British banjo ace Phill Morley passed away on Wednesday morning, 27 August, 2014, in Broomfield Hospital, Chelmsford, Essex. He had been ill for some time and had had major heart attacks on three occasions in recent years.
Born on March 13, 1952, Morley was a very significant player in the development of bluegrass music in Britain during the last 40 years.
His obsession with the banjo began at the age of 16; he did all of the usual learning techniques – slowing down records and button-holing visiting banjo plays in search of tips.
In the mid-1970s he started busking in his home town of Romford. Although he was still learning to play the instrument himself, these public displays led to teaching assignments.
About the same time Morley made his first visit to the Cambridge Folk Festival, where he met many other bluegrass musicians. He wondered what these musicians did in between these annual festivals, often remote from one another. His solution was to start a newsletter, The British Bluegrass & Old Time Music Newsletter. The format changed to that of a magazine shortly thereafter, prompting a change in title to The British Bluegrass & Old Time Music Journal.
In the mid-1980s Morley, now in association with Jan Jerrold (the new Editor) and John Hopkins, changed the name of the magazine to British Bluegrass News.
Morley’s trendsetting manifested itself when he participated as a teacher at the first Bluegrass Day held at Kingham Hill School, the venue for the annual Sore Fingers weekend.
As well as featuring in other bluegrass bands, Morley has dabbled in country music, swing, country rock, folk music and jazz; the latter to help with his teaching.
It was his teaching that sustained him for the past 20 years, with pupils as young as six years of age coming to him. He reckons that he has taught well over a 100 people; to Morley teaching is what was “keeping the music and instruments alive!”
So consumed was he with teaching that he published his own teaching books and produced some lessons on audio-tape and DVD.
Also, he seemed to have a constant yearning to publish; only ill health caused him to abandon a little quarterly journal, The Banjo Gazette, which he started not long after the publication of British Bluegrass News was taken over by the British Bluegrass Music Association in November 1990.
Morley helped to found the East Anglia Bluegrass Festival in 1997 and was involved with the organization of the event through the years.
Morley had to endure more than his fair share of illness and pain – he fractured an ankle in November 2003 (although that didn’t stop him and his band – at that time, Wet Paint – play at the American Embassy in London on the evening of the Presidential election) through the years, but he is now at rest.
Bill Clifton protégé Rick Townend remembers ….
“Phill was a cornerstone of the British bluegrass and old-time music scene, having set up the first magazine (which turned later into British Bluegrass News) a long time ago. He was also involved with Jan Jerrold in setting up the British Bluegrass Music Association, for which he was the East Anglia area rep for many years, and he helped to organise the Steeple Morden festival, as well as local sessions. Phill played banjo and guitar, and also called for barn-dances. He also taught, and set many players off on their start into the world of sessions, festivals and working in bands. His many friends and acquaintances remember him as a generous and thoughtful person, with a lovely smile and a soft, kindly sense of humour…. He will be missed!”