Wednesday 28 September 2016

The late Henry McCullough, musician and singer

21 July 1943 - 14 June 2016

Published 19/06/2016 | 02:30

Henry McCullough: he quit Wings in 1973 after a fall-out with with McCartney.
Henry McCullough: he quit Wings in 1973 after a fall-out with with McCartney.

If he had contributed no more than the mellifluous guitar break on Paul McCartney's lush romantic ballad 'My Love' Henry McCullough's place in the rock-and-pop pantheon would be assured. That beautifully concise 25 seconds was, however, merely the most commercially successful chapter in a 50-year career which saw McCullough become the only Irishman to play at Woodstock.

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An elegant and versatile guitarist renowned for his tone, as well as a gruff, confessional singer-songwriter in later years, McCullough's credits include three years in The Grease Band, with whom he backed Joe Cocker at the iconic festival in 1969. He also played with, or for, characters as diverse as Jimi Hendrix and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

While his performance with Wings in 1973 scarcely defined McCullough's life in music, it was an episode he would be pressed about down the decades, both by curious interviewers and Beatles fans. The recollections differed; what is beyond doubt is that the solo was improvised to an almost reckless degree.

McCullough, who died this week aged 72, claimed McCartney had written his part for him, which he refused to play and wanted to change. McCartney asked what he intended to do. McCullough replied, "I don't know", which "put the fear of God into Paul". Then he closed his eyes and produced what he termed a "one-take wonder". McCartney remembers McCullough asking "if it would be alright if I try something else", to which his response was "yes". He added: "[It] came right out of the blue. I just thought: 'F**king great'."

The song reached No 1 in the US chart and the top 10 in the UK. Among the other Wings singles he appeared on were the Bond theme 'Live and Let Die' and 'Give Ireland Back to the Irish', which McCartney wrote after the killing of 13 civil-rights protesters on Bloody Sunday in 1972. The record had particular resonance for McCullough, who was born in Portstewart, Co Derry. As a teenager he served his apprenticeship in the Skyrockets and Gene & The Gents, Enniskillen showbands.

In 1967, he moved to Belfast, forming psychedelic group The People. They moved to London, were rebranded Eire Apparent and jammed in New York with Hendrix. In Vancouver, McCullough was busted for possession of marijuana and deported. "Sacked," he later mused, "for enjoying the fruits of America."

A stint with Sweeney's Men, folk-rock pioneers from Dublin, broadened his horizons, but in 1968 he joined The Grease Band as Cocker sought to build on the success of 'With A Little Help From My Friends'. He described Woodstock as "some gig", although being airlifted in and out by helicopter meant McCullough did not feel the festival "vibe".

In 1970 he and his band-mates appeared on the album of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, taking daily direction from Lloyd Webber. The following year he contributed five songs to The Grease Band's eponymous LP before joining Wings.

In 1973, he quit after a falling out with McCartney. "My one regret, the most unprofessional thing I've done," conceded McCullough, who struggled with alcohol and drug abuse.

He went on to join Frankie Miller's band and did session work with Roy Harper, Marianne Faithfull and Donovan. After the first of 10 solo albums, Mind Your Own Business, he played with Dr Feelgood after Wilko Johnson's abrupt exit.

On moving back to the North in the Eighties, an accident with a knife, which severed tendons in three fingers, prevented his playing for three years.

The 1999 theft of his cherished, cherry red Gibson guitar, which he owned for 30 years, temporarily dispirited McCullough. But he regained his enthusiasm, sharing a hug with McCartney backstage in Dublin in 2009 while his own music continued to blend blues, folk, rock and country. He suffered a heart attack in 2012. Wheelchair-bound and unable to speak, he was helped by friends, with Van Morrison funding a wet-room shower and Nick Lowe leading a benefit gig in 2015.

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