PETER JOHN GELLING
(17 February 1960 to 28 September 2018)
Blues musician, music teacher, song-writer, composer and author Peter Gelling died peacefully at his home in North Watson on 28 September. Peter’s life was similar to many a bluesman in that he went through extremely hard times and struggled with some savage demons. A 12-step rehab program that he entered in his late teens, and music, were his saviours.
He wrote more than 130 music instruction books and released five critically acclaimed albums, including the Aria-nominated Bluestime and multi-award winning Fortune. In 2003, he won the Musicoz award in the Blues and Roots category for his song ‘If it wasn’t for the Blues’. His blues guitar manuals sold well, even in America, and his playing was described by ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine as ‘shimmering’.
Peter was born at Bulli, NSW, and came to Canberra with his parents in 1970. In his youth, he ‘went off the rails’, as he put it, and ‘ended up addicted to drugs and alcohol. Life was a nightmare’. He engaged in petty crime to feed his addictions but later became a model to others as to how an individual can turn their life around. His physical health had suffered, though, and in 1983 he was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, something from which he never recovered. This and other ailments meant that he lived with pain. His amazing determination to live life as fully as possible, and to achieve so much, despite adversity, now brings tears to the eyes of his friends and loved ones.
Peter took pride in the ‘bluesman’ label but began as a student of classical guitar. He bought his first guitar with money earned as a Parks & Gardens labourer. In 1984, he studied Jazz at the Canberra School of Music. His skills and passions eventually encompassed jazz, soul, funk, gospel, world music and rock as well as classical and blues. The instruments he mastered included guitar, harmonica, bass, piano, keyboards, banjo, bazouki, clarinet, trumpet, saxophone and percussion. He loved innovating with loops, samples and soundscapes too.
Peter is perhaps best known locally as the founder, guitarist and harmonica player in the band, Blind Freddy, which was very popular from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s. Remarkably for a Canberra-based band, Blind Freddy broke into the Sydney scene with regular gigs at the legendary ‘Soup Plus’ venue.
Peter was also a brilliant song-writer and in 2003 came second in the blues category of the International Songwriters Competition held at Nashville. Hundreds of entries were received from 40 different countries. Peter was thrilled to learn that one of the judges of his song, ‘Strong Medicine’, was BB King. Peter always said that ‘the three Kings’ were his main influence: BB, Freddie and Albert. A highlight of his life in music was supporting Albert King at the Canberra Theatre with Blind Freddy.
‘Strong Medicine’ was a tribute to New Orleans blues and tells the story of the music’s development out of slavery. It appeared on his Fortune CD, which The Canberra Times described as ‘fascinating, passionate, exciting music that moves both heart and mind’. Peter visited the famed port city in 1980.
In 1996, Peter moved with his wife Lesley Beasley to Adelaide to work for a music publisher. Peter returned to Canberra in 2015, a place he loved and had missed.
Peter’s last album, Siberia to Sydney, was a collaboration with internationally-renowned classical pianist, Konstantin Shamray, who performed Peter’s compositions and arrangements. The CD was launched at Tilley’s Devine Café in Lyneham in 2016; an appropriate venue given Tilley’s role in fostering Peter’s career – and that of so many other musicians.
As a music teacher, hundreds of young Canberrans learned guitar, piano or harmonica from him. But more than a teacher, he was also a mentor, especially for young female musicians.
Performing at the Byron Bay Blues Festival in 1994, he did a quick survey of the hundred-plus musicians and found that only two were female. In cooperation with Tilley’s and its manager, Pauline Higgisson, he designed a mentoring program, ‘Taking the Stage’, to encourage young Canberra women to form bands and take up instruments not usually played by women.
Peter was a lover of literature and philosophy. He read widely and could quote Shakespeare or Shelley when appropriate. He tended to be modest about his knowledge and achievements. He loved the poetry of Leonard Cohen and recorded an arrangement of ‘Bird on a Wire’ as a gospel song. It melts the toughest heart.
Peter said once, ‘Whatever I experience in life, I put into the music’. His suffering and survival, and sometimes sheer joy, underscored all his music.
‘Like a bird on a wire… I have tried in my way to be free’.
Survived by parents, John and Elsie, brother Ian and his wife Jane, and former wife, Lesley Beasley and step-daughter, Josie Turner. Predeceased by his brother Kevin.