2 Apr 2011

Thumb to the Highway (Part 2) - In Search of a Musical High

From Musical Chairs, 11:55 pm on 2 April 2011
Highway. From left George Barris lead guitar, Bruce Sontgen, singer, rhythm guitar, George Limbidis bass guitar, Jim Laurie, drums, Phil Pritchard, lead guitarist.

Highway. From left George Barris lead guitar, Bruce Sontgen, singer, rhythm guitar, George Limbidis bass guitar, Jim Laurie, drums, Phil Pritchard, lead guitarist. Photo: supplied.

Writer and producer Keith Newman talks to Rick White, Bruce Sontgen and Phil Pritchard about their respective careers in part two of this Musical Chairs feature: Thumb to the Highway - In Search of A Musical High.

When ‘Tom Thumb’, the blues-edged Wellington rock band, was forced to morph into a cabaret band after three incarnations and four years on the road, founder Rick White pulled the plug and began looking for a new challenge.

Tom Thumb had charted in 1968 with American Indian love chant 'Witchi Tai To' and a remake of rock ballad 'If I Were A Carpenter'. After releasing a dozen singles and recording their prog-rock swansong the Ludgate Hill EP, the band found itself supporting the Peddlars playing dinner music at a Wellington nightclub.

That had not been part of the rock ’n roll plan for bass player and founder Rick White. After calling it quits he and drummer Tom Swainson recruited guitarist Milton Parker, saxophonist and flautist Andy Stevens and bass player Paul Curtis, to form ‘Farmyard’.

At the dawn of the 70s the group were immediately in demand on the concert scene and gained nationwide recognition for their song 'Learnin’ About Livin’', although the single was nothing like their on-stage performance.

The bulk of the band’s original music was hugely experimental and their album tracks more geared for stoners than dancers. While they were clearly proficient players their competitiveness and egos meant there was little love lost between them, and at time confesses White they barely tolerated each other.

Despite the challenges they produced two albums of mildly sophisticated progressive rock which were eventually rereleased by the ’Little Wing of Refugees’ label in Europe in the 90s.

On their demise, White gathered a group of friends for another original unit. Taylor featured bass player and rhythm guitarist Clinton Brown and drummer Keith Norris, vocalist and keyboard player Steve McDonald from ‘Dizzy Limit’ and Kevin Bayley who had been lead guitarist in Christchurch band ‘Chapta’.

Taylor played residencies in Auckland and Wellington, released two singles and succeeded in recording their only album after trashing the Auckland sessions and trying again in Wellington. When they folded and formed the core of ‘Rockinghorse’, Rick White went on to become a producer in his own right.

Meanwhile singer Bruce Sontgen his old ‘Tom Thumb’ band mate, had joined a new group called ‘Highway’ that began writing and playing original music with the goal of tackling the Australian market.

In the unit were two players who’d already had some success across the Tasman: guitarist Phil Prichard who’d been playing with former ‘Simple Image’ frontman Barry Leef and George Limbidis who’d been playing with Melbourne unit ‘Freshwater’.

They teamed up with Jim Lawrie on drums and later George Barris on second guitar and with a full-on hippy era light show began touring the universities. They recorded two singles and an album and just as sales were taking off, they uplifted themselves to Melbourne.

They signed up with Michael Gudinski’s booking agency and worked their way across Australia, appearing at the Myers Music Bowl in Sydney alongside their friends Daddy Cool, at the Myponga music festival in August 1971 sharing the stage with Stephen Stills and Manassas and at the first Sunbury Festival alongside ‘Max Merritt & the Meteors’ and ‘Billy Thorp & the Aztecs’.

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

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