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
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London