By Steve Hoy.
This article first appeared on ATN’s Melbourne Music site in 2015.
In Ian McFarlane’s 1999 magisterial doorstopper, The Encyclopedia of Australian Rock And Pop, Ross Hannaford receives a detailed, affectionate entry highlighting his contributions to a busload of talent. That list includes Daddy Cool, Mark Gillespie, Renee Geyer, The Black Sorrows, Paul Madigan, Shane Howard, with and without Goanna, and even my small stitch in the weave of Australian music. More recently he has contributed to soul singer Emma Donovan’s work and the yet to be released tribute to Greg Quill. Affection is the byword, the central emotion when anyone considers Hannaford’s guitar playing and the music he has created over the last fifty years.
His position as many guitar players’ favourite guitar player was amusingly illustrated a couple of years back when he was voted Australia’s ‘Tenth Best’ player in a Melbourne Herald-Sunpoll. We were playing together for the first time in many years when he wryly – and with quiet pride – announced this fact to the audience. Coincidently, Kerryn Tolhurst and Chris Stockley were in attendance. After the show Kerryn suggested that if the top nine were quizzed they’d vote Ross into first place. Indeed when Ian Moss, a player listed near the top whenever these polls do the rounds, grabbed Hannaford for his first solo band. So how does someone who maintains a minimal public profile develop such a strong reputation? What does a player do to inspire such admiration for so long?
Writing about a player who has been a musical inspiration since before I bought an electric guitar but who has also been a musical colleague is a bit of a puzzle. Therefore, this is a story of influence and friendship and, hopefully, a glimpse into the working ideas of one of our favourite players gleaned from a conversation in late 2014, and observations from a thirty-year association.
I met Ross in 1984 when Joe Camilleri put us together with Gary Young and Wayne Duncan to record my album Anticipation. Okay it wasn’t us; it was me with Daddy Cool. Gary, Wayne and Ross’ status was beyond legendary for a Novacastrian re-located to Canberra. This was Joe’s act of faith that my little songs could be made larger by this meeting of naiveté and profound experience. Joe emphasised that Ross would be playing, but success depended on his frame of mind. Joe described it as the Hanna factor. “If Ross is on it’ll be great; if not you’re playing the guitar parts!” Fortunately, for many of us, Ross was on. The evening we met for rehearsal holds fast memories. Wayne was the consummate diplomat, the easygoing mediator; Gary, a little wilier, okayed me when I sort of understood an oral percussive description of a drum fill he had in mind for a song. And Ross did his famous seated kick during a run through of a tune, an indication that he was enjoying himself.
If we were to take Hannaford’s perspective at this stage of his life, where he feels “there’s so much crap out there that I’ve done, it’s all embarrassing looking back,” we’d be perplexed that he had a reputation at all. That he is talking about his recorded output and live reputation, the very things for which he is revered is part of the puzzle. That he feels this way is part of an ongoing frustration with his perfectionism and its contradictions. Bassist, Steve Hadley told me that he’d organized some recording a few years ago and had become frustrated with Hannaford’s frustration! “The stuff was great, but he wasn’t happy with it and eventually I became busy with other work and it just sort of fell away.” This isn’t an uncommon experience. Many others have tried to capture Hannaford only to be vetoed at the eleventh hour. At the time of this conversation Hannaford was intent on ‘rectifying’ that by being more prolific and more visible to leave “a half decent legacy.”
Nevertheless much of his appeal is the sense of joy and deep soulfulness he brings to his live audience. It’s always funky with a touch of ironic knowingness but never showy cleverness. It’s the soul dressing necessary to convey a song’s emotional core – at least for the other players and the audience.
QUOTE: Chris Worrall: “Hanna uses his body to rid himself of the notes the rest of us would play…then dumps his into places between the beats that none of us knew existed!”
Hannaford has always gravitated to dance music, fun music but is something of a classicist when it comes to covering songs, finding the funkier groove in standards, as on his take onRainy Night In Georgia from the wonderful Ross Hannaford Trio album of 1994. There’s a beautiful simplicity in his approach to ballads and the achingly lyrical solos he conjures. The importance of rhythm is shown in Hannaford’s embrace of reggae and the role of guitar as a part of what the drums and bass do rather than the guitar hero in the background waiting for the all-conquering solo.
“When I say reggae is my big inspiration well, a lot of reggae I’m sick of now cause it’s got played to death and there’s a lot of shit too. It’s the principle of reggae that’s what I mean, how the guitar became part of the rhythm section. You could have two parts or more . . . playing a constant sort thing like the drums and the bass. So I take that principle and when I‘m playing blues and rock’n’roll if I’m recording I sort of do that . . . if you’ve got one guitar or organ or something doing a shuffle or another one doing a reggae chop on another beat it gets movement, it gets a dance. It’s an African thing; all the great rhythm shit comes from Africa via United States via South America via the Caribbean, that’s the roots. There’re distinct things that happen like funk, soul, kinda church, gospel. Also church in Jamaica . . . calypso. South America and Cuba have the most sophisticated orchestras. They’ve got their own rhythm. But it’s all kind of African. That’s the music I like. It’s got to have a dance thing in it for me. It’s gotta have a dance element. And that’s like what we were saying before, that happy thing. Breaking that up the reggae way, parts and that. I suppose I like reggae because it was uplifting. Rock’n’roll was more like that (nods head up and down in semi-head banging style) that’s sort of ‘heady’ and dance is more heart so . . .”
He also cites Steve Cropper as a major influence and the instrumental, beat-funk-fun-greasy style certainly informs his playing. He is quick to point out that the real r’n’b and blues has that dance element and finds that, “White blues went off on the wrong tack a bit, they forgot about the rhythm a bit, a joyousness in the rhythm. Listen to Jimmy Reed. It’s really happy.”
While rhythm is central to Hannaford’s playing there is usually a melodic element that captures the listener’s attention, the joyous hook that brings a smile.
“I try and make a melody when I’m soloing. Making all these little tunes I find these things that sound so simple and dumb. You gotta great set of little chords, I’m making up a sample I’m automatically sort of going da-da-da (makes rhythm sound) but hey, just put a high [part]on that’s happy. I’ve found you can get so many emotions, sorta quiet emotions and real joyous and happy and crazy emotions. I’m twigging out on the kind of emotion and I might think this is a bit serious and I’ve sort of got his knack now: well it’s time for a laugh in there, or something. I’m starting to feel the emotions of just notes, just abstract feeling I get without words. I’m not a wordy guy, never was, went real bad in English. I’m not worrying about words. I used to worry about words a lot which is probably why I kept stopping all the time. That’s another thing there’s just simplicity. I don’t like clutter I just want to hear the swing of the beat.”
Hannaford doesn’t listen to guitar players as he may have in the past, not having the time to listen. “Time’s too precious. I used to listen a lot. Guitar playing doesn’t interest me unless it’s a beautiful guitar player. I suppose I loved it when I was a little kid, Elvis and Ricky Nelson playing guitar and singing, Bill Haley. That was the shit ’54-’55-’56. I just loved that rock’n’roll thing. I just wanted a guitar from the age of four and when I was eight I could hold one.”
Paul Madigan: “If Hanna was going past me on the Yarra in a tugboat and playing a straw broom I’d still know it was him!”
We talk about a sort of lease of life delivered by a cancer removal and recovery seven years ago and the decision to busk regularly. This was prompted by a spell convalescing with a friend and mentor in Cairns, who insisted he just go back to Melbourne and busk, something he had never done.
“That’s all he said for ten days! You’ve gotta busk. I wanted to kill him. The day after I get home I get a call from Bart (Willoughby) saying, “Hey, hey you want to go buskin’?”
As this appeared too close to divine intervention to ignore, they went out as street musicians initially with Hannaford on ukulele. The difficulty of singing on the street without a mic put paid to the bold new Hawaiian direction.
“So bugger this, I love playing electric guitar, got to get one of those battery amps and I’d been foolin’ with a sampler for a while . . . I really love to play with bass and rhythm so I put down a rhythm guitar live then a bass line (with an octaver). I realised if you’re busking there’s no way you can play eight bars of some forlorn song with nothing happening in front of all these people, so I started writing tunes. I’d get an eight bar thing going and when it repeats you’ve got a different melody for a chorus. So you’ve got a verse melody and chorus. I’m just writing melodies, I’m not writing words. It’s been liberating, I can’t tell you. I’ve written so many little ditties.”
In 2012 Hannaford and Willoughby released “Buckskin,” a collection of these ditties recorded on the street at various locations around inner Melbourne. When I heard one of the tunes I puzzled over Bart’s percussive nuances till I realized the sounds I thought were hand cymbals or other percussive esoterica, were actually coins being thrown into the guitar case. There are several YouTube clips of Ross and Bart performing at South Melbourne markets and other locations with comments questioning why one of the country’s greatest guitarists has been reduced to busking. These comments don’t get the immediacy of a possibly disinterested audience becoming intrigued at the sound of two great players. Hannaford was so enamored of this approach that he recorded a collection of Christmas carols at home using loops and percussion, to sell at shows.
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Hannaford’s approach echoes Miles Davis’ description of his music as ‘social music,’ part of the audience as well as for it. It is created in the moment from agreed structures, which often head in spontaneous directions.
“When I’m setting up in a room I try to be aware of who’s there and how am I gonna cut through to these people . . . the thing I hate is kind of enforced music on people or enforced anything. That’s what I do when I’m busking. I really try to come in so it’s not in their face and I try to feel as good as I can. Y’know you’re playing for fifty years you know areas you shouldn’t go down!”
This unobtrusive, non-showbiz method also explains Hannaford’s low profile, at least as far as the wider public is concerned. For instance he remembers his Lucky Dog time in the early eighties with the greatest fondness. Its only release, a three-track EP, shows why they might have been a popular live act with the lively cover of Why Do Fools Fall In Love? complete with twittering bird calls. The EP includes a version of Wake Up, later reprised for the first Dianna Kiss record.
“We had the Greyhound Hotel (now the Depot Hotel) in Richmond. Wow playing there at our own joint. Most people were meditators or friends of ‘em and Bob Marley was just hitting big and reggae. It was quite a great band . . . like guys who hadn’t played. The keyboard player was just a mad boffin. I told him what to play; he got a nice Hammond organ. It was the first time Martin Kellock, Jerry Noone’s brother, played electric guitar. He bought a Telecaster and amp. Play the chop, just stay on that! He’d sung acoustic and he was good. That was the best time for me because it wasn’t a huge room but it was always packed, everyone gone, the atmosphere was thick. And the band was pretty fuckin’ good. They’re my best memories.”
The legacy of his most famous band Daddy Cool created its own burdens, audience expectations fixed on the memory of that band’s hits and aura, which provided “many unhappy evenings playing my thing,” an observation delivered with a wry chuckle. He feels that people are more accepting now and people are enjoying his music on its own terms. He notes that there’ve been some great things that happened along the way, such as Dianna Kiss and its eleven-year residency at The Esplanade hotel in St Kilda. “That had its own scene; that was the next best thing but that Lucky Dog thing . . .”
Ross’ singing has been a possibly neglected feature of his work, the soulful lower register applied to heartbreak ballads like Weeping In My Joy or its ironic rock’n’roll partner applied to hoary relics like I’m A Hog For You Baby. Much like his guitar playing, Hannaford’s vocals are instantly identifiable.
Spencer P. Jones recalls seeing Daddy Cool and marveling at and being inspired by Hannaford’s own moves, his variation on the Chuck Berry duck walk, the spinning on a dime, splits and hand stands, the energy that was projected. “Ross is elastic; that fluid playing, the juicy licks and the baritone voice is the icing on the cake.”
At the time of this conversation Ross was working on songs for an album yet to be recorded for an undisclosed benefactor, and preparing for Daddy Cool’s induction into The Age Music Victoria Hall of Fame. He suggested that the sound of Daddy Cool was Wayne Duncan, “It was such warm, simple playing.”
The most recent opportunities for audiences to see Hannaford have been the sadly short-lived Critters and the Holy Mackerel band led by Kerryn Tolhurst. The former played a series of shows at the Caravan Music Club for several months in 2012 – 13 and was a reminder of the spontaneity and virtuosic playing of Dianna Kiss. Fortunately these shows were recorded and await curatorial attention. The latter band is a relaxed, no-rehearsals gathering of colleagues that performs once a month to appreciative crowds in Albert Park, Melbourne. As a member of this band it has been a joy to again work with Ross.
Perhaps a truer insight into the mysteries of Hannaford’s playing lies in this statement: “I can’t play the same thing regularly without wanting to do something else. I just can’t do that.”Perhaps my 15-year-old son nailed it when asked what was special about Ross’ playing. “He’s just cool. He plays what’s right.”
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Some time after this conversation Ross’ health deteriorated to the point where live playing became impossible, at least for a time. The July benefit concerts held at Memo Music Hall in St Kilda showed both the depth of love and respect Ross holds for performers and audience alike, and the depth and power of his music. That a rock ‘n’ roll musician, frail through ill health, could command minutes of silence in a full theatre of expectant patrons, suggests a special reverence. As he readied himself for his solo performance we were reminded that Ross’ forte is the live setting. The dozens of records to which he has contributed are a part of his work but the live experience is where the magic happens. Perhaps this can be said of many performers but in Hannaford’s case it is a guiding principle and the reason for the reverence. The greatest artists illuminate, inspire and touch hearts. Ross Hannaford is a great artist.
Recently Mark Ferrie and I met with Ross to play in the most casual manner at Ross’ home. Mark and others have been dropping in to play. I threw out a little thing I’d been working on as it had something of Ross about it. As we noodled around in the glow of the heater Ross picked up his Bic lighter, his preferred slide device for the last thirty years, and played a note that seemed to speak of all his experience and ours as well. It was one note, playable by anyone capable of hitting it, but somehow in its timing, timbre and effortless delicacy it was the Hanna factor. Three people heard it; one would’ve said, “I’ll get it right next time” but the other two knew that once again . . .
This article first appeared on ATN’s Melbourne Music site in 2015.