Groundhogs founding guitarist and frontman Tony McPhee dead at 79

Tony McPhee in 1974
(Image credit: Michael Putland)

Tony McPhee, guitarist with pioneering British blues rockers The Groundhogs, has died at the age of 79. The news was confirmed in a short statement from the band on Facebook.

The statement read: "We are deeply saddened to announce that 79-year-old guitar and blues legend Tony (TS) McPhee, died peacefully at home today 6th June, from complications following a fall last year.

"He is survived by his devoted wife Joanna, sons Conan and Vincent, grandchildren Scarlett and Victor and loving sister Olive."

McPhee was born on 22 March 1944 in Humberston, Lincolnshire, and took a route into music that echoed that of many of his contemporaries. 

“My brother started bringing home imported blues albums," McPhee told Classic Rock in 2007. "It was then that I first heard this raw stuff and my ears pricked up. There was some good pop music at the time but nothing that really stirred you. Then I went to see Cyril Davies at the Marquee in 1963, heard proper R&B and thought: ‘this’ll do’.”

Inspired, McPhee immediately formed The Groundhogs, naming them after the John Lee Hooker song Groundhog's Blues. While many of their peers edged away from the R&B scene in order to seduce more mainstream pop audiences, McPhee’s Groundhogs stuck to their blues roots, even backing Hooker on an album – 1965's Hooker and the Hogs – and on two UK tours. A debut album proper, 1968's Scratching The Surface, arrived in 1968, but progress faltered as Motown temporarily swallowed their audience.

“The first blues boom ended when soul came in, that killed it stone dead,” McPhee remembered. 

All was not lost. As Fleetwood Mac and then Humble Pie brought the blues back into vogue, The Groundhogs returned, with McPhee easing the band’s second album in a decidedly prog-ward direction: 

“It was called Blues Obituary to show we were moving on," said McPhee. "I like to call it progressive in the sense that we were progressing away from the blues.” 

More followed, with Thank Christ For The Bomb, Split and Who Will Save the World? steering the band further into uncharted musical territory.

"Thank Christ For The Bomb is the most amazing album I’ve ever heard," The Damned's Captain Sensible to us in 2021. "One minute it’s a full-on power trio playing this manic, almost punk rock – angry, anti-establishment, anti-war stuff – and the next minute it drops right down into this extremely quiet and subtle finger-picking stuff. 

"Tony McPhee is an absolute genius. He was the British Hendrix, y’know? He could do soaring feedback solos, and really took the whole guitar-playing thing as far as he could. And what he doesn’t know about the blues isn’t worth knowing."

The Groundhogs disbanded in 1976, but returned in in the mid-1980s with a new lineup and recorded two more studio albums, while the 90s saw the band paying tribute to their original influences, with 1998's Howlin' Wolf collection Hogs in Wolf's Clothing and the following year's The Muddy Waters Song Book. 2003 saw a short-lived return to the lineup that recorded the band's classic early 70s albums, when a tour scheduled to celebrate their 40th anniversary. 

In 2009, McPhee suffered the first of a series of strokes, which took a toll on his speech and affected his singing voice, and he retired from the group in 2015. 

Legacy secure, McPhee's influence was apparent on musicians as varied as Julian Cope, New Order's Peter Hook, The Fall's Mark E. Smith, Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, QOTSA’s Josh Homme, experimental music group Current 93 and Underworld’s Karl Hyde, as well as a host of blues rockers.

"My main wish is to be recognised for my contributions to blues and rock and the guitar," McPhee told US radio station WMFU in 2011. "That's all the status I need."

He succeeded. 

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.  

With contributions from