Rick Bryant, whose funeral was on Wednesday, was in two of my all-time favourite Kiwi bands.
His death wasn’t as widely reported as I would have expected for a man who spent 50 years making great music and who possessed about the finest and most soulful voice we were ever lucky enough to hear.
But then Rick was always something of an outsider figure; he didn’t have hits particularly. His music was mostly in roots genres, blues, soul, gospel and more, not the sort of young, hip pop that exists in charts and sales figures.
In my musical mind he’s pretty much always been with us, a constant presence keeping us honest with music that mattered, music with heart and conviction and a reason, whether that reason was political or to simply spread the soul music gospel.
I remember him on Radio With Pictures in the early eighties with Trudi Green in The Neighbours, singing Watching Westerns with its pointed critique of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. And in the mid-eighties I saw one of the greatest gigs I’ve ever been to, at what used to be the DB Mount Maunganui, one of those vast old brewery-owned pubs.
It existed where these days you’ll find Bayfair.
That was The Jive Bombers, a 12-piece soul outfit complete with Auckland’s finest horn players, backing singers, and Rick majestically leading the line, belting out songs from Otis Reading to Billy Holiday.
It must have been around 1984.
Rick was in a lot of bands through the years. There was blues-based Original Sin and Gutbucket down in Wellington in the late sixties. There was soul music with Mammal in the early seventies: they toured, played at the legendary Great Ngaruawahia Music Festival, and even collaborated with Sam Hunt for shows and a live album.
Then, in what would become the first of several arrests involving drugs, Rick was clobbered by the full weight of the law for a minor cannabis offence and did the first of a few stints in jail.
He emerged to form the pointedly-named Rough Justice, who toured heavily till the end of the seventies.
That was when Rick moved to Auckland and the Top Scientists, Neighbours and Jive Bombers followed. It was around then he had his only ‘hit’, a collaboration with Chris Knox and Don McGlashan. Under the name Right, Left and Centre they released a single, Don’t Go, as a protest against 1985 All Black tour of South Africa. It reached number two and charted for more than two months.
There were more bands: in the nineties came The Skills, The Rick Bryant Trio and a reformed Jive Bombers, and also The Jubilation Choir, a glorious gospel-style a capella group. They came to the Tauranga Jazz Festival in the late nineties and were sensational.
But the band of Rick’s that I loved most dearly was the one that existed, on and off, through it all. Formed as a jug band in the late 1960s, The Windy City Strugglers disbanded and then reformed in the mid-1980s and became the country’s foremost proponents of old – and later, original – blues.
In the company of singer/songwriter Bill Lake (with whom Rick recorded a wonderful duo album, We’re In The Same Boat Brother), bass player Nick Bollinger and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Delahunty, plus revolving drum and keyboard players, the Strugglers recorded several albums including 2009’s anthology, Time Comes Around.
They are all vital and inspiring blues outings, with Rick’s songs becoming increasingly central. His title track for 2001’s Snow On The Desert Road is a stone cold classic. There’s a live version on YouTube from Costa Botes’ documentary about the band, Struggle No More.
Forget my rambling – go and listen to it right now.
Then listen to the next song in the queue, the Strugglers’ finest anthem, Can’t Get Back. That came from Bill and the extraordinary Arthur Baysting, who has written songs dating back to Jenny Morris and the Crocodiles’ Tears. Arthur died two days before Rick.
That’s two huge holes in the tapestry of New Zealand music; at least we still have their songs.