As many of you will know, beloved electric guitar supremo Richard Treece passed away on 25th May this year after suffering a stroke in his sleep. He was 65.
I started out knowing Richard simply as a fabulous guitar player –over the years he became one of if not my favourite guitarist of all time - but I subsequently got to know him as a friend and the human was quite as fabulous as the musician, if not more so.
He was humorous but super-sensitive, guarded but insightful, above all he was one of the most modest people I have ever encountered . He never gave much away – for instance in his prime he was a true student of yoga and was able to take on the double-cross leg yogic position and move across the floor on his knees!
I must have known him some 30 odd years and he never spoke much about his childhood or formative years. When I started to formulate this tribute, I actually had to ask his sister Jenny to give me some facts about the young Richard.
Richard grew up in Barton-on-Humber, Lincolnshire, with a big sister and an Old English sheepdog. And parents, who had moved to Barton to teach – for a year it was thought – just before the war broke out, putting an end to many dreams. His dad Henry was a well-regarded author.
Jenny says: ‘After the sheepdog’s death, cats came into the family, with whom Richard had a special rapport, he could almost hypnotize them with a special whistley, inbreathing voice, and private language, a talent he retained. Both talking to cats and developing Treece-isms. Not many people know what a chewsen is, for example (and as this is an oral language my spelling may be incorrect) Some I have inadvertently passed on to my half Swedish children, not thinking that they didn’t realize they were private, initiated by Richard.
I think it is important to remember that we grew up in post war Britain, with all that that implied economically and socially. I wanted a guitar, had experimented with stretching strings over boxes etc with not much success. I realized that it would be an incredibly expensive present to ask for, and didn’t think I could, I think it was just before our respective 11th and 13th birthdays summer 1960 (or else the Christmas before) but I sneakily managed to con Richard into asking. Seems he wanted one, too. Lo and behold, we got one each – the simplest possible, just a step up from plywood, but, enough to see if we were serious. We were. Turned out that our dad, who was an accomplished pianist, had played guitar in his youth, and he encouraged our progress.
Mostly I remember that our dad and I got into playing flamenco, I upgraded a couple of times, passing my in fact pretty good narrow bodied classical guitar, found at the Arcades in Hull - where we later on used to go to get Yardbirds records and stuff - (just going to Hull was a great adventure involving train and paddle steamer) on to Richard. Must have been around 1963 I should think that Richard got an internal mike for it, and found that you could play it through the tape recorder.
It was around then, I suppose, that he started playing with mates from school. Did he like school? Not particularly, apart from one young teacher who had played with Karl Denver and I think had lessons after school for budding guitarists. Richard wasn’t quite there yet and didn’t take part, perhaps there was an age limit, can’t remember. School wasn’t really attuned to artistic types – let’s put it that way.
We used to go off to Hull, suppose ‘63-65 to see all the “big” groups, Stones and Beatles, of course (Richard used to hate the screaming, you couldn’t hear what the guitarists were doing) and several package tours’.
In 1965, when he left school for art-college in Hull, he’d been playing for a while in The Chain Gang, his Barton group. In Hull and Leicester he played with various constellations including the Jack Bentley Blues Band (right).
Eventually as it did for many young musicians living out in the sticks, the lure of London and the big time proved too strong and he moved down to the Smoke in 1968 right in the middle of the British Blues Boom and eventually got involved in the embryonic Help Yourself with life-long friend-to-be Malcolm Morley.
The Help Yourself story has been told many times so this is where that particular history lesson ends.
It was as a member of the Helps that I first became acquainted with Richard. As a player he was the governor. On a good night, there was simply nobody to touch him. The only other player from that era who can move me in a similar way still is Martin Stone of Mighty Baby and Chilli Willi fame.
Right from the outset Richard’s playing was an essential part of the Help Yourself sound and a joyous one too. From those spooky spectral licks on ‘To Katherine They Fell’ and right on through ‘All Electric Fur Trapper’ ‘American Mother’, ‘Mona’ and ‘Eddie Waring’ on the Patti set (Richard’s opening salvo on ‘Waring’ is a knee trembler) to ‘Blown Away’ on that fourth long player, it is Richard who always grabbed your ears.
The HY reunion for the ZigZag 5th birthday party at the Roundhouse, 28th April 1974 gave Richard his true moment of glory – and thank God that all these years later the set was recorded for posterity and finally released as part of a 5-CD set in 2010 by Road Goes On Forever(link above). Pete Frame founder of the magazine described the Helps set as being like’ ‘Quicksilver jamming with Country Joe & the Fish at the old Avalon ballroom’ – beautifully put. Treece’s playing is incendiary, long flowing rivers of molten guitar all breathtakingly and audaciously delivered with no rehearsal! No wonder the audience went so bananas at the end of that set – it was celebratory and euphoric and left all those there in no doubt that Help Yourself was one of the great bands of the era!
Sadly two of his finest moments remain rather buried. ‘Half Breed’, a Western epic done for a 1972 BBC session where he and Malcolm trade off across a blazing prairie of wild guitar flames and Sean Tyla’s ‘Eating Dune Burgers Again’ on the original bootleg version of Help Yourself 5 – for some reason the mix used on the Hux release neuters this magnificent piece of acid-inspired lunacy.
But if you don’t know too much of Treece’s work and want to understand why we all love his playing so much, then ‘My Friend’ on the bonus Happy Daze disc of The Return of Ken Whaley set is the one! The song actually written by the funny man of the troupe, Viv Morris is so melancholic, it could actually have been penned by Morley himself – just listen to the way Rich builds a cascading stream of heart-rending notes as the song plays out. I have never heard a wah-wah pedal used better than on this or on ‘Duneburgers’.
He was given a real gift. Of course what he did with that skill and genius was always going to be a problem – there isn’t much of a demand for lead guitar players like Richard unless they lead their own bands and once the punk era had been and gone, so had the era of guitar heroes. Fallow years lay ahead until he and Ken began the Archers, later to become the Green Ray in earnest.
Treecie was always under-amplified. My dream was always to get him into a power trio. I’m sure it wouldn’t have suited latter day Ken but I always imagined them with a drummer who could sing lead in a set up akin to the mid-70s Hot Tuna with Jorma, Jack and Bob Steeler with a couple of Marshall stacks behind him – I wish I’d seen the Flying Aces when they supported Tuna at the Roundhouse and had heard Rich’s comments. Malcolm has said, ‘It might have been me who Help Yourself relied on to write the songs and arrangements, but when it came to the band playing live, we all looked to Richard’.
I’d always thought that Richard’s main men when it came to the lead guitar were those San Francisco guys – Duncan and Cipollina from Quicksilver, Jorma from the Airplane, Barry from the Fish (more later) and of course Jerry Garcia. I remember a conversation one night after a Green Ray recording session where RT waxed lyrical about Uncle Jerry’s solo on ‘the Chain’ from Mars Hotel. I also know he dug Randy California and was pleased as punch when Phil from the Terrascope took him along to what became one of Spirit’s last UK shows. Funnily enough, though, I never really talked to him about what got him started and it was only when I started writing this that I had to ask Malcolm who he especially dug. As a Yardbirds fan, no wonder Richard’s no 1 player was Jeff Beck, he was also a great admirer of Peter Green and Buddy Guy too and of course Jimi Hendrix.
Somebody else he also loved was Clarence White and boy, could he emulate his hero if he put his mind to it. There was a show one night some years back the Ray did with Barry Melton at What’s Cookin’. I don’t recall the number but Richard played some absolutely blinding country licks and afterwards I congratulated him on sounding just like dear old Clarence (unbeknown to me then that he was a fan of the Byrds man).
At least he got to play with some of the most skilled and talented players of that late 60s generation. There was Danny Kalb from the Blues Project with whom he played in San Francisco. He jammed with the underrated Danny Kirwan and co from the Peter Green-less Fleetwood Mac when the Helps were at Headley Grange in 1971. Rick Bockner made a good Bob Weir to Richard’s Jerry Garcia when the Mad River man played one night with the Green Ray and of course Barry Melton was a guitar partner made in heaven for Rich. In Barry he found the kind of foil none of the Simons in the Green Ray could really provide and Barry relished playing alongside him – there was a moment at the Doghouse in 2008 where Barry and Richard really got into it during a version of the Dinosaurs’ ‘I can’t get started with you’ that will stay with me to the grave. Astonishing! We were transported back to the Fillmore West and all the while Barry was suffering from a severe cold bug meaning he had to bale mid-set.
Richard was at his zenith when he was engrossed in some long flying solos, but he did have his quirks as a live player.
Martin Ace of the Flying Aces remembers: ‘Richard was a terrific guitarist if a little nerve wracking at times. Sometimes he wouldn't play a note,he'd just stand there thinking, looking up occasionally and judging the moment when he could jump in and let rip, once he got going he was great’.
Malcolm recalls a gig at that notorious musos’ watering hole, The Speakeasy: ‘it was about 2am and we were onstage when I began to notice that the band sounded rather thin and I looked round and there was Richard, roll-up in his mouth, he’d stopped playing and was just nodding his head in time to the sound of the bass and drums!’
Tony Poole of Starry Eyed & Laughing adds: ‘It was the Doghouse gig where we almost did an Amazing Zigzag Concert replay - I put 'Daydream Believer' in our set - Iain Whitmore and myself as Starry Eyed & Laughing - to honour John Stewart AND Michael Nesmith, and also 'Goodbye Nashville, Hello Camden Town' for Chilli's Phil Lithman, and of course Paul 'Bassman' Riley was there and Martin Stone.
For Help Yourself to be represented, we had the fantastic Richard Treece - who had helped me out on solo gigs several times previously - up to guest on a couple of songs. When I announced he was going to join us, I underestimated how long poor Richard - whose health wasn't the best, though that never stopped him - would take to get from the back of the room to the stage ... so Iain and I started an impromptu and unrehearsed version of 'My Uncle' to fill the time.
As Richard picked up his guitar and sat down seemingly to tune up, suddenly the air was filled with the most incredible Clarence White-like country licks. Iain & I looked at each other in shock, and of course extended the tune!
Although I'd mostly experienced his wonderful unique psychedelic and passionate blowing style of guitar - which he proceeded to unleash on 'For What It's Worth' and 'Murder In My Heart For The Judge' - (and the Help Yourself CD on the Amazing Zigzag Concert Box Set is still the one I play the most and the one I enjoyed mastering the most - including Starry Eyed’s), I realised this beautiful man could play absolutely anything - music lived in him, and has died a little with his far too early passing'.
What is especially sad about his death is that Richard never got a chance to work on the band’s new album due to go into production later this year. Tony had even written an epic song inspired by the Avebury Stone Circle with Richard’s long snaking guitar lines in mind.
If you grew up in the 50s, you couldn’t avoid cowboy films and Western TV series.
I was always a sucker for the Wild West culture that crept around the edges of Help Yourself’s image and was intrigued by the mention of Whit Bissell on the posters for the Happy Days tour. Could this be the infamous character actor who had starred in such movies as The Magnificent Seven and The Hallelujah Trail? Who’d appeared in series like The Lone Ranger and Cheyenne and was known to millions as General Hayward Kirk in The Time Tunnel? Well not quite but it was a mischievous little tip of the hat to his memory from Richard!
It was an absolute delight to talk to Rich about horse operas, he wasn’t just a big fan, his knowledge was encyclopaedic, he really did know his Arthur Kennedys from his Arthur Hunnicutts and more fascinatingly he knew all the great character actors such Hank Worden, Robert J Wilke and his favourite, Jack Elam. If you like Westerns, you will undoubtedly have encountered Elam – he was in 100s of films but made his mark in TV series such as Tenderfoot where he played Toothy Thompson and in The Dakotas where he played Deputy US Marshal J D Smith. And for anyone familiar with Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West, that opening sequence featuring Elam and Woody Strode waiting at the railway station to gun down Charles Bronson is one of the great set pieces in movie history. Elam spends a good part of the scene trying to trap an annoying fly in his gun barrel!
Richard was also aware of the bigger picture. When he drove across America in the 80s with Malcolm, he was awed by the spirituality of the mountains of the south west and equally humbled by the look of ingrained contempt for the white man in the eyes of an old Apache they encountered in a store in Arizona.
Nonetheless Richard liked old Hollywood and was very happy last summer when I managed to get us DVDs of a little known Joel McCrae oater, Fort Massacre. As Jenny recalls, ‘much of his spare time, really from being able to write, was spent making film cast lists, and drawing film albums usually featuring Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn, James Coburn and Brad Dexter, Katy Jurado. Not to mention Whit Bissell and Bing Russell and many more. Films were always his great passion’.
He was a genuine movie buff and was a regular at least once a week at the Rio cinema near where he lived in Dalston, catching all the latest films. And he knew his stuff. One of the last times he talked to my son William, they became heavily engrossed in a discussion about Ridley Scott’s Alien follow-up, Prometheus. Another time, Malcolm and Richard were sat around and came up with a very novel concept, a re-make of The Magnificent Seven using classic British actors of a certain vintage such as Cyril Cusack, Maurice Denham, Richard Wattis and Brian Pringle. They were cracking up as to who might play which role, who might be Chris, who might be Vin or Chico!
Richard’s health was in decline for a long time and he was poor at looking after himself. The trigger for what was eventually diagnosed as a deep vein thrombosis, he suffered on a return trip from recording with Ron Sanchez in Montana at the end of the 90s and he spent some time in hospital. He also suffered from a recurring kidney problem.
I always despaired about his diet. On the rare occasions he came over to visit us in Kennington, we’d usually have a half decent spread to offer but Richard always insisted on his basic staple food. I always made sure we had some decent bread and cheese when he did come round!
The last time we saw him was at Malcolm’s show at the Betsey Trotwood in May. As we ascended the stairs, Trisha asked him how he was doing and received a typical Richard shrug, ‘oh you know, falling to bits’ all said with that usual grin and irony.
It certainly didn’t prepare us for the shocking news later that month that he was no longer with us.
The words to that old Grateful Dead song originally written about the Reverend Hart, subsequently becoming something of a eulogy for Pig Pen ‘He’s Gone’ naggingly and frequently eat at my mind, ‘he’s gone and nothing's going bring him back’. He surely is but at least we all have some terrific memories of him.
Memories Are Made of This
Simon Whaley drummer with the Green Ray and one of Rich’s longest standing musical collaborators says: ‘the obvious point is of course that not only was he a unique musician with an unmistakable signature sound and style, but he was also the complete gentleman - so kind, so pleasant, a great listener - very self-deprecating. An enduring and endearing memory I have after 25 years of playing music with him is his little performance kit he always had on the floor...usually consisting of a can of energy drink, a fig roll, a simple cheese sandwich and a wah-wah pedal.
Martin Ace recalls: ‘Me, George, Jo and Puddles the dog were invited by John and Sue [Eichler] to live in the house [in East Finchley] rather than just come in to eat ,wash,go to the toilet,smoke dope and so on.That was when I really got to know Richard, What a cracker.He was a great host. He was living with Annie The Artist at the time, Annie who did the incredible covers for the Helps albums and me and George would spend many an evening with them listening to music, playing music and loads of other stuff.......We did the Happy Days tour from that base and eventually Ricky became one of the Flying Aces. We had some of the best times of our lives in those days’.
Aside from watching him sit hunched over his guitar at many a Ray show coaxing out some of the most amazingly beautiful sounds I have ever heard, one of my abiding memories of Richard is in the bar at the Roundhouse after that triumphant final set in 74. He was there, dressed in his finery, crowned by that mane of leonine locks with his beautiful girlfriend Annie by his side – they looked the perfect golden hippie couple. I wanted to say how much I’d dug his playing during the Helps performance but they looked so inscrutable, so untouchable, I just turned away and ordered another drink before Nesmith came on.
Of course most of all we can remember him through all the wonderful music he made with Help Yourself, Donovan’s Brain, The Flying Aces, the Splendid Humans, The Neutrons, the Green Ray and the Tyla Gang (Sean has acknowledged that it was Richard’s coruscating slide guitar work on the band’s ‘Texas Chain Saw Massacre Boogie’ which made Beserkley Records sit up and take note).
Richard, you son of a gun, you made a big impact on my life. Why did you have to leave us so soon? I‘m going to miss you dearly.
Richard in Sweden: Frida Jorup;
Jack Bentley Blues Band: George Platt;
‘Last Train from Gun Hill’ illustration courtesy of Jenny Treece