8th November, 2018
Hello Riff Raffers,
Most people I know are not aware that Billy Thorpe blew the gob iron. There’s a few who think I’m crazy, but here is the evidence that Bill did indeed play the harmonica. Who would have thought that a clean cut ‘Mod’ with songs like, ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ and ‘Mashed Potato’, would transform into a long haired hippie playing loud blues rock and the mouth harp. For a short period in the early seventies Billy delved into the realm of harmonica. The first single of the new Aztecs in 1970 featured their rendition of Sonny Boy Williamson’s, ‘Good Mornin’ Little Schoolgirl’ with Bill wailing away. The same year he provided some harp on a Jeff St John’s Copperwine album track, ‘I’ve Been Treated Wrong’. From there he let loose on two tunes off the four track, 1971 LSD induced album, ‘The Hoax Is Over’, ‘Mississippi’ and ‘Truth’. Then on the classic 1973 album, ‘More Arse Than Class’ we hear it again on the driving, ‘I Wanna Know’ and at the Sunbury Rock Festival out came the pocket harp on, ‘Jump Back’.
I wasn’t sure who may have helped Billy with a few chops on the ‘Mississippi Saxophone’ so I sent out a few emails to those in the know. Here’s what transpired. First cab off the rank was Matt Taylor as I knew Bill was a big rap for Matt’s harp and in keeping the blues alive in Melbourne. Their first encounter had been at a gig where Matt was playing with, ‘Horse’ a band that preceded both ‘Genesis’ & ‘Chain’. Lobby Loyde, Matt’s good friend from Brisbane and the band, ‘Purple Hearts’ had brought his school mate, Bill to meet up with him. Here’s how Matt responded to my query. “Bill used to soak his harps in Whiskey. I jammed with his bands a few times and played his harps there was always a few holes unresponsive. He believed the spirit changed the tone and couldn’t believe I just took the harp out of it’s box and it sounded okay.” In a previous interview with Matt he emphasised that, “Bill was an incredibly competitive person. We were always friends, but never bosom buddies. ‘Chain’ and the ‘Aztecs’ were always close, though.” Looks like Matt didn’t pass on any tips.
I’ll try ‘Spectrums’ Mike Rudd as I knew Billy liked to play the ‘I’ll Be Gone’ riff. “The thought of Billy Thorpe asking me for advice about anything makes me chuckle. We weren’t that close for one thing. I’m sure he got expert advice on the harp (as he did with guitar from Lobby) but I don’t know who that might’ve been. He never asked me about the intricacies of IBG.
I think I may’ve told you this story. When we did the Tsunami Concert with him at the Myer Music Bowl some years ago (don’t remember exactly which year) he did phone me – it was Billy who got Bill (Putt) and me on the show. He wanted to do IBG and thought it would be neat for him to start playing the riff (he was dismissive of his own playing of the riff BTW) and then I would take over from the wings and Bill and I would saunter onto the stage and play the song with the band.
Which is how it worked out and it went very well, of course. However, we didn’t realise that our drummer Robbo was in the audience and he was utterly crestfallen for the next week that we hadn’t invited him to join us. You can’t please everybody.” Mike followed back with that it may have been somebody from the Sydney scene where Bill resided.
Next on the list was ‘Dingo’, Brod Smith, he was playing boogie blues with ‘Carson’ way back then. Brod had no idea that Bill was an exponent. Here’s what he concluded, “I found a track of Bill playing. Sounds like he was listening to Sonny Terry (there’s a double time rhythm in there that’s very reminiscent of him-the most complicated part in the track). I would have thought that Matt was the closest to him (Chain/Aztecs thing) in terms of showing him something, he lived in Sydney for a while around the time of his heavy rock beginnings (late sixties) so maybe it was Shane Duckham or someone like that.” Brod thought that it sounded like someone who may have been a bit ‘rootsy’, that’s why he had suggested Shane. I was aware Shane had played with Dutch Tilders in the early sixties and I’m sure they would have covered a Sonny & Brownie tune. This coupled with the fact that Bill plays a Sonny Terry lick on the Jeff St John song further enhances the probability of Shane providing some tuition. Hear Bill’s Sonny Terry lick here https://youtu.be/Uof7K2yezeQ. However contacting Shane was going to be difficult as he had passed away in the early eighties. I believe after a fight on a boat off the coast of Cairns.
Where to now? Why not an Aztec? I contacted the amazing bass player from the outfit, Paul ‘Sheepdog’ Wheeler for his insights. “Shane Duckham was a name from back then. Billy didn’t learn by being taught Shep, he pretty much bootstrapped everything guitar included. He was many things our old mate but he was definitely a self taught musician, he had a wonderful ear and if he wanted to do something he would just sit in his bedroom and do it all day until he felt ready. That’s my take anyway.” Paul followed on further with, “Lobby was a huge influence and of course mentor although he didn’t say anything he just did it, the volume competition between those two was horrendous, Lobs would got to Strauss so then Bill would go to Strauss so then Lobs would go to Strauss and so on and so on until we were drowning in Strauss.”
Well there you are Riff Raffers, nothing definitive, but an interesting peregrination. I have posted a little mishmash of Bill’s harp work here Forpies. Check out his train rhythm performance with the Aztecs on ‘Happening 72’, an ATV 0 television show hosted by Ross D Wylie https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=xtk2tDmW_xM.