26 Mar 2011

Thumb to the Highway (Part 1) - Tom Thumb's Blues

From Musical Chairs, 11:55 pm on 26 March 2011
The second line-up of Wellington band Tom Thumb (left to right) featuring Bruce Sontgen on vocals, Mike Farrell on lead guitar, Tom Swainson on drums and band founder and bass player Rick White. Photo Rick White archive.

The second line-up of Wellington band Tom Thumb (left to right) featuring Bruce Sontgen on vocals, Mike Farrell on lead guitar, Tom Swainson on drums and band founder and bass player Rick White. Photo Rick White archive. Photo: courtesy Rick White archive

Rick White, founder and bass player of 60s Wellington blues-rock band Tom Thumb and singer Bruce Sontgen talk to Keith Newman about breaking the musical mould.

Bands put together by bass player and singer Rick White helped redefine the music that was being heard in Wellington clubs and local concerts venues from the mid- 60s to the early 70s.

After three versions of the blues-influenced ‘Tom Thumb’ he put together ‘Farmyard’, known for the trippy pop ditty Learnin’ About Living and two follow-up progrock LPs,  and then ‘Taylor’ with the musicians who went on to form ‘Rockinghorse’.

After being sacked from his first professional band ‘The Relics’, 18-year old Rick White decided that would never happen again and advertised for players for his own unit, the first iteration of ‘Tom Thumb’.

The band went through over a dozen bass players until White, the singer and rhythm guitarist, took on the job himself. After recruiting ‘blues shouter’ Bruce Sontgen they went for a more professional sound, bringing in hot guitarist Mike Farrell and drummer Tom Swainson.

The now heavier British rock influenced unit under the guidance of EMI record producer Peter Dawkins had minor success with Witchi Tai To, a North American Indian love chant and a hard edged cover of Tim Harden’s If I Were A Carpenter which gained national chart action.

Nightclub owner and professional manager Ken Cooper had the hard working band playing resident four nights a week at his Wellington venues The Place and Ali Baba’s and touring the country several months of the year.

A third line- up of ‘Tom Thumb’ emerged at the dawn of the 70s and produced the instrumentally indulgent but much sought after Ludgate Hill EP, which mixed the themes of the Great Fire of London and the threat of a nuclear apocalypse.

After their manager tried to turn ‘Tom Thumb’ into a cabaret unit White pulled the plug and then formed ‘Farmyard’ and ‘Taylor’. ‘Tom Thumb’ singer Bruce Sontgen was glad to give his severely tested vocal cords a break with a different kind of music in ‘Highway’ - the band that became the darling of the university circuit in the early 70s.

Keith Newman talks to Rick White and Bruce Sontgen in part one of this two part Musical Chairs feature: Thumb to the Highway - Tom Thumb’s Blues.

Produced and Presented by Keith Newman for Radio New Zealand National.

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