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
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
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

COO / Chief Operating Officer

£80 - 100k + Bonus: Guru Careers: A COO / Chief Operating Officer is needed to...

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits