THE BRITISH blues scene lost one of its great luminaries on Sunday with the death of the harmonica-player Steve Rye at the age of 46.
During the blues boom of the late 1960s and 1970s, Rye was the pre-eminent British performer and interpreter of the black American country blues harmonica styles developed by Sonny Terry, John Lee 'Sonny Boy' Williamson, Will Shade and others. The few recorded compilations of the British blues boom rightly placed Rye high in the firmament alongside Jo Ann and Dave Kelly, but it is as an impassioned and dynamic performer that he will be best remembered.
It was Jo Ann Kelly who encouraged Rye's early performances in the mid-Sixties by getting him to play at her regular Sunday-night session at Bunjies coffee shop in the West End of London. They are reported to have met when Rye was walking the dog and playing his harmonica in the streets of Streatham and went past Jo Ann's house. She shouted out of the window and called him in, to discover they were kindred spirits in the blues. The Jo Ann Kelly Retrospect LP reveals that by 1966 Rye was already a polished and distinctive accompanist. Jo Ann died in 1990, also aged 46, and listening to them in this early recording it is hard to believe that these two vibrant artists are no longer here.
Shortly after that, Rye was at a party in north London when he heard someone enthusing about the recent performance of the Rev Gary Davis, the consummate finger-picking guitarist. Rye had also seen the concert, and informed his new friend, a guitarist called Simon Praeger, that he had all of Gary Davis's records. Praeger went back to Rye's flat and listened to his collection, only to discover Rye's cache of harmonicas. Here started a 12-year association between Praeger and Rye which was typified by a drive and energy only heard previously in the work of black country blues artists, particularly Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
Guitar, harmonica and two voices is one of the classic and most versatile combinations in the blues, and Praeger and Rye exploited its potential to the full, developing their style rather than being a thin imitation of Terry and McGhee. In fact, their sources were much wider than the blues canon, including songs from the satirist Tom Lehrer, the country singer Doc Watson, and the jazz pianist Fats Waller.
They performed in folk and blues clubs throughout Britain where many a head turned in surprise at the volume coming from the tiny 10-holed blues harmonica. Rye was small in stature but he created a tremendous noise, whether vamping out tongue- blocked octave chords or rasping the low notes with a throaty vibrato. Rhythmically, also, he was perhaps the finest exponent of the chugging, syncopated, percussive effects that had impressed him in the playing of Sonny Terry, whom he had heard as a boy on Uncle Mac's Children's Favourites radio show. Rye later became a close friend of Terry and McGhee and remained in contact by letter with Terry's widow in New York until shortly before his death.
Rye was known and liked by many of the visiting American blues men, including John Lee Hooker, with whom he played as a member of the Groundhogs (Rye played on the first Groundhogs LP, Scratching the Surface).
He also met Bukka White and Walter Horton and impressed all with his genuine feel for the music. The finest testament to Rye, and Jo Ann Kelly, is that they, above all other British performers, had the genuine respect of their mentors, black American country blues musicians.
Rye, who lectured in geology at a south London college when he was not playing the blues, was recorded for the British compilations Blues Like Showers of Rain and Me and the Devil as well as Dave Peabody's 1976 album Come and Get It. In 1977 Praeger, the pianist Bob Hall, the washboard player John Pilgrim and Rye recorded the fine All-Star Medicine Show album which featured Rye's tour de force solo, 'Steve's Jump'.
In his later years, an alcohol problem led Steve Rye into a self- destructive spiral that was as virulent as his playing had been vital - a tragically familiar story in the blues. He leaves a brother, John, a well-known BBC radio actor.
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