Johnny Cunningham is one of Scottish music’s all-time greats. A fiddle player born in Portobello and transplanted to America, he was a founding member of Silly Wizard who went on to perform with other bands including Celtic Fiddle Festival, Relativity and Nightnoise, alongside a prodigious record as a composer and producer.
He and his younger brother, accordionist Phil Cunningham, started out on the harmonica, Johnny at the age five, Phil age three. Soon after, Phil progressed on to the accordion, which Johnny had tried along with the piano, finding neither to be for him. It wasn’t until around the time of his 8th birthday that his grandmother gave him an old fiddle, and as he said in a 1993 interview with Dirty Linen: “For some reason, the first day I had it, I was knocking tunes out of it. It was just right.”
There’s no doubt he truly was a natural on the fiddle, as anyone who’d later hear either his pyrotechnics in Silly Wizard, or his mastery of the slow air would attest, so much so that it wasn’t long before he was experimenting and discovering the boundaries of what the instrument could do. From that same Dirty Linen interview:
“When I was about 12, we’d get together with a few friends. We played all the time. 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”.
It was only two years later that Cunningham decided that the time had come to follow his passion. Leaving school at the age of fourteen, he moved to Edinburgh and began picking up various gigs. A few months later he crossed paths with Gordon Jones and Bob Thomas, the organisers of Edinburgh’s Triangle Folk Club.
In the months following that first meeting, Silly Wizard’s original lineup emerged: Jones, Thomas, Cunningham and singer Madeline Taylor. In those early years band members came and went, as the band developed and began finding a sound that would go on to change the face of Scottish music.
Phil stuck it out at school a little longer than Johnny, it wasn’t until 1976 at the age of 16 that he joined the band replacing Freeland Barbour on accordion. The Cunninghams formed the instrumental heart of the band, what one reviewer described as one of the most “empowered combinations in musical history”.
Soon came the band’s second album Caledonia’s Hardy Sons, which is when things really started to take off, the diary quickly filling with tours and festival appearances across Europe. The following year came the next release So Many Partings, coinciding with the band’s first appearance in America at the Philadelphia Folk Festival – by all accounts a truly unforgettable show.
That first foray to America set them on the path to become the international powerhouse that they were, changing perceptions of Scottish music and bringing it to new and ever wider audiences. But by the late 80s, after nine albums and around seventeen years of touring, the band decided to call it a day, with a final studio album A Glint of Silver in 1986, and a couple of final tours, leading up to the last gig at Voorheesville NY in April 1988.
Since the first visit with Silly Wizard, America held an attraction for Cunningham, who emigrated there shortly after. Around this time, his musical activity began to diversify, starting Scots/Irish supergroup Relativity along with Phil, and Bothy Band siblings Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill. In 1993, along with Ireland’s Kevin Burke and Brittany’s Christian Lemaitre, Cunningham started Celtic Fiddle Festival, a group conceived to showcase those three different styles of celtic fiddle playing.
As well as his prolific output within traditional music, Cunningham was also known to look far beyond. In the 80s, he started The Raindogs, who combined rock and celtic influences. The band are remembered for their incendiary live performances, having toured with the likes of Warren Zevon, Don Henley, and Bob Dylan. At the other end of the spectrum was Nightnoise, an Irish band he joined in the early 90s where traditional music met jazz and classical influences. Cunningham also worked extensively as a session musician, playing live and on recordings for artists including Daryl Hall & John Oates, Bonnie Raitt, and Bill Morrissey.
As a producer, he collaborated with the writer Thomas Moore for a double CD, The Soul of Christmas, which released in 1997 along with a live concert version filmed for a PBS television special. He won three best album awards at the National American Independent Music Awards for his work as a producer with bands Cherish the Ladies and Solas.
In the 90s, Cunningham began working with Mabou Mines – a historic New York-based theatre company, on their production Peter and Wendy, composing music and lyrics for the adaption of Peter Pan. The production went on to win a raft of awards, including two OBIEs, and a Herald Angel here in Scotland, when the show featured as part of the 2009 Edinburgh International Festival.
The huge volume of work Cunningham produced reflects a total passion for his craft, which he described in his own words: “Music is the central part of my life. I’m really interested in poetry, the spoken word… I’m interested in anything that makes me feel good. I’m interested in anything I have a gut reaction to, so I’m interested in poetry, a lot of different kinds of film. Because anything that enhances my existence, I like. And there is no excuse for boredom. I can read and listen to music. How could I ever be bored?”
Cunningham was recently honoured by the naming of Cunningham Square in Portobello. Naming streets after its famous sons is something of a tradition in the area, with Sir Harry Lauder road just a short walk away.
Aside from his work, he lived a rich and busy life, surrounded by his friends. Described as: “A skilled storyteller and comic, he shared his heart with strangers and loved ones. He resonates so powerfully that even those who did not know him felt inclined to wait in line for a hug after a concert”.
All too suddenly, Johnny passed away on December 15 2003, at the home in New York that he shared with his partner Trisha. He is remembered with great affection by those who knew him, and as one of the all time great Scottish fiddle players.