Very sad to hear of the passing of Rick Bryant yesterday. At one time a giant in the New Zealand music industry and by all accounts he had stories for days. Sharing his story about connecting with Rick and his legacy, I offer this post by guitarist Chris Armour. Chris is involved in many musical projects including the band Anxiety Club. He teaches guitar and this post first appeared on his Facebook page in tribute. It is reposted here with support and permission from Chris.
I just heard the news today. Oh boy. Rick Bryant has passed away.
Those who knew the man will know what a force he was as a singer and a person. There’ll be many others writing about him in more detail than I ever could, but I feel compelled to say something about him in his passing. I had the pleasure of staying with Rick for a week or so at his warehouse back in 2015 and we kept in touch regularly after this meeting. He made a lasting impression on me in many ways. As a statesman of the blues, a historian of American music, an incredibly soulful singer, a lover of particular indulgences, a bon vivant and as a man who had made and been made by a life of music.
Rick was in search of a guitarist to hit the road with and do some duo gigs up and down the country, as his long-time guitarist Gordon Spittle was having wrist related health issues. As with a lot of things in my early years as a working musician, Darren Watson vouched for me and put Rick in touch with me. Having heard Rick’s work with The Windy City Strugglers, there was no question. I jumped at the opportunity to play with him, and made the drive up to Auckland to rehearse a set of pre-war acoustic blues, 50s & 60s Chicago blues, soul, and a mix of Strugglers back catalogue and Bryant originals for a New Zealand tour.
I turned up at night to a bolted door with a surveillance camera and a buzzer. The understandable reason for these things became apparent…at a later date. Despite the uninviting facade, I was greeted with a welcoming smile and a hearty laugh from Rick. We exchanged pleasantries and I loaded all my gear in, he showed me to my room and quickly set to cooking dinner for us. A beautiful cut of steak seasoned lightly and cooked to perfection on a hot stone paired with potatoes. No greens until later. My kinda guy. He sparked up after dinner.
Rick was then living in a warehouse cum library/recording studio. I’m not sure it would’ve met building code but it functioned. There were thousands of books on the walls, and even more vinyl/cd/cassettes of classic recordings spanning most genres you could imagine. Between rehearsals, conversations and trips to the noodle shop I spent a good amount of time just sifting through the mass of music there. Rick had surrounded himself with things that inspired and interested him. He had some weird vintage amps there that piqued my curiosity too.
The stark contrast between the ramshackle nature of the warehouse itself and the gourmet steak dinner was not lost on me. I got the impression that food mattered to Rick. He cooked a mean feed and also introduced me to the delicacy that is peanut butter on toast w/ hot sauce. I was shook. Couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of this myself.
We set to rehearsing tunes the next day, hand-picking a few favourite blues tunes to cover. I don’t recall them all but remember doing 44 Blues by Howlin’ Wolf and Standin Round Cryin’ by Muddy Waters. Ricks voice wasn’t as powerful or immediate as it may have been in years gone by, but it certainly didn’t lack authority, character or tone. It was a real pleasure to find someone who had the same reverence for the source material that I had. At that point in my life I was totally sick of trying to find younger people to try to sing the blues convincingly. None of them knew the genre well enough, none of them got the idiosyncrasies of the style despite their claims to the contrary. Most of them had second or third generation blues artists as their chief influences and it showed. With Rick, it was immediate. There was no posturing or pretending. He knew the canon like the back of his hand. Hearing him rip through 44 Blues by Howlin’ Wolf is still one of my most memorable musical moments I’ve ever experienced.
After more yarns over dinner and through the night, Rick told stories of his storied past. His time with BLERTA, The Strugglers, The Jive Bombers, his numerous other bands. His friendships with Bruno Lawrence and Geoff Murphy, the numerous loves of his life (one being Aretha Franklin, the others can remain nameless. This post is already long enough) and his time in Prison. He talked with me as if he’d known me his whole life and had a way of telling stories that was enthralling. A great speaker and very entertaining conversationalist. A memorable story featured one Bruno Lawrence high on LSD on Willis street sporting a superman costume climbing a building. The cops show up and ask him what he’s doing and he yells “I’M SUPERMAN” Geoff seconds “YEAH! He’s fucking superman!” and the cops left them to it.
For the next few days, we worked on the original material for the set. A mixture of somber ballads, rock’n’roll numbers, soul and blues. Gordon Spittle arrived to help show me the guitar parts. He was a co-writer on many of these songs. Gordon played with amazing touch and consideration, especially for a man with some serious wrist problems. His chord voicings were very deliberate and I studiously learned his parts. I still have recordings of the tunes we rehearsed over those few days and listen to them every now and then. I sound timid and almost in reverence in these recordings, more an audience member than a band member.
Sadly Rick fell quite ill after my visit and the possibility of actually touring became very unlikely. This was heartbreaking. I was looking forward to playing the blues with him, learning more from him, and hearing more of his great stories. I know it would’ve been a memorable set of gigs. We kept in touch afterwards and I sent him a copy of my album when it was complete. He had some really kind words to say about it which meant all the more coming from him in particular.
More often than not the music business will chew you up and spit you out. But we do it anyway because it’s what we love. Rick helped to teach me the importance of carrying on and doing the work. He was in severe pain and discomfort for the final years of his life and still his only concern was to continue doing what he loved and continue singing through it all. Which is all you can do really.
Thanks for the weed, steak and songs Rick,