We Remember Chris Duffy

by | 26 Jul, 2012

The following comments have been sent to us via our website following the sad news last night of Chris Duffy’s passing. Donal Baylor and I spoke last week at the Redlands Festival about compiling a site to preserve the memory of one of Australia’s great bluegrass pioneers. This is our start:

We’d welcome your comments via the contact form below.

When it comes to pioneering bluegrass music in Australia, there is one person whose contribution stands out amongst all others – Chris Duffy.

Chris was a connoisseur, an entrepreneur and a raconteur all wrapped into one.  He brought professionalism to the scene and a generation of Australian pickers were inspired by him.

It’s long been a joke in the music business that one of the rarest phrases in the English language is ‘a successful banjo player’, but Chris was that and a whole lot more.

He made records – LP records – when it was a big deal to make a record.  You needed contractual arrangements and distribution deals and it was a far more expensive process than the current plethora of self-produced CDs.  His records were influential and many Australian pickers were introduced to bluegrass through them. 

He sold banjos – he put dozens of young pickers behind a Stelling banjo, exposing them and countless others to their first professional grade instrument.

He gave a generation of Australians their first taste of live bluegrass from the USA when he brought out in successive years: Byron Berline, John Hickman, Vince Gill, Mark O’Connor, Dan Crary and Bill Keith – all at the height of their careers.  I will never forget the effect of seeing Byron play – it was incredible and I still feel influenced by that moment 29 years later.  He also gave Australians the opportunity to play in bands supporting some of these artists.  I spent an unforgettable east coast tour as part of his band with Dan Crary – another of my teenage heroes.

He also arranged for these musicians to judge the fiddle, banjo and guitar competitions at the Tamworth country music festival – giving the event real credibility.  Under his leadership, this was one of the marquee gigs of the festival, attracting enormous crowds and at the time, was the meeting place for Australian bluegrass pickers during an incredibly active period in the music’s growth.

Chris was also the consummate performer.  Together with his partner, John Kane (and Ian Tredinnick & Ian Jane when they had a full bluegrass band), they bought the music to more people in more places than anyone had done before or since.  Their show was full of great picking, songs and their easy-going humour made the music accessible to audiences everywhere.  I met Chris and John during this period while I was studying and found it inspirational.  We soon got to jamming at Paul Wookey’s house whenever they were in Melbourne (which was a lot) and we had many great times.  Chris was enormously supportive of me, and offered me gigs here and there, which was a huge thrill to me.

Chris was a natural leader and knew the music business extremely well. He had worked out a way of playing what he wanted to and yet firmly remain in control of his own direction.  This is something very hard to do and takes considerable planning and resolve.  He had learned this from various sources, not least of which was from Slim Dusty with whom he toured with in the 1970s.  This gave him a great knowledge of Australia and a determination to keep control of one’s career.  Through his constant touring, he had contacts everywhere and an incredible recall of places to source good coffee, pasta and French food!  Some years later when I was part of the Slim Dusty show, Michel Rose and Colin Watson and I used to award each other with a ‘Chris Duffy Award’ for whoever could find the best place to eat in some of the blandest country towns imaginable.

Slim used to use Chris as a sounding board whenever he needed a new musician.  Chris always knew who was up and coming and (and critically) who would socially fit in to the group.  Quite a few pickers owe their big break to a quiet recommendation from Chris.

I know I have benefited enormously from Chris’ influence and I know many others have too.  John Kane was able to learn his craft from Chris and go on to form his highly successful band ‘Flying Emus’. I had many opportunities to tour with Chris and they were always exciting, rewarding and fattening.  He had sophisticated tastes in food, cars as well as music and a wide range of interests that made conversation over long drives endlessly fascinating.

In late 1989, I was finishing my stint as Slim’s fiddle player when I received a call from Chris.  He was in rehearsal for a Broadway play about to open in Sydney and they needed an onstage fiddle player.  He thought of me and I was quick to say yes.  Soon it was packing them in for eight shows a week, and Roger Miller’s ‘Big River’ (starring John Bell, Jon English, Cameron Daddo) was big hit.  The money I made from that formed the deposit for the house that we still live in, so I have Chris Duffy to thank for all that he has given me.

There is no doubt that Chris Duffy had a vital influence on me.  He taught me what is possible in music in Australia if one is determined enough.  He was able to achieve so much and all of us have so much to thank him for.  I treasure the memories that we shared and will miss his humour, lovable eccentricity and undeniable skills and achievements. There will never be another like him – Donal Baylor, Canberra.

There are many bluegrass music fans in Australia whose interest in the genre was kindled by Chris Duffy’s pioneer touring through regional Australia in the 70 and 80’s. Chris introduced us to people like John Kane, Paul Wookey, Dan Crary, Bill Keith, Byron Berline, John Hickman, Mark O’Connor and such. Then came the inaugural Bluegrass Championships in 1979. Chris became Australia’s first National Banjo Champion and subsequent adjudicator along with his touring entourage of international guests.

Chris Duffy played such a significant role in the development of Bluegrass Music in Australia and in my life. His passion for fine instruments, good food and good wine took him on a tour of life that many would fail to comprehend. However, this has sadly come to an end.

I remember Dan Crary once telling me that Chris was a walking encyclopedia of fine dining establishments in Australia. No matter to what town he and Chris arrived at, Chris knew where the best restaurant was and often knew the chef by name.

Chris had a passion for music, art and fine-food and wine. During my time in Victoria, I had enjoyed many a night out in Melbourne as Chris would lead me to his favourite restaurants where we’d enjoy a night of fine-food and wine along with conversation that generally solved the world’s problems. I especially enjoyed his ability to define what brought him joy, caused him frustration and to generally seek out all that was good in life.

There is no doubt that many others, who have enjoyed Chris’s company, his often quirky slant on life, his bizarre sense of humour and his lightning fast wit, who will miss him too – Gregory McGrath, Caloundra.

I could never forget Chris. His interest and application to the music over so many years was infectious … he along with John Kane raised the awareness in many of us in the ’70’s and ’80’s to the pleasure and joy of bluegrass and acoustic music. I enjoyed his lovely banjo style and mandolin picking and of course his wit and humour. It was always a delight to be in his company and to see and hear him perform. Chris’s presence and contribution meant a lot to my personal development in learning the banjo and bluegrass music and I’m so sorry to hear of his passing – Laurie Grundy USA.

Thanks for some amazing music over the years. You were, and still are, one of our bluegrass icons. Your contribution to Aussie Bluegrass was extraordinary and you will be sadly missed. We can see you now just pickin’ away with Earl and Doc… wow, what a sound! Our condolences and sympathy to the Duffy family – Graeme J.

Peter Hisco, Leslie Avril Bowker and Maggie Duncan.

Last tune played with him, just last year – Remington Ride at a Melbourne, Paul Wookey gig near his place. Properly met at the Hanson Hotel Bluegrass nights of the early 80s in Adelaide with John Kane. Always remember the ol newspaper solo and extended banjo neck gag. He had me open for Dan Crary around that time ay Adelaide Uni. Then hardly saw him again till he popped up at the Yarra Junction Fiddlers Convention perhaps in 2006 (jpeg date but was likely earlier) and joined Leslie Avril for a casual set. Always a fascinating gentleman and could play to anything. And funny to boot. Too few notes shared but all the more treasured – Andrew Clermont

I had the pleasure of knowing Chris in a different capacity, as a nurse on the Acute Trauma Team ( Psychiatric ) based at Rozelle Hospital in the inner west of Sydney.
His stories of that time for him were sometimes sad, but very revealing of the human condition. His quirkiness (for want of something of a better description) helped him in this arena.
I didn’t work with Chris in his chosen nursing field, but his parties or impromptu get-togethers at his home always were like the man himself, never ordinary. Keep playing that banjo Chris – Robyn Brennan.

Just today I picked up a new banjo, as I sat on my verandah playing, I thought back to days listening to Mr Duffy and his picking magic.
This evening I heard he is lost to us.
Chris and I worked together in acute mental health services years ago and he brought his gentle intelligence to so many in his life and was a professional, musical and personal inspiration – Greg Norton-Baker.

I did my first professional gig with Chris and John at The Troubadour in Melbourne. I was still at school and after convincing mum & dad to let me go, took my first ever flight to Melbourne to join them for their show. I was bitten by the bug and the rest is history.
I also met my husband at a Chris Duffy & John Kane gig at The Alley Cat in North Sydney where they played a residency in the early 80’s. So I guess I have quite a lot to thank you for Chris. Travel easy old friend – Genni Kane.

My first contact with Chris was over 40 years ago – In 1970 I had just returned to Sydney from Canada and I heard Chris play 5 string banjo at the Liz. At the time he was with a lively group called “Southern Comfort”, and I enjoyed many of their gigs at the Liz back then. Little did I know that later on I would enjoy Chris’s company partaking of fine French food at the Bagatelle restaurant on many occasions (especially on Bastille day!!), and also play bass in several of the many bluegrass lineups that Chris featured in on banjo, mandolin, and guitar. Chris came up with some very subtle names for the bands – one in particular come to mind…. it was called “Just Bluegrass”. When placing adds for gigs, all we usually got in the listing would be “Bluegrass”!!! Chris was a fun guy the be around, and unfortunately we lost the connection with him when he moved to Melbourne many years ago…. though conversations with other old band members would usually get around to “what’s Chris up to these days”? Chris – gone but not forgotten…. As the ancient Egyptians said – “Speak my name and I will live forever” – Ian Jane.

One of my earliest memories of discovering bluegrass music was having the opportunity to see Chris and John Kane when they visited Perth as a duo in the early eighties. They had a profound effect upon me because of the quality of their musicianship and obvious discipline they displayed.
The most powerful memory I have however was of how approachable these guys were. Really nice guys who wanted to share their music.
Chris was a unique banjo player, prepared to take the instrument places I had never witnessed.
He will be sorely missed – Paul Duff, Perth WA.

I first met Chris in Brisbane in about 1964. He was among the first of the local banjo pickers I heard who seemed to have really captured the spirit and style of Scruggs Picking. Chris was always the consummate performer, he knew how to entertain a crowd and awe them with his musicianship. I learned a lot from Chris’s observations ” get ’em to laugh” and they will enjoy your show. And on potential Hecklers ” Pay us an Aussie song mate”. Chris’s response “Ok. This is a tune from New South Wales – Foggy Mt Victoria- it was on the B side of a special re- release of his hit “When The Rain Tumbles Down In July” in March 1956″ . Not too difficult to figure out what Tune Chris really played.
Chris’s laconic and ironic observations, his musical ingenuity will be sadly missed by all. He has left a legacy in a yet to be released CD- make sure you get a copy – Rod Jones, Sydney.

Hard to know what to say. Thirty years ago , Bluegrass in Australia was such a fledgling genre of music. There were but a handful of “top pickers” and look how well the music has grown and spread, now sustaining dedicated Bluegrass Festivals and Conventions, almost unthinkable back then . Chris was a major inspiration to so many to pick up a banjo or take up playing Bluegrass. One of the “pioneers”; it feels like the end of an era. The great legacy Chris leaves behind is in the number of talented and enthusiastic younger pickers he inspired, who have or will step into his shoes to carry the music on. Thank you Chris. May you rest in peace – Pamela Hay, Perth WA.

Extremely saddened about Chris’ passing. Most banjo players say that Earl was their inspiration, but the day I heard Chis play “Grey Eagle” that was it for me. I was totally consumed with this great instrument. I even had Chris import my Stelling Bellflower and still have it to this day. I’m no Chris Duffy but still enjoy playing a lot of his arrangements – Glen deTenon, Gove N.T.

Chris would have been so pleased to see these memories. In his last days he often spoke of the people he knew around the world. He was the only person I’ve ever met who started a conversation with these words: “When I was driving to Tamworth with Mark O’Connor …” Chris was lucid to the end, and gave his family and friends the rare gift of being able and willing to talk about death and dying, life and living — openly and candidly, withholding nothing. His death was sweet and peaceful, just as he often said he wanted, with his family and close friends around him.

In his last months, Chris became more fundamentally Chris – affectionate, compassionate, caring for the trivial concerns of others, clever as ever and with his photographic memory intact, and somehow wiser than he had ever been. He said he had shed his embellishments and felt more himself than he ever had before.

His CD is available today (Friday 27th July) “Banjo Time” a wonderful, quirky collection of ragtime, bluegrass standards with the Duffy twist, and classical pieces. He lived to hear the final mix and the artwork though sadly not the completed product. We’ll post details of the memorial concert (in September, in Melbourne) on this site, with Greg’s help – Peggy Daroesman.

Didn’t know Chris that well but was able to share a coffee with him a couple of years ago where we discussed our new banjo purchases. Also had the chance to tell him that I had some old ABC video of his playing in the 80’s which was very inspirational for me as a beginner – Jack Melbourne.

Back in the early 1980’s I saw Chris & John Kane entertaining in a Hotel in Hobart and also another gig at The Uni. A wonderful evening of great music, superb musicianship and the one thing many music performers forget – great entertainment including the ‘paper sketch’ and that dry, dry humour which he had by the bucket load. Really sad to hear of his passing. I must go and dig out my favourite LP of his ‘Bull Ants In Bushland’ – Andy Cooke.

I met Chris in the 70’s when he did some sessions for Rolling Home soundtrack. He was such a fine musician on so many instruments including Pedal Steel which he played on that soundtrack. He is now far beyond the pain and alive in our hearts – David M Stewart.

I saw and heard Chris play several times over the years. I have a couple of his early vinyl’s and hope to get a copy of his last CD when available. My condolences to his family – Stanley Hill, Dandenong.

Sad news of Chris,s passing. First met Chris Duffy and John Kane in a small cafe in Byron over 35 years ago, myself and my friend were totally captivated with this new guitar and banjo music. After the gig we asked them of this style, and thy gave us some info to join the Bluegrass Society of Australia, and since that day have played this style of music ourselves. Again sorry to hear of his passing – Carl, Central Tilba, New South Wales.

Sad news indeed for all bluegrass musicians’ and fans at the passing of Chris.
More than just a pioneer of Australian Bluegrass, Chris was a most creative and competent musician.
I consider myself most fortunate, and will always treasure the memories of having worked with him many times over the years.
Along with his humour and expertise on banjo, guitar and mandolin he was an inspiration to all those who played with him and listened to his music. He was also greatly respected by many great american bluegrass musicians.
Chris will be sadly missed by us all.
“There’s a better home awaiting in the sky, Lord in the sky”
R.I.P. – Trev Warner, South Australia.

I remember Chris’s banjo workshop at Beechworth. It was due to start at 10.00am. Nothing happened.
At 10.30, someone saw him in the town getting a coffee, and mentioned the workshop. He turned up 10 minutes later with his coffee.
He didn’t actually play any tunes, but suggested some computations by which it was possible to combine all the strings and frets of the banjo with all the known stretched positions of the left hand and all known and unknown right hand rolls to play a facsimile of all music ever created, or never created but which could be.
He illustrated this with some disturbingly unfamiliar chords and rolls. This Turing-like observation was typical of Chris whose restless mind didn’t recognise obstacles, only possibilities, only ways of knowing – musical, entrepreneurial, purely conceptual or essentially quizzical.
At first the workshop was lost on me. Then it wasn’t – Geoff Bridgeland, South Australia.

I am not a muso but I was a great waitress at the Troubador in the 80’s and I remember many a night spent in awe at the brilliance of Chris and John as I wrestled with plates and customers butting their ash in anything but the ash trays and I marvelled at the sounds of these two. My birth to bluegrass. I thank you Chris Duffy ( and John ) for providing me with fabulous music to get me through the nights of people who had left their manners downstairs on Brunswick St. Bluegrass for me began with these nights and continues throughout my life, again I thank you. So very sad to have heard the news of Chris’s passing my thoughts to your family and those who knew you better than me, a mere waitress – Anne-Marie.