Obituary: Henry McCullough, guitarist

Born: Portstewart, Northern Ireland, 2 July 1943. Died: Ballymoney, Northern Ireland, 14 June 2016, aged 72
Henry McCullough, on the right, with Paul McCartney and other members of the band Wings in the 1970s. Picture: Getty ImagesHenry McCullough, on the right, with Paul McCartney and other members of the band Wings in the 1970s. Picture: Getty Images
Henry McCullough, on the right, with Paul McCartney and other members of the band Wings in the 1970s. Picture: Getty Images

Henry McCullough was an Irish rock and folk guitarist who worked with many of the most iconic names of the 1970s, most notably a brief but significant period spent as a member of Paul McCartney’s Wings. Between 1972 and 1973 he played on Wings’ second album Red Rose Speedway, including the number one hit My Love, and on the Bond theme Live and Let Die.

He was also a member of Joe Cocker’s backing group the Grease Band, with whom he played for progressive rockers Spooky Tooth and took lead guitar duties on the album of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. Scots singer-songwriters Frankie Miller and Donovan, Marianne Faithfull and Roy Harper also benefitted from his skills, while arguably his most high-profile yet unlikely credit came on Pink Floyd’s 1973 classic The Dark Side of the Moon; he was the disembodied voice at the end of Money claiming that he “can’t remember, I was really drunk at the time.”

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Born Henry Campbell Liken McCullough in the seaside town of Portstewart, Northern Ireland, McCullough learned guitar at the age of eleven and joined the Enniskillen-based showband the Skyrockets as a teenager. Remembered by bandmates of the time as a hit with women who liked to play old-fashioned, Hank Williams-style numbers, he was nonetheless a devotee of the rock ‘n’ roll artists of the time like Fats Domino, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Going on the road at 17 and playing shows which lasted from mid-evening until well after midnight, McCullough credited the Skyrockets as his ‘apprenticeship’, where he learned to accompany horn players and move between a variety of styles. In 1964 he and three other members of the Skyrockets left to form their own group, recruiting South African singer Dushie Chetty to perform as Gene and the Gents.

In 1966 McCullough left this band behind as well, moving to Belfast and earning what would become his big break as a member of psychedelic rock group the People. The band had already existed in various guises in the city, but with McCullough in their number their local fame flourished, and they eventually quit Belfast for London. Here, in 1967, they were signed by manager Chas Chandler, a former member of the Animals and also mentor to a new young guitar sensation named Jimi Hendrix.

At Chandler and his partner Mike Jeffrey’s insistence, the People changed their name to something which played more upon their Irish origin, settling upon Eire Apparent. Although the group never achieved any notable success, they released a single and toured America as support to the Animals with McCullough as a member, before he was busted for marijuana possession and deported from the States. This ended his time with the band, which meant he didn’t feature on a debut album which was produced and played on by Hendrix, his Experience bandmates and Robert Wyatt.

Back in Ireland, McCullough became a member of Irish traditional group and Dubliners contemporaries Sweeney’s Men, inspired by the rougher and more political content of Irish folk at the time. They had a couple of hit singles, before the London connections he had built up came through and he was recruited to the new touring incarnation of the Grease Band, the backing musicians for powerfully-voiced Sheffield soul singer Joe Cocker.

Again, McCullough toured America with this much more high-profile group, including an appearance at the seminal 1969 Woodstock festival in upstate New York. Cocker’s performance of the Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends at the event has become an iconic one, and it was McCullough who played guitars and sand backing vocals for him that day. Cocker dissolved the band at the end of the year, although the members continued to work together under the same name. McCullough played with them on their eponymous 1971 debut album, on the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack and on prog rock outfit Spooky Tooth’s 1970 album The Last Puff.

In 1971 he was recruited to Wings by McCartney on the advice of the band’s drummer Danny Seiwell, and he proved himself a fulcrum of the group for the next two years. Undoubtedly, his high point was the rich and expressive guitar solo which he created for My Love, a piece of music which was recorded for the song in one take. He has recalled how nervous he was to be in the studio with McCartney and George Martin, and how he rose to the challenge in a way which left the control room in stunned silence; although the reaction left McCullough fearing he had done wrong and would have to retake the whole thing.

Wings’ next record was being mapped out at a retreat in McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre home in Scotland when an argument between McCullough and the band’s leader caused the former to quit. It was a spur of the moment decision which he later came to regret, although he bore no grudges against McCartney and was pleased to meet him again in Ireland after one of McCartney’s concerts in 2009. Over the next decade McCullough was prolific, recording the album The Rock with Frankie Miller in San Francisco, releasing his own album Mind Your Own Business on George Harrison’s Dark Horse label and appearing on records by Roy Harper, Marianne Faithfull, Donovan, the Animals’ Eric Burden and the Faces’ Ronnie Lane. He also briefly filled in for Wilko Johnson as Dr Feelgood’s guitarist.

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An accident at the beginning of the 1980s which severed a tendon in McCullough’s arm caused him to stop playing for a time, and when he returned it was with bands back home in Northern Ireland and for a brief period in Poland. He released a number of blues-rock solo albums and notably the single Failed Christian, which was covered by Nick Lowe. Suffering a serious heart attack in 2012 which he never recovered from (his death was mistakenly announced on RTE Radio at the time), he died at home near Ballymoney. He is survived by his wife Josie.