's legacy in pop
Pop critic and editor Maura Johnston has written about Ke$ha for Rolling Stone and the Village Voice. She’s found a term for that hillbilly flavor in the mix on so many mainstream tracks based in electronic dance music, or EDM.
“This is all part of a trend that was started by, I would say 'Cotton Eyed Joe,' the song by Rednex from a few decades back that’s now popular at sports games," she says. "It’s basically a marrying of two of the most popular types of festival-born music, which is music like Mumford and Sons, sort of really ragged yet forceful Americana. And then EDM. I call it ED Mumford.”
“Timber” is also an heir to songs like OMC's "How Bizarre" and OutKast’s "Rosa Parks" from 1998, which features a foot-stomping live harmonica solo near the end.
Johnston says the tin sandwich found a new role in one hit from the ‘80s.
“'I Feel For You,' the great song by Chaka Khan," she says. "It’s also an interesting track in its melding of the harmonica, this classic instrument, and what at the time was a pretty new musical innovation, which was scratching. At the opening of the song, you hear the DJ sort of scratching Chaka Khan’s name and then that gorgeous harmonica riff just comes soaring in.”
But most hits that employ harmonica tuck the instrument low in the mix, or put a solo near the end. In "Timber," Paul Harrington plays the mouth harp live for the entire three-and-a-half minutes.
Dallas producer and composer Nick Seeley recorded Harrington. He’s worked with artists like Flo Rida and Rick Ross.
For Timber, his job was to transform “San Francisco Bay” by harmonica master Lee Oskar (of the group War). Seeley called in Harrington to play a faster, live version.
And "Timber" as we know it was born.
Still for hire
Harrington won’t be able to quit his day job because of the song. He got a flat fee of $1,000 for the session. Still, he’s honored to bring harmonica to the people.
“As far as I’m concerned, everything needs a harmonica solo," Harrington said. "All pieces of music, every orchestra is lacking a harmonica. And you’re going to be hearing more now because you get harmonica ears when you start paying attention to it.”
Listen to the KERA story: