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Barbara Thompson’s Tribute to Dick Heckstall-Smith

Tribute from JH | The Times Obituary | The Guardian Obituary | The Telegraph Obituary | The Daily Express Obituary

Sept 26, 1934 – Dec 17, 2004

2004 has ended sadly with the news of Dick’s death. Over the past year Jon and myself watched his noble efforts to win the battle against his illness, and to the end he was convinced that even if he were in a wheelchair, he would come back to playing and touring. His indomitable spirit made him special both as a person and as a player. He was the original blues saxophone player, and there was no-one to equal him.

I first met him when he was playing with Graham Bond and Jon Hiseman was asked to take over on drums from Ginger Baker. I was 21, studying at the Royal College of Music and hearing Dick play along with his contemporaries like Art Themen, was also part of my musical education. Later, Dick, Art, and myself went out playing gigs billed as the three tenors, guesting with resident rhythm sections. As well as being a blues player he was a consummate bebop player, and was very interested in the intricases chord sequences and their possibilities for improvisation.

Shortly after Jon and I got married, we went to Rome for a holiday, and while we were looking at the Colosseum, Jon decided to form a group and call it by the same name. He had always been interested in Roman History, so it seemed logical! Dick was one of the original members and over the next four years I watched the crowds increase as Colosseum became more and more popular throughout Europe. I ended up playing on several of the albums, mainly filling out on the brass sections.

When Colosseum finally ended we still kept in touch and then when the re-union took place 10 years ago, it was such a success that the band has been playing ever since. Dick has been part of our lives for so long. He was a good friend and colleague – always kind and supportive to my playing, and there have been no sadder moments than that of the phone call from Clem Clempson telling Jon and myself that he had died. Strangely at that particular moment we were taking a short pre-Christmas holiday in Rome and were actually standing by the Colosseum when he phoned.

I feel it is an honour and my tribute to Dick that I have been asked to stand in for him in the current Colosseum concerts and tours. Playing in the group now makes me appreciate his contribution to the music even more. I still can’t believe that he’s no longer with us, but I feel that his spirit will live on in the recordings he made and in the memories of those who witnessed his live performances.
Barbara Thompson
Xmas 2004