Obituary: Andy M Stewart, singer and songwriter

Born: 8 September, 1952, in Alyth, Perthshire. Died: 27 December, 2015. Aged 63.

Andy H Stewart, singer and songwriter who was part of the resurgence of Scottish folk music. Picture: Contributed

Andy M Stewart was a Scots singer and songwriter who was at the forefront of a resurgent contemporary Scottish folk scene in the 1970s as the voice of the Edinburgh-formed group Silly Wizard. In their early days the band held a residency at the small but popular Triangle Folk Club in the city, a Saturday night haunt which typified Edinburgh’s rich folk scene of the time alongside venues like the Crown and Edinburgh Folk Club; at the height of their popularity they toured to great appreciation in Europe and the United States – and sold out an annual engagement at the Playhouse during the Edinburgh Festival.

The reasons for Silly Wizard’s success were many, but easy to broadly sum up: on the one hand, the striking musical virtuosity of the prodigiously talented young brothers Johnny and Phil Cunningham from Portobello, on the other the marvellously soft but powerful vocal ability of Stewart, and in between the skills of key prime-era members Gordon Jones and Martin Hadden.

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A well-spoken raconteur on the live stage, whose ability to introduce his songs informatively and with genuine humour enhanced the experience of hearing them, Stewart wrote music and lyrics which are – particularly in the case of his ballads – rich and still freshly emotive.

A skilled banjo player who used his middle initial to distinguish himself from the elder Scots singer who shared his name, Stewart’s skills lay in interpreting Scottish folk standards and in writing additions to the canon which were at once traditional and modern. His songs ran a range of emotions from the delicate romance of The Queen of Argyll to the knowing humour of The Ramblin’ Rover. Now he’s gone, the latter’s choral “if you’ve been a man of action / though you’re lying there in traction / you will get some satisfaction / thinking ‘Jesus, at least I tried’” lines are lent added poignancy.

Born in Alyth to a musical family, Stewart went to Blairgowrie High School, where his classmates included the future musicians and sometime Silly Wizard members Dougie MacLean (most famous now for his composition of the song Caledonia) and Hadden. As a means of combatting boredom, the trio and other friends played music together at school and each other’s homes, and even as they listened to then relatively obscure Scottish folk, they also took influence from the growing Irish folk scene. Their young group Padden’s Well played backing at a local folk club and toured their way around the Highlands.

At the same time, in Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh University students Jones and Bob Thomas formed the basis of the band later known as Silly Wizard (named after their flatmate’s in-the-works children’s book). They added talented 15-year-old fiddle player Johnny Cunningham – then still at school, meaning the group would often have to drive all night to get him to the school gates in the morning after distant engagements.

Playing Edinburgh University Folk Club and also touring the Highlands, they briefly added a female singer named Maddy Taylor in 1972 and signed to Transatlantic Records, for whom they recorded a never-released album.

Regrouping following the album incident and Taylor’s departure, the band decided to bolster their sound by adding a second guitarist and a more accomplished singer than Jones, who was uncertain about singing Scots songs in his Liverpudlian accent. Having previously played and become friends with the recently-split Padden’s Well in Blairgowrie, they invited Stewart to take over on vocal duties, and he accepted.

Their self-titled debut album proper was released in 1976, and shortly after this the group settled into its classic core line-up of Stewart, Jones, Hadden, Johnny Cunningham and the latter’s newly-recruited brother Phil, slimmed down to a quintet by Thomas’s departure to get married and start a new career. Other sometime members included MacLean for a brief six months and the late Rezillos bassist Alasdair Donaldson.

In the 12 years that Stewart was the singer with Silly Wizard, they enjoyed enduring success on the folk scene – despite fans’ initial wariness on account of their willingness to break the boundary regarding electric instruments, which traditionalists disliked.

They released nine albums between 1976 and 1988, including Caledonia’s Hardy Sons in 1978, So Many Partings in 1980 and the more electronic A Glint of Silver in 1986, and notably recorded the theme song for Scots soap opera Take the High Road, a variation on Loch Lomond.

An engagement to play a modest show at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in 1979 ended with the group being approached by an American booker – she got them 20 minutes on the bottom of the bill at that year’s Philadelphia Folk Festival, and the reception they received encouraged them towards a new level of international success. They were arguably more popular in the US and Europe – particularly Germany – than at home, playing 200 gigs in one year at the height of their success.

When Silly Wizard split unannounced in 1988 after a successful US tour, it was as a result of mutual belief that they had taken the band as far as it would go, rather than any commercial waning. In the decade which followed, Stewart released four solo albums (By the Hush, Songs of Robert Burns, Man in the Moon and Donegal Rain), and later three more in collaboration with Manus Lunny of Capercaillie – Fire in the Glen (featuring Phil Cunningham), Dublin Lady and At It Again. In later years Stewart, now based in Stow in the Borders, combined music with lighting design for stage and television.

In a sad final act to a life of musical accomplishment and pleasure for his listeners, Stewart last hit the headlines in March 2015, when his sister Angie announced that he was paralysed from the chest down as a result of medical difficulties including failed spinal surgery in 2012. Her attempt to crowdfund care for her brother was met with a generous response, but just nine months later Stewart died in hospital after suffering a stroke and a bout of pneumonia.

“I suppose I’d like a legacy really of just being remembered fondly by whomever, my friends and the folk I left behind,” Stewart told folk magazine Dirty Linen in 1991. “It would be nice for them to remember me in a positive way. It would be nice for my songs to survive. It would be nice for my family. I’d like them to last.”

He is survived by his son.