Article by Eric Thom:
It would be so appropriate to be able to imply that Mark “Bird” Stafford earned his nickname from his ability to soar on the harmonica in the fiery fashion of Charlie Parker. Sorry. Different “Bird”. But – like Parker – Mark shares a phenomenal passion for making music and, as he’s been performing since he was knee-high to a sharecropper, he’s developed a musical voice that’s become somewhat legendary in these parts – and beyond.
For good reason. A serious student of “fat tone” harmonica, he subscribes to the teachings of the masters: Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter Jacobs, Big Walter Horton, Junior Wells and James Cotton, imbuing what he’s learned with a healthy dose off his own creativity. He also injects these influences with the spirited new blood of cats including Kim Wilson, William Clarke and Rod Piazza. That’s a serious stack of mentorship but The Bird has listened and listened hard. And he plays back the lessons learned with all the love and respect befitting a forever blues student who is more than ready to register his own contribution to the genre. From the frenzy he can generate from a crowd and on a dance floor to the smooth, mercurial side of his musical personality, Mark pours it on with a highly-polished singing voice and the comparably subtle, expressive tones of his accomplished harpmanship. Those who have been to Bird’s church are the first to testify but never the last.
Harp History/ Bird Dirt
It all began so simply back in the early days of blues jams when Hock Walsh (of Downchild Blues Band fame) singled him out during one of the early Pine Tree blues jams, circa 1985. Finding his footing with thanks to Hock, Mark formed the Polaroid Blues Band and took up residency at Lee’s Palace for a two-year stint. Signing on with the Sly Dogs in ’89, Mark further honed his vocal and harmonica chops with another long-standing gig at Chicago’s. In fact, the band was profiled by the CBC for a TV documentary, “Shades Of Blue”.
The Sly Dogs eventually evolved into Mark “Bird” Stafford & The Rectifiers, holding their ground at Chicago’s as Mark further established himself as a bluesman’s bluesman among local musicians and loyal audiences alike. In fact, Mark long-standing love affair with Chicago’s was solidified when they named the upstairs “Bird’s Nest” in Mark’s honour. Independent record releases and exposure on MuchMusic helped keep the personal profile high, attracting attention as well as a bit of a following. Yet Mark’s claim-to-fame remains his bulldog approach to playing the blues. He gigs relentlessly and lives for those special moments that motivate many a bluesman: when the groove is solid and the atmosphere becomes magical. Mark continues to be a regular fixture on Toronto’s blues stages and a well-traveled ambassador who is most at home in front of any blues audience determined to start a party. You need to go no further than any of the popular Toronto Blues Society’s Harmonica Workshops (Mark is an official Endorsee of Hohner harmonicas) if you’re in need of a “Bird” fix. He’s a regular. He is also the brains and the bluesy brawn behind “Harmonica Knights” – a highly satisfying and extremely popular harp-based showcase that began as a feature of Toronto’s Downtown Jazz Festival and has since spread to Port Credit and beyond, featuring some of Canada’s most powerful players. A devoted family man with two children of his own, Mark has a lot of time for kids.
He’s an active participant in the Toronto Blues Society’s “Blues In The Schools” program and finds time to immerse himself in the International Milk Festival’s musical events. A tireless performer, chances are good you’ll catch him sitting in with a variety of better bands or featured acts wherever he and his harp may travel. If the blues come to your town, expect a Bird sighting. Because Mark, like the song says, is happiest when he’s working overtime.
Mark loves to write, to record and lives to hit the boards. His passion is for ‘all things ’50s’ and it shows in his tireless ability to sweat, swing and boogie. Yet his wide-ranging abilities include anything possible in both diatonic and chromatic formats. The energy he applies to his favourite musical styles – from Chicago blues to swing, r & b, jump, funk and most things in-between – is entirely his own and born of his love of enthusiastic crowds. From suave, soulful and sophisticated, to hard-rockin’, hard-boppin’ and just plain hard-not-to-love, The Bird is – and remains – the word. It’s taken the better part of a most colourful lifetime to refine his craft into its patented state of consistently cool, crowd-pleasing entertainment. He’s a walking, talking example of one of the best lessons the road has ever taught: give the people what they want. All you need do is come on by and get some.