Obituary: Steve Rye

Steve Rye, harmonica-player, born 8 March 1946, died London 19 July 1992.

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.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent