Classic Mornings

The Life of Reilly


It’s a recording I’d been waiting for! Yet I never even knew it was coming. It was released shortly after the centennial of the birth of the late Tommy Reilly, which we celebrated back on August 21 on Classic Mornings.

Over the years I knew very little about Tommy Reilly (1919-2000), except that he was a fine harmonica player. I had featured selections – and still do – from a 1987 release titled British Folksongs, which he made with harpist Skaila Kanga (Chandos 6643). It came into the Friends of WILL Library when it was re-issued in 1991. Years later we acquired another recording with the 2 players that included some classical favorites and even a few pieces that each of them composed (Chandos 6568).

Eventually I came to know the story of Reilly’s life and career. The new CD A Life In Music – Vintage Tommy Reilly (Chandos 20143) includes a retelling of that story by Sigmund Groven, a Norwegian harmonica virtuoso who was one of Reilly’s students and the producer of some of his recordings.

Tommy Reilly was born in Guelph, Ontario, which is about 60 miles west of Toronto. He learned to play the violin at age eight and the harmonica at age 11. His father led a harmonica band. Tommy became the band’s soloist and a gold medal winner at the Canadian Exhibition when he was just 13 and again at 14.

His family moved to England when he was 16. Deciding that he wanted to play the harmonica professionally, he toured Europe with a group called The Four Phillips. While in Leipzig, he decided to further his violin studies. That was in 1939, at the outset of the Second World War. He was arrested as an enemy alien and would spend the next 5 and a half years in prison camps throughout occupied Europe. During that time, he perfected his harmonica technique, inspired by the violin playing of Jascha Heifetz. 

After the war, Tommy Reilly went on to become a virtuoso player and quite a celebrity. The tribute recording includes 30 tracks dating from the 1940s to 1988. Reilly is featured in studio and live performances of classical and popular music selections. Among the classical works are an abridged version of Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen and Smetana’s “Dance of the Comedians” from The Bartered Bride. Reilly the recitalist is joined by Norwegian pianist Kaare Ørnung in a sonata by Scarlatti and the famous “Minute” Waltz by Chopin.

In the CD booklet, there are photographs from the family archives. One shows a smiling 18-year-old Reilly. In another, taken years later, he’s performing alongside pianist Frank Still at one of the prison camps. The smile returns in the photos from later years.

Tommy Reilly once said that playing the violin was the most important influence in how he came to play the harmonica. “Having studied the violin since I was a boy, I naturally played the harmonica with the phrasing of the violin in mind.” If you know that, you can appreciate even more the way he performs works written originally for the violin.

One of the surprises is the inclusion of a few tracks recorded in the early 1950s at Abbey Road Studios in London and produced by his friend George Martin - yes, the George Martin of Beatles fame! There’s also a 1980 photo with Martin and Reilly. Martin did write some pieces for Reilly, which appeared on an earlier recording. One of them, which is titled Two Beatle Girls: Eleanor and Michelle, borrows a couple of well-known melodies.

It’s fascinating to listen to the studio and live tracks recorded over the course of 40 years with the various genres of music and the ”colors” created by the ambience associated with the various eras of recording technology. It’s like a do-it-yourself documentary. You glance at the photographs, read about Reilly, listen to the historic music cuts, and use your imagination to put it all together.

Reilly’s son David has written an intimate remembrance of Tommy as virtuoso and father for the recording notes. “As a human being, he set a fine example for those with great creative talent of how to take that gift and run with it: to take it to the highest level while remaining with feet firmly planted on the ground.”  He tells of his father turning down a “lucrative tour of the U.S. with flights and concerts packed back to back.” He was assured that he’d make a lot of money. His reply was “I’ll be able to afford an expensive funeral then!”

I really didn’t intend for this to be a CD review. I simply wanted to share some of the excitement connected with the recording. And there’s so much more to it.

I did intend for Classic Mornings to be lots of fun during the recent pledge drive. And there was the added pleasure of hearing from so many listeners with contributions and comments. As usual, you invited me into your space to bring you music, stories, and celebrations. At the same time, you made me feel that you were with us in the studio. Thank you again for your support!