Tony McPhee, the singer and guitarist who led British blues and rock group the Groundhogs across six decades, has died aged 79.
A message was posted on the group’s Facebook page confirming that he died peacefully at home” on 6 June from complications after a fall last year. He had also suffered a series of strokes in later life.
McPhee was grounded in the early 1960s British blues scene that had taken hold in clubs including the Marquee in London’s Soho, where he watched musicians such as Cyril Davies. He joined a south London group, the Dollar Bills, in 1962 and renamed them the Groundhogs.
Playing blues and R&B, their career took off in 1964 when John Mayall and his band were unable to back visiting US blues star John Lee Hooker on a UK tour date, and the Groundhogs were deputised. Hooker then rehired them for another tour the year after, and recorded an acclaimed album with them; Hooker and the Hogs. McPhee later described Hooker as “fantastic – great fun and a real gentleman”.
The Groundhogs became a go-to band for other touring blues artists, such as Little Walter and Jimmy Reed, but they then split for a time in the mid-60s. McPhee recorded solo tracks with producer Jimmy Page, and took session work (sometimes under the name Tony “TS” McPhee) – he joined Mayall and Eric Clapton in the backing band for the Champion Jack Dupree album From New Orleans to Chicago. A short-lived psych-rock group with Groundhogs bassist Pete Cruickshank, Herbal Mixture, also found some success, and supported the Jeff Beck Group. McPhee also turned down sideman slots with Mayall and jazz bandleader Chris Barber, later calling the latter decision one of his regrets.
He and Cruickshank then revived the Groundhogs name with a new lineup, with the group’s debut album arriving in 1968. This marked the start of McPhee most commercially successful period: amid a fertile rock scene with British bands branching out from blues, R&B and rock’n’roll into psychedelia, progressive rock and heavier moods, the Groundhogs’ energetic, frequently cosmic sound chimed with the spirit of the age.
They supported the Rolling Stones on a 1971 tour and had three back to back UK top 10 albums in the early 1970s – Thank Christ for the Bomb, Split (later certified gold) and Who Will Save the World – and performed the hard-rocking single Cherry Red on Top of the Pops, earning a broad fanbase for their open-minded approach and McPhee’s untamed yet technically brilliant guitar playing. “I try always to write and play stuff that is timeless, not pandering to ‘fashion’ just like blues; being honest and able to incorporate new ideas and techniques,” he later said.
The group’s lineup changed during the rest of the 70s with McPhee remaining at its core, with another four albums by 1976, before they disbanded. Another McPhee-led incarnation began in the mid-1980s – they had become a major influence on Mark E Smith and the Fall in the meantime – putting out two studio albums, while the late 90s brought a pair of albums interpreting the songbooks of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. In 2003, the Groundhogs celebrated 40 years with a reunion of McPhee, Cruickshank and drummer Ken Pustelnik who had powered their hit 70s albums. The band also released over a dozen live albums during their career, and McPhee also put out a number of solo releases.
Later in life he played with cult group Current 93, and collaborated frequently with vocalist Joanna Deacon, a creative partnership kickstarted, he said, by a more outgoing period in his life, “when I was kicked out of my home by my second wife. She accused me of being boring”.
He also announced that he was collaborating with Karl Hyde from Underworld, though these recordings have not been released. As the Groundhogs’ albums were reissued in 2021, Hyde described him as “one of the greatest unsung guitarists that this country has ever produced, and also one of its most distinct vocalists”.
In 2009, the first of the strokes McPhee suffered damaged his ability to sing, and he eventually retired from the group in 2015.
He is survived by his wife Joanna, sons Conan and Vincent, grandchildren Scarlett and Victor, and sister Olive.
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