by Australia correspondent Julie Fox © 2015
Jim Conway, born in Melbourne, Australia, is acknowledged as a highly accomplished harmonica player and is recognized internationally as a master of his craft. His distinctive style is well known to blues, jazz and country music enthusiasts. His extensive career includes national tours with American bluesman, Brownie McGhee, The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band, Circus Oz, Backsliders and Jim Conway’s Big Wheel.
Jim grew up in the folk boom of the 1960s and was influenced by the folk artists at the time; Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Odetta, Peter Seeger, Josh White and the Rolling Stones – hearing blues in a more modern context.
Jim’s first band was with his brother, Mic, forming the Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band. As the name suggests, this band was hugely entertaining; a visual treat with foot stomping jug music, fire eating, tap dancing – a true vaudeville act. Jim’s harmonica playing was a standout, supplying a non-stop energy and drive to the band.
The Conway Brothers toured the U.K. in 1986, appearing at the Edinburgh Festival, the Capitol Music Festival and the Newcastle Festival. In early 1988 they appeared at the Houston International Festival and World Expo ’88. This band continued for two decades.
The Backsliders, with Dom Turner on vocals and guitar, were also performing around this time. When the request came for Jim to step into the role of harp player he didn’t hesitate, moving to Sydney, where he now resides. The Backsliders sound leant more towards acoustic pre-war blues.
“I started playing blues with the Backsliders, just playing on Sunday afternoons. I thought this would be nice while I’m taking it easy and looking after my health (Jim was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1983 and as a result has been confined to a wheelchair). Then the Backsliders started doing well and it was back to a hectic touring and performing schedule all over again!”
Jim Conway’s amazing harp prowess was evident to me while listening to the Backsliders playing in one of the inner city venues of Sydney, Australia in 1992. It was an electrifying experience, and one I will never forget. Both riveting and spine tingling, watching Jim cup his hands around that harp, close his eyes and produce such beautiful notes that it brought tears to your eyes. Moments later, we were treated to those powerhouse sounds as he built the pace, bending the notes to represent a steam train streaking down the tracks in numbers like Smokestack Lightning.
Dom Turner sums up Jim’s style perfectly: “Jim’s sweet melodic style and instantly recognizable playing has the ‘major scale’ acoustic harmonica approach of 1920s and ‘30s artists such as Jaybird Coleman and Jazz Gillum.” Apart from four successful recordings, including two gold records with Captain Matchbox, Jim Conway co-produced two of the Backsliders eight albums; ‘Sitting on a Million’ and ‘Hellhound’. Jim was an integral part of this three piece band for 18 years.
In 2002 Jim fulfilled his long held dream; launching his own band, Jim Conway’s Big Wheel, while continuing to perform with the Backsliders. Over the next few years Jim scaled down his playing with the Backsliders until, in 2006, he focused entirely on Big Wheel. Jim produced their first CD, ‘Little Story’ and toured extensively, playing at most of the major festivals around the country. This band contained an all-star line-up of musicians who shared Jim’s passion for blues, jump and swing. The fusion of diverse inspiration from all members of this band is evident in Big Wheel’s mostly original repertoire – drawing on 1930s swing and boogie, ‘40s and ‘50s rhythm and blues, Caribbean, Latin and New Orleans stylistic elements.
Jim Conway is a sought after session musician. He has also composed, produced and recorded music for a broad range of film and radio projects. The Jim Conway Blues, a documentary film celebrating his contribution to Australian music was screened on SBS television in 2000. The film won a silver medal for Best Independently Produced Documentary at the Chicago International Film Festival. In 2003 Jim was awarded the prestigious Centenary Medal in recognition of his contribution to the Arts.
At the Sydney Paralympics Opening Ceremony Jim performed a piece of music specially written to feature his harmonica playing.
Not content with constant touring throughout Australia, as well as producing and recording, Jim Conway also took on the organisational side of music festivals as Artistic Director of the Balmain Acoustica festival from 2005-2010. He was also the artistic director of the Burwood Barbecue, Blues and Blues festival (both in Sydney) and the Tathra Summer Music Festival on the south coast.
Jim Conway has also recorded with numerous Australian and overseas artists, including Shane Howard (Goanna Band), Colin Hay (Men at Work), Jon Lord (Deep Purple), Bob Brozman, Slim Dusty, Jan Preston, Tim Gaze, Dutch Tilders, Anne Kirkpatrick and Pat Drummond. He was also featured on the soundtrack of Baz Lurman’s “Australia”.
Due to his increasing disability, Jim announced his retirement from performing in 2014. On the 24th May 2014, Jim Conway played his farewell gig at the Camelot Lounge in Sydney and the venue could have easily been filled three times over. Many wanted to join Jim on stage at his farewell, but this wasn’t possible. However, the final performance was filmed and they are now looking at producing a DVD and launching it, possibly at a larger venue, with performances by special guest artists. Many of these musicians have either played with Jim over the last four decades of his career, or have been inspired by his first class musicianship, perseverance and obvious love for the music.