Tommy Reilly; A Life in Music

A biography written by Sigmund Groven in 2019.

Tommy Reilly was born in Guelph, Ontario, Canada on 21 August 1919. His father, Captain James Reilly (RMSM), was an accomplished musician, bandmaster, conductor of symphony orchestras, and founder of one of Canada’s first jazz bands. But it was his interest in the chromatic harmonica newly introduced by the German musical instrument company Hohner that led to his creating at Elmdale School in St Thomas, Ontario the world’s first harmonica band, and that would eventually lead to his son’s becoming the world’s foremost classical harmonica player. Tommy studied violin from the age of eight, but three years later developed a fascination with the harmonica and became the band’s soloist, and gold medal winner at the Canadian Exhibition in 1932 and 1933.

In 1935 the Reillys moved to England where the young Tommy decided to turn harmonica playing into a career. In 1937, after a short stint with the Harmonica Maniacs, he teamed up with an act called The Four Phillips and toured variety theatres in Europe. Whilst in Leipzig, Tommy took the opportunity to study violin at the city’s prestigious conservatory. It was 1939, and when war was declared he was arrested by the Gestapo at his hotel, as ‘an enemy alien’. He spent the next five years and eight months in internment camps across occupied Europe. Although these were extremely difficult times, his imprisonment gave him the opportunity to practice and develop techniques on the harmonica that no one had attempted before. Being a violinist, Tommy consciously modelled his approach to the instrument on the playing of his idol, the violinist Jascha Heifetz:

I tried studying his vibrato, trills etc. Having studied the violin since I was a boy, I naturally played the harmonica with the phrasing of the violin in mind. Personally, I believe that having played the violin has been the most important influence for good in my playing.

These years of technical development became the foundation for future chromatic harmonica playing worldwide. The composer Gordon Jacob said of Tommy:

He made the harmonica into a solo instrument of high artistic worth.

Or as Richard Morrison, music critic of The Times, observed following a performance by Tommy with The Academy of St Martin in the Fields at Wigmore Hall:

For five and a half years, locked up in German prison camps, Tommy Reilly set about discovering the harmonica as no one had ever discovered it before. For 40 years since, his determination to establish the credentials of his solid silver instrument has been matched by his skill at coaxing lyrical, musicianly sounds from this most intractable of sources. By commissioning judiciously over the years, he has given the harmonica a repertoire of pedigree.

Returning to post-war Britain in 1945, he soon became a household name on radio, playing on variety shows and at classical concerts and later writing and performing themes for popular television and radio shows. His major breakthrough came when the composer Michael Spivakovsky wrote the very first Concerto for Harmonica. He dedicated it to Tommy, who gave the first performance of it at the celebrations surrounding the Festival of Britain in 1951. Since then more than forty major works have been dedicated to him by such leading contemporary composers as Gordon Jacob, James Moody, Vilem Tausky, and Robert Farnon. He also performed and recorded original harmonica works by Vaughan Williams, Malcolm Arnold, and Villa-Lobos.

In 1953 he returned to Germany where his performance on ‘Woche der leichten Musik’ in Stuttgart immediately led to invitations to play on radio and television across the Continent. By this time his recording career was underway at Parlophone, his friend George Martin producing. But it was not until the 1970s that Tommy established himself as a classical recording artist, first with Argo and then with Chandos, where his recordings included an album with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Throughout this time, he toured the world, performing as soloist with some of the finest orchestras.

Film composers such as Bernard Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein, Maurice Jarre, Jerry Goldsmith, Dimitri Tiomkin, and John Barry insisted on using him on many of their soundtracks. His range of tone colours and ability to play whatever was put in front of him only added to his deserved reputation. He collaborated with such diverse personalities as Beniamino Gigli, Marlene Dietrich, Bing Crosby, Vera Lynn, Peggy Lee, Judith Durham and the Seekers, George Harrison, and Barbra Streisand.

His contribution to the development of the harmonica as a legitimate instrument was crucial and in 1967 Tommy Reilly designed and commissioned the first custom made silver instrument. As a teacher he was unequalled and spent many years at his home in Surrey coaxing players to develop their talents and learn what this little instrument was capable of. In 1992 he was awarded the MBE for his services to music – the only harmonica player to be so honoured.

Tommy Reilly

His last professional engagement took place in 1998, when he conducted a masterclass for students from four continents at the Dartington International Summer School of Music in Devon, England. His books, tutors, and studies are standard works along with his many original compositions for harmonica.

One of the greatest tributes to Tommy’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 the late Sir Neville Marriner said of Tommy:

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.

This accolade in the newspaper The Guardian by the other famous harmonica pioneer, Larry Adler, sums up just what a rare talent Tommy’s was:

Tommy was unique, in a class by himself. I will miss his wonderful playing: he didn’t even have a close second.

Tommy Reilly died at his home in Frensham, Surrey on 25 September 2000. He is buried in Frensham village churchyard, where his headstone bears the epithet, ‘He was the greatest.’