Captain James Reilly, RMSM

Captain J. Reilly, R.M.S.M. (1886-1956)

Copyright – David Reilly

Captain Reilly was a conductor and taught trumpet at The Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall, London. Immediately after WW1, he moved to Canada to become the bandmaster of the 153rd Wellington Battalion Band that was stationed in Guelph. His son, Tommy Reilly, was born there in 1919. He set up a jazz and concert band for the military and then he took charge of the Elgin County Military band. In the late 1920s, James Reilly moved to the Elmdale Public School in St Thomas, Ontario. He was very successful and his orchestra, accordion and harmonica bands won many prizes – more here.

In the early 1930s, Captain Reilly wrote to Dr Meyer, who was head of Hohner (UK), asking if he could bring the Elmdale School harmonica band to play concerts in England. Unfortunately this was not possible.

Later, when Dr Meyer and Charles Millard were discussing setting up an organisation for harmonica players in the UK, which became “Harmonica Song Band League”, they realised that they needed a good musician who could write the necessary tutors, arrangements for bands, and supervise the training of groups which were being formed by Mr. Millard. They approached Captain Reilly about their plans for forming the National Harmonica Song Band League (HSB) and it was agreed that he was the man who could develop the musical side of it. History proved them right.

James Riley - The Right Way to Play Book

Capt. Reilly returned to the UK with his family and helped to get the new Hohner organisation going. He helped to arrange the music published by Francis Day & Hunter, he wrote the HSB Tutors, and arranged new pieces for the growing number of harmonica bands in the UK. Initially tremolo based bands but later chromatic harmonica bands. See end.

His son, Tommy Reilly, started playing harmonicaprofessionally aged 16 years.

When the British College of Accordionists (BCA) was started soon afterwards, he took a lively interest in this it too, building on his experience teaching the accordion in Canada. He also took on the training of the Junior Band of the B.C A. which very soon reached a remarkably high standard under his conductorship.

Captain James also wrote several highly successful elementary pieces like “Windsor March,” “Searchlight Tattoo.” etc., which found a ready sale amongst the many elementary bands springing up throughout the country.

When the B.C.A. set up examinations, they opened a number of Examination Centres, and Captain Reilly was appointed as one of the College Examiners, a role he carried out for many years.

After WW2, Captain Reilly was also appointed Sales Manager of the Hohner Musk Department. He persuaded a number of new composers to write for the accordion and the harmonica, and built up the largest Accordion and Harmonica Music Catalogue in this country.

As the popularity of the harmonica and accordion grew, he was much in demand as an adjudicator for Music Festivals all over the country. He also contributed a lot to the smooth running of the competition section of the annual “Accordion Day” festival.

In the early 1950s he started a Harmonica Staff Band for the Hohner Organisation He developed this into a successful orchestral group which gave many successful demonstrations and concerts.

Captain Reilly retired from Hohner in 1954, when he was a Vice President of the National Harmonica League (formerly the HSB). He died a year later.

He was probably responsible for teaching the majority of the harmonica players in the UK over his time with the HSB/NHL through the many tutors he wrote, the guidance he provided and the music he published.

This is based on an appreciation by Dr. O. Meyer, the MD of Hohner (UK), when Captain Reilly retired in 1955.

Steve Jennings – Feb 1954 to Nov 2019 – a tribute

With contributions from Steve’s wife Josie, and his friends – Tom Hunter, Steve Jones, Rowena Millar, Johnny Mars, ‘Pip’ Rowland, and Paul Gillings.

Harmonica World

Stephen John Jennings or ‘Steve’ as he was universally known was one of the small group of volunteers who are responsible for the survival and success of the National Harmonica League (NHL) as we know it.

He joined the NHL in 1986, a few years after it separated from Hohner in 1981. Steve first started writing blues harp reviews for Harmonica World early in 1987 and by December that year he was editing the magazine, which he did until 1995. He was back on the committee as treasurer from 1998 to 2003 before stepping down to qualify as a Reader in his local Anglican church.

He attended NHL festivals in Bristol, with his wife Josie, as long as his deteriorating health would allow. He would talk long into the night, sitting on a stool in the hotel lounge.


Steve was born in London and attended Whitgift School in Croydon where he developed the sense of civic responsibility which he maintained all his life. In his early 20s, he enrolled at Rose Bruford College in London and gained a BA in Theatre Arts.

Steve, Josie and David
Steve, Josie and David

Steve was a musical child and played organ in church but blues harp became his chosen instrument in his twenties. London had lots of harp driven bands at that time and Steve was a regular at pub gigs by Shakey Vic, Johnny Mars and Lee Brilleaux of Dr. Feelgood. He was a fast learner and gained valuable experience playing with them and other harp players like Steve Baker, Paul Rowan and Alan Glen.

By now Steve was married with a son and working as a systems analyst. He had joined the NHL and wanted to share his enthusiasm and knowledge. Becoming editor in 1987 gave him a great opportunity to do this and he transformed the magazine. Living in London gave him great access to visiting players and he interviewed many of them.

In autumn1991 he took a new job with Travis Perkins near Northampton and moved with his family to Rothersthorpe. Harmonica players were always welcome there. He remained as editor until 1995.

Steve learned chromatic and performed in a duo with his wife, Josie, who played a vineta (small chord). Over the years he regularly acted as a competition judge and organiser.

Following the retirement of Hohner’s harmonica technician, Willi Dannecker, Steve taught himself to maintain and repair harmonicas and carried out work for many top players, including Les Henry (Cedric) from The Three Monarchs. Steve also made and sold custom harmonica cases.

Sharp Dressed Man

In the early1990s Steve helped to teach blues to the Harp Start Children’s program in Great Yarmouth and developed the Blue Saturday events with Norman Ives and David Priestley, which enabled many players to improve their knowledge and performance of blues music. The workshops usually ended with a jam session with Steve’s blues band, Straight Eight, with guitarist Eric Sweetland (Tom Hunter) or Double or Quits with Dave Arrowsmith on guitar. When he performed, Steve was always smartly and snappily dressed and, unusually for a musician, punctual to a tee.

In addition to the Blue Saturday event, Steve produced a series of Blues Harp Breakdown cassette tapes under the name “Sonny Jay” each of which was dedicated to teaching a well-known instrumental like “Easy” by Walter Horton. He also produced some cassettes of backing and play-along tracks.

In 1991 he wrote a book with his friend Ken Howell for advanced players of the chromatic and blues harp called The Practical Harmonica Player. Its objective was to increase fluency in all keys.

He wrote a couple of books of Blues and R&B music arranged for harmonica which were published by Wise Publications (Music Sales) as well as a tuition book for beginners. The demands for a TAB version of the sheet music in books led Steve and Pat Missin to develop and publish SuperTAB. It is an attempt to bring some order to the way TAB is being constantly being reinvented by everyone. You can find more about SuperTAB here.

In the 1990s Steve was part of an attempt to develop a process to assess the ability of harmonica teachers – HTAB (Harmonica Teacher Accreditation Board). Unfortunately the project was never completed.

Steve was very interested in the chord harmonica family of instruments and about 10 years ago he wrote a detailed article about the history and development of the many types of chord instruments, which was published in the April/May and Oct/Nov 2012 issues of Harmonica World.

Even as his health was failing, Steve continued to play as a duo, The Junkyard Crew, with Bob Coombs on guitar.

Steve had lots of experience and memories of the history of the harmonica. At the time of his death I was digitising his favourite VHS tape of the NHL festival concert in Shirley, Birmingham, in 1988.

Steve the Reader

One of the last things Steve did was to apply to Sarum College, Salisbury, to study for an MA in Christian Liturgy. It has just been awarded to him, posthumously. Steve got the funeral he wanted. In addition to the church hymns and plainsong, the service included Hoochie Coocjie Man by Muddy Waters, Down at the Doctors by Dr Feelgood and Free as a Bird by John Lennon.

Steve got the funeral he wanted. In addition to the church hymns and plainsong, the service included Hoochie Coochie Man by Muddy Waters, Down at the Doctors by Dr Feelgood and Free as a Bird by John Lennon.

When God made Steve he threw away the mould. He was an educated and determined man with an impish sense of humour who gave strength and support to the NHL for over 30 years, for which we are very grateful. I will miss his enthusiasm and support.