When he was awarded the NZ Order of Merit in 2006, the late Ritchie Pickett, wag that he was, dubbed Midge Marsden "His Midgesty". Oh, how we laughed. "Sir" Midge Marsden, New Zealand’s ambassador of the blues ...
Keith Douglas Marsden was born September 17, 1945 in New Plymouth, the eldest of five boys to Open Brethren parents whose beliefs had little influence on the undersized chap nicknamed Midge. His childhood piano lessons were a chore to be avoided but once he got the rock and roll vibe, a cherry red Fender Stratocaster guided his musical aspirations.
In 1964 singer/entrepreneur Johnny Cooper invited Taranaki musician Bari Gordon to form a backing band for Cooper’s touring talent quest show, Give It A Go. Playing rhythm guitar, The Blue Diamonds was Marsden’s first band. By his own admission, he could barely play. But that cherry red Strat got him the gig.
To pull in larger crowds, Cooper added guest vocalists to the bill – Dinah Lee, Jim McNaught, Lew Pryme and Tommy Adderley. It was at Adderley’s suggestion that the Blue Diamonds changed their name (to Bari & The Breakaways) and shifted to Wellington, where they were soon managed by booking agent Tom McDonald.
An appearance on the Let’s Go television show led to a contract with HMV for a handful of singles and two albums. Interestingly, the band’s lead vocalist was neither Gordon nor Marsden but drummer Bryan Beauchamp. Touring incessantly, The Breakaways (as they were later known, Bari having departed mid-way through recording the first album) went through several line-up changes before disbanding in 1967. Marsden himself was absent from the band for three months while he completed his compulsory national service.
Blues was to become his passion and remained so throughout his career.
Following The Breakaways’ demise, Marsden joined the NZBC’s radio programming department in Wellington. In 1969 he began fronting his own weekly radio show, Blues Is News, giving a strong indication of his musical preferences. Blues was to become his passion and remained so throughout his career. With his radio profile and his growing knowledge of the blues, he also conducted night classes on the subject for the Workers’ Education Association.
“My introduction to the blues was through the Stones, John Mayall, Paul Butterfield, which is what I played on my radio show. One day Bill Lake and Rick Bryant (blues purists and members of the Windy City Strugglers) came to see me to put me right and they introduced me to the real deal, blues from Chicago and the Mississippi Delta.”
Actual performances were few during this period, just a short stint with a group called KBA (Keep Blues Alive) and occasional appearances with the Strugglers and the Capel Hopkins Blues Dredge.
In 1974 Marsden joined guitarist Peter Caulton’s country rock band, the Country Flyers. With a Thursday night residency at the capital’s Royal Tiger Tavern, the Country Flyers gained a solid following.
Marsden kept the band name after Caulton’s departure, but out went the country rock and in came the R&B. No longer employed by the NZBC, Marsden took the Country Flyers out into the provinces. Musicians to pass through the ranks included guitarists Martin Hope, Martin Winch and Richard Kennedy, drummers Bud Hooper and Jim Lawrie, and longtime bassist Neil Hannan.
In January 1977 the Country Flyers teamed up with the Red Mole Troupe for a Sunday night residency at Carmen’s Balcony (a strip club during the week) and in September band and theatre group accepted a three-month season at Phil Warren’s Ace of Clubs in Auckland. The Flyers, now with Beaver sharing lead vocals, remained Auckland-based. But in mid-1978, Marsden was on the move again – this time to Sydney.
Marsden returned to New Zealand at the end of the decade to form the Kiwi Connection, which started his working relationship with Sonny Day.
Australian blues enthusiast Phil Manning was seeking a singer-guitarist and at NZ expatriate Barry Coburn’s suggestion, Marsden was offered the position. He remained with the Phil Manning Band for 18 months, almost continuously on the road, and the group recorded a live album in Christchurch for NZ-only release.
Marsden returned to New Zealand at the end of the decade to form the Kiwi Connection, which started his working relationship with Sonny Day, with whom he shared lead vocals. The band debuted at the first Sweetwaters festival in January 1980.
By now a genuine touring pub circuit had evolved in New Zealand, which Midge took full advantage of – in the 1980s few New Zealand performers travelled the country so exhaustively. There were too few recordings but Midge Marsden’s reputation has always been as a live performer. He established a routine – based in Raglan, Midge would put a band together, rehearse and hit the road for 8-10 weeks, return to Raglan, chill for a spell, put a band together, rehearse ...
As well as fronting his own bands in the 1980s, Marsden also featured in promoter Paul Walker’s “All-Stars Play The Blues”, an annual tour of blues stalwarts featuring Marsden, Sonny Day, Beaver and others on vocals, backed by a sterling cast of backing musicians. Special guests included Wilko Johnson and Renee Geyer.
There have been occasional recordings – albums credited to the Kiwi Connection and the Midge Marsden Band, two albums with the Rodger Fox Big Band, and 1991’s Burning Rain provided a gold record. The title track, written by the late guitarist Mike Farrell, is one of the Midge Marsden evergreens, along with ‘Carry My Blues Away’, ‘Struck Down By The Blues’ and ‘Slow Walk, Jive Talk’. Arguably, though, Marsden’s most recognised recording was for a 1986 television commercial.
‘Travellin’ On’, featuring Murray Grindlay and Marsden, was written by Grindlay for Europa Oil. Marsden’s fee financed his first trip to the USA and it was while staying with friends in Dallas that he was introduced to one of Texas’ favourite sons – blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. The pair struck up a friendship and when Vaughan toured New Zealand later in the year, he joined the All-Stars on stage at Auckland’s Mainstreet Cabaret. He was also enticed back to New Zealand in 1988 to join Marsden and Grindlay when they reprised ‘Travellin’ On’ for a second Europa commercial.
Marsden has visited the USA over a dozen times since his first visit, mostly sticking to those states most associated with the blues, sometimes just to hang out, check out those legendary blues locations, but sometimes with a band. He played the same stages as those of his heroes – Antone’s in Austin, the “Memphis In May Festival”, and has performed in New Orleans.
On several occasions following USA trips, Marsden returned home with the likes of Big Moose Walker, Bobby Mack, Julieann Banks, Willie Foster and Ronnie Taylor. Taylor was so enamoured of New Zealand he became a resident.
Between 1992 and 1999, Marsden tutored “bluesology” at the Waikato Institute of Technology, and in 1996 he returned to campus life himself, graduating with a diploma in the "History of Southern Culture" at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. “I was 50 years old,” he recalls, “and I was living in a fucking dormitory!”
For someone to whom school held no attraction, the irony of a late academic career isn’t lost on Midge. “And I couldn’t hold onto my first job,” he says. “The Blue Diamonds were the backing band for Johnny Cooper’s show and we had to rehearse with Dinah Lee so I took a sickie off work – I was a lowly clerk at NZI – and the local paper took a photo of Dinah at the rehearsals. Unfortunately, I was visible in the background and my boss saw it and … I got sacked!”
In 2006 Keith "Midge" Marsden was awarded the NZ Order of Merit for Services to NZ Music. A few weeks later he received a honorary Bachelor Of Arts from the Waikato Institute of Technology. “Yeah, 2006 was a pretty special year,” he says. “Getting the Entertainer Of The Year (1990) and the gold record (for Burning Rain) was great, but …” Midge Marsden laughs – he does a lot of that, it’s part of his appeal – “His Midgesty!”
December 2017 was a month of celebration and loss for Midge. He marked his half-century as a working musician with the release of The Midge Marsden Collection, a two-CD compilation of his recordings, from the mid-1960s on. The occasion was marred, however, with the theft of his harmonica case after a gig at a bar at Auckland's Viaduct. The case contained over 30 harmonicas in different keys, some of them diatonic. Any information would be gratefully received.