Jon Hiseman’s Tribute to Dick Heckstall-Smith

Tribute from BT | The Guardian: Dick Heckstall Smith Tribute Concert | The Times Obituary | The Guardian Obituary | The Telegraph Obituary | The Daily Express Obituary

It is with deep regret that I have to record the death of Dick Heckstall-Smith on Friday December 17, 2004, aged 70. The story of his life is well documented both in his own book and here, in the reproductions of the fulsome obituaries that he received in the UK national press. As an avid news-a-holic, who found endless delights buried in newspapers and magazines, he would have loved to have read them.

The last time we played with him was in May 2004. We had been discussing his return to Colosseum for our summer 2004 festival appearances. He had been in and out of Hospital since the last days of the recording of our Tomorrows Blues album in the late spring of 2003 and all through the long tour of that autumn we had booked his plane ticket for every flight, and a hotel room in every town. But always a complication arose to keep him from joining us and Barbara, who thought she was just playing a few gigs till he got back, began to realise that she had probably joined another band.

As we discussed his return following a period when he seemed to be making progress, I decided that he would have to share the gig with Barbara since he would never have the stamina to simply turn up and play as if nothing had happened. So he came to our studio and worked out with Barbara which numbers they would play individually which together. He was very happy with this arrangement and their contrasting styles added yet another dimension to the band. But it was not to be….two days before we were due to leave he took another turn for the worse.

As a saxophone player he had a unique style developed through years of playing with very loud drummers, bass players and guitarists (everything turned up to 11!) He always admired the power and phrasing that the Blues Guitarists had at their fingertips, the way they could hold and bend the notes, and he was very jealous of the fact that they did not have to breathe. Standing on the side of the stage, his appreciation of Clem in full flight on Lost Angeles was written all over his face as it reflected every tortured note, but as the solo built I always knew he was itching to get back into the fray.

Dick never seems to approach a saxophone solo from the context of the piece he was to solo on. His were visions that ran with him for years – an individual solo was only a short step on that journey. This was frustrating at times for the writers in Colosseum because they often had a vision for the kind of sax solo they wanted from Dick but he never took any notice of any kind of instruction – he just did his thing. If you judged his effort from your preconceived view you would inevitably be disappointed, but if you forgot all that and listened to what he had actually done, you would often be very surprised at the twist he had given the song.

Dick died of the usual complications as a result of acute failure of his liver. We knew it was hopeless some months ago but he was still outwardly optimistic the last time I saw him, two weeks before he died. His son Arthur, Barbara and I sat with him for a couple of hours as he travelled between sharp, almost aggressive coherence and an inability to concentrate on his surroundings. He was obviously very uncomfortable though he didn’t talk much about his problems, and seemed to be thinking about how he could get out of there and play. Playing his saxophones, especially in live performance, had become his whole life in the 10 years since we put Colosseum back on the road, and his hobby, his passion, was buying, altering, making and remaking his saxophone mouthpieces. We once had a discussion about his obsession with the search for the ultimate mouthpiece, and he said he could understand the search for the Holy Grail since he had his own.

As the light began to fail outside and I began to realise that I was probably saying goodbye, he suddenly sat up, turned to me very earnestly and said:

Jon – we have a problem
How so Dick?
What will happen to Colosseum ?….. because I can’t walk….
Don’t worry about the walking Dick – if you can blow the saxophones we will get you onto the stage – come to think of it, we’ll get onto the aircraft first if you’re in a wheelchair… we’ve been trying to achieve that for years!

And we had a good laugh…..sadly, the last of many.

As his condition worsened in the final week or so he spent most of the time asleep and in the end he simply floated away.

We have his last recorded solo on a track called “Hard Times Rising” (Colosseum’s “Tomorrows Blues” Album) and we will be playing it live on our forthcoming tours (as we did last year,) incorporating this solo, replayed in sync with us from a digital recorder. For a man who lived for playing, performing and the mysteries of his saxophones it is the best tribute we can make.

Barbara and I were in Rome from the 16th of December 2004 for a few days, and of course we walked down to the Colosseum. It was 4pm, raining and had just closed. As we walked away the phone rang …..and I knew. Strange but true!
and life goes on……

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