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Tommy Morgan, Harmonica Soloist for ‘Dances With Wolves,’ ‘Roots’ and Hundreds More Film and TV Scores, Dies at 89

tommy morgan
Mark Banning

Tommy Morgan, a harmonica soloist who contributed to hundreds of movies and TV shows including “Roots” and “Dances With Wolves,” died June 23. He was 89.

Morgan played on film soundtracks and record dates going back to the early 1950s. His estimated 7,000 recording sessions, according to statistics on his website, suggest that more people have heard his harmonica work than that of any other player of the instrument.

That’s Morgan’s harmonica on Quincy Jones’ “Sanford and Son” theme, Mike Post’s “Rockford Files” theme and the scores for numerous shows including “Maverick,” “The Waltons,” “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “China Beach,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Family Guy.”

He played on the Emmy-winning score for “Roots” and its sequel, “Roots: The Next Generations.” And his bass harmonica was the signature sound of Arnold Ziffel, the pig on “Green Acres.”

In addition, Morgan played on dozens of classic films including “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “Giant” and “Rio Bravo” in the 1950s; “How the West Was Won,” “Lilies of the Field,” “The Cincinnati Kid,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Wild Bunch” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” in the 1960s; “The Cowboys,” “High Plains Drifter,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Magic” and “The Black Stallion” in the 1970s; and the Oscar-winning scores for “The Right Stuff” in the 1980s and “Dances With Wolves” in the 1990s.

Later scores featuring Morgan’s harmonica include “Pretty Woman,” “Back to the Future Part III,” “City Slickers,” “Free Willy,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Rosewood,” “The Princess Diaries,” “Monsters Inc.,” “Cars,” “Ratatouille” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” He once estimated that he played on more than 600 films.

He played harmonica on the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” the Carpenters’ “Rainy Days and Mondays,” the Hollies’ “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” Linda Ronstadt’s “Skylark” and other records by Randy Newman, Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Olivia Newton-John, Dolly Parton and James Taylor.

He was a musician on the “Elvis ’68” comeback special and played on concerts with Frank Zappa, Van Dyke Parks, John Barry and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He also wrote arrangements for albums by Johnny Cash, Glenn Yarbrough and Rod McKuen.

“I always considered myself a studio musician who played harmonica,” Morgan said during an oral history for the National Association of Music Merchants in 2017. “It was a very exciting way to make a living. You never knew what you were going to do.”

Morgan was born Dec. 4, 1932 in Los Angeles and began playing harmonica in the second grade. He later studied with Jerry Adler, brother of harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler. He was 17 when he played his first session, for the Andrews Sisters, in September 1950.

Morgan played in the U.S. Air Force band during the mid-1950s, including a spot on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and later earned a master’s degree in music composition from UCLA. He composed several original scores for episodes of various CBS series including “The Twilight Zone,” “Gunsmoke” and “Have Gun – Will Travel” during the early 1960s.

He also wrote three books: “Chromatic Harmonica” and “Blues Harmonica,” how-to books for musicians; and “You Made How Much for Doing What?”, an autobiography published earlier this year.

Morgan received a lifetime achievement award from the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica in 2001. His playing career ended when he suffered a stroke in late 2013. He is survived by his wife, Lois; sons Matthew and Daniel; and granddaughter Addie Rae.