Born in Guelph, Ontario, he studied violin at eight and began playing harmonica at aged eleven as a member of his father’s band. In 1935 the family moved to London. At the outbreak of the Second World War he was a student at the Leipzig Conservatory. Reilly was arrested and interned for the duration of the war in prisoner of war camps. However it was there that he developed his virtuosity on the harmonica, basing his ideas of phrasing and interpretation on the playing of Jascha Heifetz.
Returning to London in 1945, Tommy Reilly began championing the cause of the harmonica as a serious solo concert instrument. He began parallel careers as a concert soloist and recitalist, a popular BBC radio and TV performer, and a studio musician-composer. He performed with most of the major European orchestras and toured Europe several times with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields.
Over 30 concert works have been composed for Tommy Reilly, including Michael Spivakovsky’s Harmonica Concerto of 1951 (considered the first important full-scale concerto for harmonica), and fellow Canadian Robert Farnon’s Prelude and Dance for Harmonica and Orchestra. Other pieces were composed for him by Reilly’s accompanist James Moody, Matyas Seiber (Old Scottish Air for Harmonica, Strings and Harp), Gordon Jacob (Five Pieces for Harmonica and Strings), Fried Walter (Ballade and Tarantella for Harmonica and Orchestra), Karl Heinz-Köper (Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra), Graham Whettam (Fantasy for Harmonica and Orchestra), Vilem Tausky (Concertino for Harmonica and Orchestra), Francis Ward (Kaleidoscope for Harmonica and Orchestra), Willem Strietman (“O bonne douce France” for Harmonica and Orchestra), Max Saunders (Sonatina for Harmonica and Piano), Sir George Martin (Three American Sketches for Harmonica and Strings, and Adagietto for Harmonica and Strings), Alan Langford (Concertante for Harmonica and Strings), Paul Patterson (Propositions for Harmonica and Strings). Reilly himself transcribed works by Bach, Chopin and Mozart amongst others, for the harmonica.
His first recording, for Parlophone, was produced by Sir George Martin in 1951. He also performed music for the soundtracks of many US and European films and for several US TV series. Among the composers who wrote film scores for Reilly were Bernard Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein and Dimitri Tiomkin.
Tommy Reilly and James Moody have recorded many musical scores for the harmonica under the pen names “Dwight Barker” and “Max Martin”. One of such musical compilation is the LP: Conroy/Berry Music – Conroy BMLP 160 – Album Title: Conroy Recorded Music Library: Harmonica, 1976, which is a compilation of previous 78 RPM of the 1960s from Berry Music.
In 1992 he received an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth for his services to music.
Reilly developed and invented much of the playing technique which is common today. He wrote a handbook Play like the Stars, about playing classical style on the chromatic harmonica.
He died aged 81 in Frensham, Surrey.
His granddaughter Georgina Reilly is a Canadian film and television actor.