6th February, 2019
Hi Riff Raffers,
Greg Foster is more than an accomplished harmonica exponent and yet for some reason he goes under the radar when we discuss the best Australian harp players.
His extensive body of work with Jazz super group ‘Galapagos Duck’ alone is testimony enough to his proficiency as a musician, songwriter, performer and particularly as a master harp man.
Greg first came to the author’s attention with the eleven piece band, SCRA (Southern Contemporary Rock Assembly) and with their Sunbury Festival anthem, ‘Roly Poly’, which featured Greg on his other main instrument, the trombone (he also plays the didgeridoo and flute). A later single, ‘Sydney Born Man’ witnessed Greg blowin’ the mouth harp.
Greg’s fascination with the instrument that fits in your waistcoat pocket began as an eight year old lad listening to his older brother’s Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee records. His forlorn attempts at replicating Sonny’s riffs finally came to fruition with the knowledge that Sonny was playing in cross position (second position-where the key of the harmonica is a perfect fourth above the key of the tune). From that insight Greg went on and tutored himself on the most owned instrument in the world.
Greg for as long as he could remember wanted to play the trombone and to play jazz. An inheritance from his Dad spinning Fats Waller LP’s on the family’s gramophone. At high school Greg joined the cadet band and completed six years under the new Wyndham scheme in New South Wales. He studied music as his elective and successfully finished his sixth and seventh grade practicals from scratch. Greg graduated with a diploma of music at the esteemed Sydney Conservatorium and would perform in their orchestra (in 1993 Greg was a featured soloist with The Sydney Symphony Orchestra).
In the 1960’s he would sit in on Bob Barnard’s band in George street Sydney where he began developing his craft. Greg’s first tilt as a member of a band was with the ‘Harbour City Jazz Band’. His next jaunt was with rock’n’roll group, ‘Heart ‘n’ Soul’ another eleven piece outfit, who would try anything. They have the honour of being the first rock band with a brass section in Australia. In the 1980’s, ‘Hunters and Collectors’ kept this tradition in the forefront of popular music. ‘Heart ‘n’ Soul’ recorded an album in 1971 and their single, ‘Hot Boogie Band’ penned by Greg and featuring his harp work was promoted by their record label ‘Infinity’ alongside ‘Chain’s’, Black & Blue. Then, after his sojourn with ‘SCRA’, in 1976 Greg joined the prestigious, ‘Galapagos Duck’. The band had formed in 1969 and were loosely known as ‘Robbers Dog’ when performing at their residency at Charlottes Pass, a chalet in Kosciusko.
The derivation of the band’s name, ‘Galapagos Duck’ traces back to ‘Goon’, Spike Milligan. Spike, a trumpet player and lover of jazz became friends of the band when they played at ‘The Rocks Push’ in Sydney. The band would follow owner, Bruce Viles across the road to ‘The Basement’ as their resident band. Spike often sat in with the band when on one of his frequent trips to Australia. When asked by a punter the name of the band, he replied, “sounds like a Galapagos Duck”. A quirky response, but that’s Spike being Spike and he had just written a script for the Goon Show that included an auction of a Giant Galapagos Turtle on wheels. It was around this time the last Giant turtle named ‘Lonely George’ had been discovered. It is also said that one of the many props at The Basement’ was a large chocolate wheel and when spun the clapper sounded like a duck quacking. Spike’s regard for the group is proclaimed in this quote, “Galapagos Duck are the sort of group which play the sort of music, which if you haven’t heard them for four years, and hear them again, they’re still ahead. They play the music, man. And they play it great.”
Greg’s percussive technique on the ten hole tin can by using tongue articulation was a distinct feature of his and probably evolved from his trombone playing. When I enquired about the difference between blues and Jazz harp Greg stated, “there is no distinct jazz harp, it’s blues harp played in a jazz setting”. He continued emphasising that, “I wouldn’t use the harmonica unless the tune had a blues influence, but there would be an interpretive difference. I would use the whole harp, blow bends at the top end and sucking draw notes at the other end.” Greg’s harmonica of choice was Hohner’s top of the diatonic range the ‘Meisterklasse’. I’ve posted a taste of Greg’s harp work here, ‘Fosters’ .
Greg’s harp featured on Digby Richards’ 1972 album, ‘Harlequin’ you can hear one of the tunes, here, ‘Ashton’. He also blew three notes on Paul O’Gorman’s 1977 song of the year and best song at the Tokyo International Song Festival of the same year, ‘Ride Ride America’. When I asked why just three notes half way through the tune, Paul responded with, “ I’m not really sure why harmonica was added. It just felt right at the point where it came in. It always felt a nice touch that briefly changed the colour of the track and was symbolic of the early days in the USA.” I’ll post a grab of this soon. Here tis ‘Ride’
Ah Foster’s harmonica he’s got the flavour. That makes life worth living.
PS: International festivals the ‘Duck’ have performed in: Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, Jazz Yatra Festival in Bombay (Mumbai), Musexpo in U.S.A, Manilla Jazz Festival in the Phillipines,Singapore International Jazz Festival, Queenstown Jazz Festival in New Zealand, Norfolk Island Jazz Festival, Lord Howe Island, Vanuatu Jazz Festival.
Albums: 1974-Ebony Quill, 1974-The Removalist, 1976-St. James, 1976-Moomba Jazz (Live recording of various artists), 1977-Magnum, 1978-Right On Cue, 1979-In Flight, 1981-This Time, 1983-Voyage of The Beagle, 1985-Endangered Species, 1989-Habitat, 1997-Lonely George, 2006-Out Of The Blue, 2015-The Other Side Of The Mirror