DCSIMG

Johnny Cunningham

Johnny Cunningham, musician, composer and record producer

Born: 27 August, 1957, in Edinburgh

Died: 16 December, 2003, in New York, aged 46

THE death of Johnny Cunningham, elder brother of Phil, at an age when many great fiddlers are just about maturing into their prime, will have stunned and saddened countless friends and admirers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Johnny was one of those questing, free-ranging Scots musicians that Hamish Henderson proudly saluted as "the wild rovers of the tradition". They didn’t come much wilder, in more senses than one, than Johnny Cunningham. He lived life, as they say, to the full. But there was a deeply serious side to him, as anyone hearing him play would quickly detect.

From being the fastest fiddle in the West during his teens, when he was the dynamic powerhouse in Silly Wizard, he became an acclaimed master of the slow air, that seemingly simple but in fact devilishly fragile form that invariably sorts out the musical men from the boys.

While he played a hugely significant role in spreading the Celtic sound around the United States and Europe, in his time he roved far beyond the confines of traditional Scottish material, dabbling in hard rock and American country music as well as writing music and lyrics for theatrical productions and establishing a solid reputation as a record producer.

Born in Portobello, he started playing fiddle at school when he was six years old. Phil took up the accordion at an even earlier age, and the two established a musical rapport, and spectacular velocity, which never deserted them. Johnny was only 15 when he joined Gordon Jones and Bob Thomas in the first incarnation of Silly Wizard, a band that was to take traditional music by the scruff of the neck and hurl it on to a roller-coaster ride that would set the pace for so many others to follow.

I recall presenting a performance by Silly Wizard at the BBC’s old Edinburgh studios in Queen Street when I wasn’t allowed to mention the fiddler’s name over the air - young Johnny was playing truant from school to be at the session. In those days, he tended to be sniffily dismissed by the purists as a "speed merchant". He sure was quick, spectacularly so. Imagine the kerfuffle when Phil joined the band in 1976. Someone phoned me up and said: "Have you heard? Silly Wizard just got faster."

The music soon caught the ear of a generation that had never been exposed to such exciting Celtic stuff, and Silly Wizard found themselves in huge, popular demand; so popular, indeed, that someone tried to put a bootleg album of one of their performances out on the market. The band were known for their comedy capers on stage, but this time they were not amused, and brought a court action - the first of its kind in Scotland - to prevent the album being issued. The lawyers called me in as a witness to the fact that the recording had been secretly made during an informal, rather messy show during the festive season, and that its issue would severely damage their reputation. At one point on the recording, someone in the audience can be heard shouting: "Johnny, you’re a f****** w*****!" In court, I mentioned the phrase as evidence of the general mayhem, and noticed Lord Ross picking up his pen and presumably jotting it down. In the end, Silly Wizard won their case, and the album never reached the shops.

The band went from strength to strength, and made a particularly big impact in the United States, one of the highlights of each show being a medley of ferociously fast tunes, with the Cunningham brothers continually pushing each other to more outrageous momentum. Johnny found America much to his liking, and settled there in 1981, but not before recording an album, Against the Storm, with Phil: next month, Phil and Johnny had planned to go into the studios for their first joint recording since then. Johnny also brought out a solo album, Thoughts from Another World, in 1981, which was followed three years later by Fair Warning.

The Silly Wizardry continued until the late Eighties. Meanwhile, the Cunninghams played occasionally with two singing members of the renowned Bothy Band from Ireland, Michael O Dhomhnaill and Triona Ni Dhomhnaill, and the quartet was officially formed under the name of Relativity, producing two fine albums in the mid-Eighties.

As Aly Bain has put it: "Johnny was interested in all aspects of music - and wasn’t afraid to try them." He tried all sorts in the States. He played with the Boston-based rock band Raindogs as well as the exuberantly jazzy Nightnoise, and toured and recorded with the likes of Hall & Oates, Bonnie Raitt and the American country-style Johnston Brothers. Since the Nineties, Johnny had been touring extensively with Kevin Burke and Christian LeMaitre in the popular package called the Celtic Fiddle Festival. As a record producer, he was at the controls for such bands as Solas and Cherish the Ladies.

He devoted much of his attention in recent years to theatrical work, writing the music and lyrics for a highly praised adaptation of JM Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, a puppet production that made Broadway and won awards in 1997, and he had recently completed a screenplay. Each December, he took his little show A Winter’s Talisman, featuring music, songs and poetry, on tour in the States with the Irish singer Susan McKeown. He had just completed this year’s tour when he became ill in New York and was rushed to hospital, where he died in the arms of his long-time partner, Tricia.

A lovely, amiable guy. A massively influential bearer of the Celtic message. A restless, multi-talented artist. And, alas, a wild rover no more.

 
 
 

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