Uwe Warschkow, harmonica

Tommy Reilly – Biography

Tommy Reilly

(21.8.1919 – 25.9.2000)

For several decades Tommy Reilly has been successfully convincing composers and conductors, as well as other musicians, critics and concertgoers, that the harmonica belongs on the concert stage. In 1992 he was awarded the MBE (“Member of the Order of the British Empire”) by Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II for his services to music; the only harmonica player ever to receive such a prestigious award.

Tommy Reilly was born in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. His father, Captain James Reilly, was a bandmaster, conductor of symphony orchestras, and founder of one of the early jazz bands in Canada, also one of the first harmonica bands, The Elmdale Harmonica Band, which won several trophies at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto in the early thirties. Tommy Reilly began studying the violin at the age of eight. A few years later he took up the harmonica and became fascinated by its latent musical potential, at that time unexplored. In 1935 he moved with his parents to England where he made his professional debut in 1936. He toured the variety halls of Europe as a harmonica player while still pursuing his violin studies. As a student at the Leipzig Conservatoire in 1939 he was arrested at the outbreak of the war. During the war years spent in prison camps in Germany, Polen and France he made pioneering studies of the harmonica thus lying the foundation of a classical technique on this neglected instrument. It was this pioneer work and his early violin training which became the foundation of his career after the war when, in the words of Gordon Jacob, he “made the harmonica into a solo instrument of high artistic worth”.

Since 1945 he was resident in Britain. He became a household name in radio during the late forties. Since then he performed on radio, television, concerts, music festivals, and recordings throughout the world. In his standard reference book about the harmonica “Harmonicas, Harps and Heavy Breathers”
American writer Kim Fields says, “Among the select few who make up his peer group Tommy Reilly is generelly given the nod as the finest classical player.”

The first major Harmonica Concerto was composed for him by Michael Spivakovsky for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Since then over 30 major works had been dedicated to him by leading contemporary composers – incl. Gordon Jacob, Robert Farnon, Vilem Tausky, James Moody, Fried Walter, Karl-Heinz Köper, George Martin, Alan Langford, Paul Patterson et al., and he had appeared as soloist with some of the finest orchestras in the world, such as the Academy of St. Martin-in the-Fields, with whom he had also recorded two albums. A list of people he worked with reads like a “Who´s Who in Show-Business”: Beniamino Gigli, Barbra Streisand, Marlene Dietrich, Bing Crosby, Julie Andrews, Sammy Davis Jr., Peggy Lee, Telly Savalas, George Harrison, Peter Ustinov, Sir Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Vera Lynn, Johnny Mathis, Anthony Burgess, Grace Fields … to mention but a few names from very different fields of the arts.

Tommy Reilly´s contribution to the development of the harmonica as a legitimate musical instrument was crucial. As a teacher of the harmonica he was unexcelled anywhere; students came to him from all parts of the world. His tutors and studies are standard works, and he had also composed extensively for the instrument apart from commissioning judiciously. And equally important: in 1967 he created the worlds first concert harmonica: a custom-made silver instrument.

Whatever seperated Tommy Reilly from other players, even other classical players, and had made him a leading exponent of the classical harmonica was that he first studied violin and had modelled his playing of the harmonica after the great violin virtuoso, Jascha Heifetz. Tommy Reilly said, “I tried studying his vibrato, trills, et cetera. This idea came about because I studied the violin as a boy and having done so, I naturally played the harmonica with the phrasing of the violin in mind.”

A great tribute to Tommy Reilly´s artistry was paid by Igor Stravinsky, who stated, “After hearing your interpretation of my “Chanson Russe” I would be happy to let you play anything of mine.”

In a BBC broadcast Sir Neville Marriner, founder and conductor of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, stated,

“Many of the ingredients of the Academy´s original ambitions are embodied in Tommy´s musicianship: technically he achieves remarkable virtuosity with a minimum of fuss. Musically he exploits his instrument with refinement and bravura, and ultimately it does not seem to matter what he plays, but how he plays it.”

* based on a biography by Sigmund Groven