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Minnesota music legend Tony 'Little Sun' Glover dies at 79

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Tony Glover and Dave Ray
Tony Glover and Dave Ray performing together at the Avant Garde in Milwaukee in 1964.
Photo by Gordie Simmons, file

Musician and writer Tony "Little Sun" Glover died Wednesday at the age of 79. Known internationally for playing harmonica with Koerner, Ray and Glover, Glover is being remembered for his musical artistry and influence — and his remarkable writing.

In one of his many interviews with MPR, Tony Glover explained his nickname.

"Little Sun's a kind of pun in a sense," he said. "There's a lot of harmonica players called Sonny. Sonny Boy Williamson, Sonny Terry. And there's also a reference to the fact that I never smiled much, which is why it's spelled s-u-n, Little Sun." 

He rarely smiled. Growing up in Minneapolis in the 1950s, he said he was an outsider.

"I was reading weird stuff. I was hanging out in the cemeteries after midnight, and doing all that kind of stuff," he recalled. "And when I heard blues on the radio in the middle of the night it was like, 'Um-hmm.' It was like coming home."

It was tough to be blues fan back then. Finding records took detective work. Finding other musicians to play with was even harder. One day, Glover heard about a guitarist called Dave Ray. Glover went to Ray's house, and stood in the hall to listen.

"Boy, he sounded good. And I walked in and I looked around and I couldn't see anybody that made that music, 'cause this was sounding like Leadbelly. I walked in and here's this blond skinny kid with kind of red cheeks. And I'm going thought 'whoa.' And I don't know what he thought when he looked at me but we figured out how to get in tune together and we started playing together."

In time, Glover and Ray added Spider John Koerner and became Koerner, Ray and Glover.

Koerner, Ray and Glover's 1963 album "Blues, Rags, and Hollers" became an international sensation. They played the Newport Folk Festival and were credited with being a major force in the blues revival. When Mick Jagger wanted to work on his harmonica technique, he turned to Tony Glover

Tony Glover and 'Spider' John Koerner
Tony Glover, left and "Spider" John Koerner on stage at the 400 Club in 2012.
Sarah Ashworth | MPR Photo 2012

He also figured in the story of another friend from the Minneapolis West Bank — Bob Dylan. Andrea Swensson, host of the local show on The Current, said Glover recorded an early Dylan performance which is now a collectors' item.

"There's all these stories of him being alongside Dylan at all these pivotal moments," she said. "I have heard stories that he was with Dylan when he went to visit Woody Guthrie in the  hospital. That he was sitting in on the sessions for 'Highway 61 Revisited.' I don't know if he was performing, but he was definitely there."

Glover wrote, too. He did articles for Rolling Stone and Creem. He wrote several books including one about his harmonica hero, Little Walter.

But the fame faded. Like Dave Ray and John Koerner, Tony Glover contented himself with playing around the West Bank. There were the blips: like the time in the early 90s when the British punk label Rough Trade released a new Ray and Glover album, including the haunting "HIV blues."

"To me, any subject is fair game for the blues, if I experience it, I can write about it," he said. "And it should fit in the blues if it's done right."

In recent years, musicians visiting the Twin Cities often honored Tony Glover by calling him up on stage to play with them. Andrea Swensson remembers the Replacements reunion concert, where she says lead singer Paul Westerberg seemed star-struck that Glover was even there.

"And he referred to him as 'an actual musician' as opposed to the rest of the band," said Swensson. "And he just breezed out, played harmonica, breezed away and again had such a cool quality to him that even alongside a rock star like Paul Westerberg. He just outshined him in that moment."