Johnny Cunningham

Influential fiddle player with Silly Wizard
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The Independent Online

John James Cunningham, fiddle player and composer: born Edinburgh 27 August 1957; died New York 15 December 2003.

Someone once said that Johnny Cunningham lived his life like someone tipping backwards on their chair, not certain whether they were going to fall backwards or forwards. He was a fiddle player who lived as if on the edge of catastrophe. It was this element of uncertainty that marked him out from the whole generation of Scottish fiddle players who followed, less certainly, in his footsteps.

Not that his music ever failed to achieve what he was seeking. On the contrary, he took his music into all sorts of unknown territories - electronics, rock'n'roll - and always seemed to find what he was looking for, and what's more, he took his audiences with him.

In this, he was a strong contrast with his brother, the accordionist Phil Cunningham: Johnny dropped out of school and left home at 14 while Phil stayed the course; Phil's playing, though just as accomplished, never skirted the borders of danger that seemed to be Johnny's natural habitat; but when they played together, as they did for a time in Silly Wizard, the seminal Scottish band which led the way where many others were encouraged to follow, they seemed to complement each other perfectly.

Both began music on the harmonica, but when Phil took up first the melodeon and then the piano accordion, Johnny could not find his way on either instrument, nor upon the piano, which his parents also encouraged him to attempt. Then, at the age of eight, his grandmother gave him an old fiddle, and it became the focus of his life from then on. "For some reason, the first day I had it, I was knocking tunes out of it. It was just right," he told Dirty Linen magazine later.

Within four years, he was experimenting with his music in ways which might have shocked the Scott Skinners of the past (but then perhaps it might not have; Scott Skinner, the old master of the strathspey, was something of an innovator among the fiddle players of his day). "When I was about 12, we'd get together with a few friends," Johnny Cunningham recalled. "We were experimenting with electronics and we had these old radio speakers which we reversed the polarity and taped to the back of our fiddles (taking all the varnish off). We all plugged into one large Marshall amp for a bass guitar."

Cunningham was born in the Scottish seaside resort of Portobello, to the east of Edinburgh, in 1957, the eldest of three children. His main family connection with music was through his mother, Mary, who played the organ in the local church, but it was his father, John, a fireman, who encouraged him to take his music seriously.

After he had left home, Johnny Cunningham fell in with the organisers of the Triangle folk club in Edinburgh, playing regularly there. From there it was but a short journey to be invited to join the collective of musicians living in a Broughton Street tenement, a squalid habitation which played a role in Scottish music analogous to that of the squat in Somali Road, Hampstead, which gave birth to English folk rock.

Out of this grew Silly Wizard. Cunningham should still have been at school, and when the band got their first big chance, a BBC radio broadcast presented by the journalist Alastair Clark, his name was not credited among the personnel, because at 15 years old he was technically a truant. Cunningham was to perform on all but one of Wizard's albums, and was still with them when they broke up after their final US tour in 1984.

By then, he had already developed the characteristics which immediately identified his playing: an incredibly fast, almost supersonic jig-style - a fellow band-member quipped that when he really got going, only dogs could hear him - which he would then alternate with exquisite slow airs. His detractors complained that his style was ostentatious, but they missed the sense of soul which infected every single note he played, whether slow or fast.

By the time Silly Wizard split, Johnny Cunningham had moved to the United States and was already playing with his brother Phil, the Bothy Band's Michael O Domhnaill and Michael's sister, Triona, in a supergroup called Relativity. In 1993, he was reunited with the Dhomnhaills in the New Age band Nightnoise.

As the years of his stay in the US lengthened, Cunningham developed an almost workaholic pace: producing music for bands like Raindogs; recording two CDs for Atlantic/Atco, as well as producing Brooks Williams, Bill Morrissey, Fred Small and Pendragon; winning three "best album" awards from the National American Independent Music Awards for his work as a producer with Cherish the Ladies and Solas; composing music and lyrics for a Lincoln Center reworking of the Peter Pan story; and touring with Bob Dylan, Don Henley and Warren Zevon. He collaborated with the writer Thomas Moore for a double CD, The Soul of Christmas (1997), which was televised in the US; toured Britain with Kevin Burke (Ireland) and Christian Lemaitre (Brittany) as the Celtic Fiddle Festival; collaborated with members of Solas and Riverdance to produce Dancing on Dangerous Ground for Radio City Music Hall in New York; and composed the music for Renee McCormick's documentary about women who decide not to be mothers, A Life Outside Convention (2002).

Just before his death, he had completed a screenplay for an ecological thriller, Seeds of Crime, with his long-time partner, Trisha McCormick. He ended his last show with the message: "We're born in pain, live in fear and die alone. Happy Christmas."

Karl Dallas