George Reiff, one of Austin’s most accomplished musicians and producers, died Sunday night at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston after a nearly yearlong battle with cancer. He was 56.
Reiff was “surrounded by his family and loved ones” when he died, Reiff’s close friend, Gretchen Harries Graham, confirmed Monday. On Saturday, Michael Reiff, George’s brother, posted an update to a crowdfunding page set up for George that explained his condition had taken an irreversible turn for the worse in the past couple of weeks.
After Reiff was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in his brain, liver, adrenal gland and right lung last July, more than 1,200 people contributed nearly $150,000 to the crowdfunding effort for his medical expenses.
Born July 16, 1960, in New York City, Reiff relocated with his family in the mid-1970s to Houston, where he played in a band called the Haskells that released a single and an EP. He moved to Austin in 1983 to play bass with new-wave Tex-Mex stars Joe King Carrasco & the Crowns. Reached in Mexico on Monday, Carrasco recalled that Reiff’s second show with band was in Bogota, Colombia.
“George was such an innocent soul, such a positive person,” Carrasco said. “And musically, he was incredible. He had a fretless bass, and he just danced all over it. He was a great player.”
Reiff toured extensively with Carrasco and played on three of his albums before returning to Houston in 1987 and marrying artist Valerie Fowler. In 1989 they moved to Dallas, where Reiff joined the rock/pop trio Big Loud Dog. They returned to Austin couple of years later, and divorced in 1995.
After his time with Carrasco, Reiff toured for a bit with Texas bluesman Mason Ruffner while also playing with Austin rock and pop bands Zulu Time and the Troll Dolls. The latter band’s lead guitarist, Rich Brotherton, remembers that Reiff’s songwriting stood out. “The writers in the band were kind of foundering,” he recalls, “and George showed up and he said, ‘Well, I’ve got this, and I’ve got this,’ and they were great.”
He also became known in local restaurants for his skills as a pastry chef. Luke Bibby of food trailer Luke’s Inside Out recalls working with Reiff at Granite Cafe and Jeffrey’s. Bibby recalls one of Reiff’s creations, the “Lyle Loved It Tart,” with blood oranges and pistachio. “His baking skills matched his music skills,” Bibby noted.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Reiff toured and/or recorded with dozens of Austin artists, including Charlie Sexton, Michael Fracasso, Kacy Crowley, Jon Dee Graham and Cotton Mather. Eventually he became a much-sought-after Americana producer as well, helming records for artists including Ray Wylie Hubbard, Shinyribs, the Mastersons, Uncle Lucius and Beaver Nelson.
Shinyribs leader Kevin Russell turned to Reiff for direction when Russell’s former band the Gourds split in 2012. Reiff, who produced the first three Shinyribs albums, “was really instrumental in helping me shape Shinyribs and define it with those records,” Russell said. “He helped me reinvent myself.”
Reiff’s resume occasionally included major artists as well. He worked extensively with the Dixie Chicks offshoot Court Yard Hounds and toured with Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh. Carrasco says Reiff once described a gig with Walsh when Ringo Starr sat in on drums: “He said that one of the highlights of his life was to look behind him and see that he was playing bass with Ringo.”
Reiff was highly respected by fellow musicians well beyond Austin. Legendary producer Daniel Lanois once referred to Reiff as “one of the world’s greatest bass players” from the stage of a South by Southwest show.
Locally, he was often in the house band for such marquee events as the Austin Music Awards and the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame concerts. Renowned producer Lloyd Maines, music director for the latter shows, said Monday that “George was always a total pro. He took his playing and his production very seriously.”
Author Joe Nick Patoski, who managed Carrasco in the 1980s, remembers that when Reiff joined the band, “he made it all exciting and fresh again. That was 30-odd years ago, but George never stopped, never plateaued. He was still doing it and breaking new ground, all the way through.”
Harries Graham said Monday that a musical tribute to Reiff is in the works. Funeral services are pending.