20-12-41 – 13-8-14
Tony Cahill, who has died in Sydney aged 72, is best known as the drummer in two of Australia’s legendary bands of the 1960s, the Purple Hearts and the Easybeats.
When the Purple Hearts broke up in 1967, Tony travelled to England with all his possessions stuffed inside his bass drum. After playing with Georgie Fame for a couple of months, he auditioned to replace Snowy Fleet in the Easybeats. Harry Vanda told me that they chose Cahill because he was the only one with the “chops” to cope with the complex musical territory that the songwriting team of Vanda & Young were venturing into. “We gave him drum beats that no sane man with two arms and two legs could play,” he said.
Because the members of the Purple Heats and the Easybeats were mostly British immigrants, it was widely assumed that Tony Cahill also fitted this description. In fact Tony was born in the Melbourne suburb of South Camberwell. In the late 1800s and early 1900s the Cahill family had played a pioneering role in Queensland and the Northern Territory.
Tony’s early life included a stint entertaining on cruise ships. During the day he played dance music and ran the bingo, then at night he played ’50s rock.
When the Easybeats finished up in 1969, Tony was broke and hooked on heroin. He was so weak and emaciated he couldn’t lift a drumstick. Even so, he was offered the drum seat in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers on the condition that he get straight. So he shut himself away in a room in Ealing and while going through cold turkey withdrawal taught himself to play the bass guitar by listening over and over to a Marvin Gaye record. He never played the drums again.
Instead, he started playing bass with an Australian band based in London called Python Lee Jackson. They had a hit called In a Broken Dream using an unknown and uncredited session singer by the name of Rod Stewart. It peaked at number 3 on the UK charts in 1972, higher than any of the Easybeats singles ever reached.
After this Tony was doing session work in London, Spain and Paris when he got a job working with four upstate New York musicians. They were sailing around the Mediterranean playing weddings when they received the surprising news that a demo they had cut in France had become an international hit. The song was called Dancing in the Moonlight. In their absence the studio had released it as a single and made up the name King Harvest for the band.
On the back of this success Tony found himself in Los Angeles where he lived for virtually the rest of his life.
He studied at UCLA and worked as a session musician. Some of the people he played with included Ray Charles, Ike Turner, the O’Jays, Martha Reeves and Donna Summer. In the late ’80s, with the coming of the digital age, his lucrative session work began to wane. Studios weren’t using bass players or drummers any more.
So Tony started his own record label recording blues and world music from Cuba, the Caribbean and Africa. These bands were not commercially viable nor was there anywhere for them to play. Needing a place to showcase these acts, he opened an eclectic club downtown called the Flaming Colossus which became a huge success… until it burnt down.
A few things people would not know about Tony’s career include him playing with Screaming Lord Sutch on a cruise ship, surfing with legendary Australian surfer Michael Peterson and jamming with Jimi Hendrix at the Speakeasy club in London. He was married to singer/songwriter Sharon Robinson. When the Easybeats were inducted into the ARIA hall of fame his name wasn’t even mentioned.
When I tracked Tony down a few years ago, I found him living on a boat at the famous Venice Beach in LA. He was living out his passion for the ocean by surfing, delivering new boats to millionaires, coast-guarding and organising events. On the day of our interview he had taken a group of young offenders out of juvenile detention, to give them the experience of a day out on the ocean away from their troubled lives.
In 2013 Tony had a brain tumour removed, but the cancer returned this year. After living in LA for 40 years, he was keen to come home to the country of his birth and he passed away at the Sydney home of his cousin. He is survived by his sister Robyn.
John Tait is the Easybeats’ biographer.