Russell Hardy obituary

Other lives: Pianist and composer with Ian Dury’s first band, Kilburn and the Highroads

My friend Russell Hardy, who has died aged 80, was a carpenter and “the greatest piano player in England” according to Ian Dury, whom Russell first met in Walthamstow, London, in 1962. Ian, known widely for his later band, the Blockheads, formed his first band, Kilburn and the High Roads, with Russell, myself, and four others, in 1971, and Russell wrote much of the music for Ian’s lyrics including There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards, the B-side to the Blockheads’ 1978 hit Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.

A Kilburn and the High Roads poster from 1973. Russell Hardy is at the front of the queue, reading a newspaper, followed by David Newton-Rohoman, Keith Lucas, Humphrey Ocean, Ian Dury and Davey Payne
A Kilburn and the High Roads poster from 1973. Russell Hardy is at the front of the queue, reading a newspaper Photograph: None

Russell was working as a radio and television technician at South East Essex Technical College when he set up the Russell Hardy Jazz Trio in 1960 with two students from the Walthamstow Art School not far away, where Ian was also studying. By the late 1960s Russell had joined the free jazz collective the People Band with Mike Figgis.

In 1970 Russell moved into a rented vicarage in the village of Wingrave, Buckinghamshire, with Ian, who was now teaching at Canterbury Art College. Challenged to perform at the college’s 1971 Christmas dance, Kilburn and the High Roads, with added student recruits, including me, made a shaky debut. Now Russell began composing in earnest, which resulted in songs such as Rough Kids, You’re More Than Fair and I Made Mary Cry in a Lonely Bus Shelter.

Born in Huntingdon, now in Cambridgeshire, Russell grew up in Dagenham. He never knew his father. His mother, Rhoda Burman, who worked with the RAF, married Cyril Hardy, an airman, in 1942 and he adopted Russell. However after Cyril went missing in action in 1944, three-year-old Russell was sent to Rooks Hill, Sevenoaks, an RAF Benevolent Fund school. Aged eight, Russell was deposited by his mother at Vanbrugh Castle children’s home.

Russell Hardy, standing, with Pete Townshend, seated, of the Who, and Ian Dury, left, backstage at the Lyceum theatre, London, in 1973
Russell Hardy, standing, with Pete Townshend, seated, of the Who, and Ian Dury, left, backstage at the Lyceum theatre, London, in 1973 Photograph: None

At 14 he was put to work in a factory, where he learned to play piano by listening to the radio, everything from the BBC Light Programme to Art Tatum. Russell paid for rudimentary piano lessons and realised he had a talent.

By 1973 the Kilburns were in demand (they opened for the Who on their Christmas tour) and, though mesmerising in his hat and wispy beard, for someone whose guiding passion was jazz Russell found the experience dispiriting. His real love was jamming with his fellow jazz lover Charlie Watts, who adored him.

Russell left the Kilburns the following year, and became a carpenter. He made the boxes for David Hockney’s opera designs, and Ben Nicholson’s very specific frames. In 1977 he married Angela Workman, then the membership secretary at the NUS, and they moved to Beckenham, in Kent.

After Ian died, in 2000, there was a tribute concert at Brixton Academy, and I was asked to sing There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards. I did so on the condition Russell joined me on stage. Neither of us having performed in public for years, rehearsal was required. Russell came round and, after his customary hesitation, he launched into what sounded nearer Erik Satie than the oompah arrangement of the record.

Russell never retired. He continued playing the piano and also developed a passion for cats, enjoying a later career as a joiner making play stations for top cat fanciers.

Angela and their daughter, Sophie, survive him.

• This article was amended on 8 December 2021 to clarify that the South East Essex Technical College was near but not “next door” to Walthamstow Art School; that was the South West Essex Technical College.

Humphrey Ocean

The GuardianTramp

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