pity us all/in this hard road we have to travel/Lord pity us all/in our
day by day life's battle.'
Richard Newell, Hamilton's King Biscuit Boy, played and lived the blues.
I have been dreading this story. Given the poor health of Richard Newell,
aka King Biscuit Boy, it was bound to come much sooner than later, and
be painful to tell.
The Hamilton musical legend was found dead in his East Mountain bungalow
on the weekend. Rich has been in poor health for years -- much of it due
to drinking and not looking after himself.
The last time I saw him do really well on stage was a couple of Canada
Days ago at Dick's bar in Paris. He was fronting his old cronies in Trickbag
with Guitar Mikey in from Boston. He peeled away 20 years, blowing righteous
solos all night long. It was Biscuit time.
One of his saddest performances was in Hess Village, months later as
guest star at another band's gig. He was so sick he couldn't play or sing.
He should've been home in bed.
"I'm so sick of being sick, Gary, I just can't seem to shake this,"
he said. He was talking of chronic bronchitis. I was thinking of the drink
and what could've been.
His first bands and released material date to the early 1960s. All
told, there are only half a dozen albums, two hard-to-find bootlegs and
enough unreleased material for one more CD. A manager could've booked him
as a club headliner anywhere in the world, but he couldn't get a gig at
the end in his own town.
There were times I was looking to book a blues band for a function,
and I purposely didn't call Rich. One time about 15 years ago he said:
"You know, I'm tired of living like this, scuffling around. Why can't I
be a solid middle-level guy like George Thorogood? Do a CD every year,
a couple of tours, some solid, showcase clubs. I deserve it. I'm better
than the guys out there."
Yes, he was more than good enough but Rich's story is partly one of
talent squandered and opportunities lost. I think he opted to live his
life as a blues cliché, and he was better than that. Far better.
Rich was loyal, tender-hearted, funny, acerbic, giving, straightforward
and true. And as Biscuit would say: "That's a guaranteed, natural fact."
Rich was the best harmonica player in the world and among the handful
of most soulful, instinctive, distinctive singers. Of all time. And almost
every band in Hamilton -- save perhaps for the Philharmonic -- sounds the
way it does because of him.
When he was able to keep a band together, dozens of musicians flowed
through the Biscuit School of Music, and then imparted those lessons on
their own players. The Hamilton sound is like the city, tough and uncompromising.
Like every band Rich fronted. He's the architect of the Hamilton sound.
Why is Rich that good on the harmonica? It's just that he could coax
something out of that humble jumble of metal plates, reeds and staves that
no one else could.
There are lots of good players today -- Magic Dick, Rod Piazza, Mark
Hummel, Gary Primich, Les Smith and Jerry Portnoy. But no one can play
What he had was incredible power matched by incredible control. He
rode atop distortion like a surfer. With volume, gain and driver amped
to the max, his close-miked metallic sound was like sliding sheet-metal
thunder. Or he could bring it down, acoustic or electric, with incredible
finesse. I've heard session work he's done for obscure American bands and
in a second knew it was Rich.
I felt blessed when he agreed to play at my wedding reception 15 years
ago. Along with Guitar Mikey, he did three sets and rendered my rural relatives
quizzical as the glass-enclosed atrium at Tiffany's pulsed in and out with
My wife's relatives wanted Rich to do a polka. He initially demurred
but later rolled out a Beer Barrel Polka for Lee's auntie. I was thrilled
when Rich said he'd play guitar, something I never saw him do in public.
So for our getaway song, Homesick James' Baby Please Set A Date, just
before we left for our honeymoon, I threw off the suit, put on a Hawaiian
shirt and blew harp as Rich and Mikey wailed on guitar. It was very cool.
I've carried a harmonica around with me, in all my waking hours, it
seems, for more than the last three decades. That's due to Rich. I've learned
so much about the blues (for a time I even had borrowing privileges at
his personal music library, in the bungalow's back bedroom) and even scuffled
about in bands in my younger days.
I've torn the flesh from my lips trying to get that Biscuit harp sound,
and I can't do it, not even close. I even got the same kind of dictaphone
mike that he used on Ranky Tanky, and mounted it on a slide on the back
edge of the harp to see if I could duplicate that effect. No dice, no way.
No player anywhere, anytime, can get it right.
At Rich's gigs the harp players were always in the front row, watching
every subtle thing he did.
For all his certainty in his talent, Rich could be mighty insecure.
I once mentioned to him that I thought he was relying too much on pure
power and drifting away from the subtleties that only he could impart.
For legions of South-side style players, power is all they got. For weeks
he was on my case, asking if he had regained his style, if he was back
to normal, if he still had all his chops. What a ridiculous question.
I may not be the best person to say exactly what his musical influences
were. The guys in Trickbag (a very polished, seasoned Hamilton band) or
Crowbar, or any of his session buddies would know better.
But it seems as if there was a bit of blues-a-billy, (his Mouth Of
Steel album), a lot of New Orleans (his third album, King Biscuit Boy,
aka the Brown Derby album, comes to mind) and a bit of country, such as
his Sonny Richards and the L'il Chickenhawks work. He was all over the
map, but it was all bluesy and all him.
There's a danger when trying to pick out the archetypal Biscuit song.
Knowing his reputation for frivolity, some might point to the two boozy
songs on the most recent Urban Blues Re: Newell disc, Now I'm Good (about
a guy thinking of putting the bottle down) or Achin' Head (an unapologetic
paean to pounding hard).
But I think the most Rich-infused of all his tunes is the plaintive
Lord Pity Us All, found on Gooduns, released 30 years ago.
In it he sings lead, harmony, plays slide guitar and overdubs a wall
of harmonicas until they sound like a string section. On the liner notes,
Rich says it's "a gospel-flavoured slowie about you, me, God and how come
we do us like we do."
He sings: "Lord pity us all/in this hard road we have to travel/Lord
pity us all/in our day by day life's battle."
For Rich, the battle's over and he's in a better place.
His friends know his heaven includes his favourite easy chair and some
Bald-Head Rhumba Boogie.