Tommy Reilly (deceased)

MI0000964072-300x300 Tommy Reilly chromatic harmonica virtuoso- (deceased)

The finest musician on chromatic harmonica in history, Tommy Reilly

Tommy Reilly stands apart from all chromatic harmonica players in history…in that, like Segovia, his feel for music and sensitivity were unparalled, in their time and after.
Tommy was originally a Canadian violin student in Germany, and interred in German prison camps when World War II started.
He got harmonicas to play in prison by swapping his gift packages of food from home with guards for chromatic harmonicas.
Each day, he would play for hours, honing his skills as if playing a violin. He brought the educated and schooled approach of the professional orchestral instrument to the world of harmonica.
Composers who were put off by other players of harmonicas, readily granted approval for Reilly to play their music…the ultimate compliment.
A kind and sensitive man, he represents a high point in the history of performers on the instrument, and was a valued soloist with the Academy of St. Martins In The Fields, an English chamber orchestra, still considered the best in the world, run today by violinist Joshua Bell- Music Director.
Tommy’s music evidences a nuance which is beyond the scope of others, a stratospheric talent…
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Tommy Reilly
Birth name Thomas Rundle Reilly
Born August 21, 1919
GuelphOntario, Canada
Died September 25, 2000(aged 81)
FrenshamSurrey, England
Genres Jazz, classical, popular
Occupation(s) Musician, composer, teacher
Instruments Harmonica
Years active 1940s–1990s
Associated acts James Moody
Notable instruments
Chromatic Hohner silver harmonica

Thomas Rundle “Tommy” ReillyMBE (August 21, 1919 – September 25, 2000) was a Canadian-born harmonica player, predominantly based in England. He began studying violin at eight and began playing harmonica at aged eleven as a member of his father’s band. In the 1940s, he began parallel careers as a concert soloist and recitalist playing the harmonica.

Born in GuelphOntario, he studied violin at eight and began playing harmonica at aged eleven as a member of his father’s band. In 1935 the family moved to London. At the outbreak of the Second World War he was a student at the Leipzig Conservatory. Reilly was arrested and interned for the duration of the war in prisoner of war camps. However it was there that he developed his virtuosity on the harmonica, basing his ideas of phrasing and interpretation on the playing of Jascha Heifetz.[1]


Returning to London in 1945, Reilly began championing the cause of the harmonica as a serious solo concert instrument. He began parallel careers as a concert soloist and recitalist, a popular BBC radio and TV performer, and a studio musician-composer. He performed with most of the major European orchestras and toured Europe several times with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields. He also played the theme tune and musical breaks to the BBC Radio series The Navy Lark from 1959 to 1977.[2]

Over 30 concert works have been composed for Reilly, including Michael Spivakovsky‘s Harmonica Concerto of 1951 (considered the first important full-scale concerto for harmonica), and fellow Canadian Robert Farnon‘s Prelude and Dance for Harmonica and Orchestra. Other pieces were composed for him by Reilly’s accompanist James MoodyMatyas Seiber (Old Scottish Air for Harmonica, Strings and Harp), Gordon Jacob (Five Pieces for Harmonica and Strings), Fried Walter (Ballade and Tarantella for Harmonica and Orchestra), Karl Heinz-Köper (Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra), Graham Whettam (Fantasy for Harmonica and Orchestra), Vilem Tausky (Concertino for Harmonica and Orchestra), Francis Ward (Kaleidoscope for Harmonica and Orchestra), Willem Strietman (“O bonne douce France” for Harmonica and Orchestra), Max Saunders (Sonatina for Harmonica and Piano), Sir George Martin (Three American Sketches for Harmonica and Strings, and Adagietto for Harmonica and Strings), Alan Langford (Concertante for Harmonica and Strings), Paul Patterson (Propositions for Harmonica and Strings). Reilly himself transcribed works by BachChopin and Mozart amongst others, for the harmonica. Reilly worked with many composers to get more original music written for the instrument, and his recordings also include original harmonica works by Ralph Vaughan WilliamsMalcolm ArnoldArthur Benjamin, and Villa-Lobos.[3]

He was signed to Parlophone in 1951 where his recordings were produced by George Martin. He also performed music for the soundtracks of many US and European films and for several US TV series. Among the composers who wrote film scores for Reilly were Bernard HerrmannElmer Bernstein and Dimitri Tiomkin.

In 1967, Reilly initiated the development of the first Hohner silver harmonica, which became the de facto standard concert instrument for many years and to which Hohner has made with few adjustments ever since. (Kettlewell’s note: He played the Polle chromatic harmonica later in life and said it was the finest he’d played, and that he’s play no other.)

Tommy Reilly and James Moody have recorded many musical scores for the harmonica under the pen names “Dwight Barker” and “Max Martin”. One of such musical compilation is the LP: Conroy/Berry Music – Conroy BMLP 160 – Album Title: Conroy Recorded Music Library: Harmonica, 1976, which is a compilation of previous 78 RPM of the 1960s from Berry Music.

In 1992 he received an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth for his services to music.

Reilly developed and invented much of the playing technique which is common today. He wrote a handbook Play like the Stars, about playing classical style on the chromatic harmonica.

Reilly died aged 81 in FrenshamSurrey. His granddaughter Georgina Reilly is a Canadian film and television actor.


Kettlewell:   I am saddened to report that his widow died recently, and while the website for Reilly is still up, no sales of his music are possible there at present.

My comment to Reilly…you will be revered and remembered as long as records exist for humanity.

There are many wonderful videos on YouTube of him performing, and I’ve enjoyed all the CD’s I’ve heard.