Musician, composer, teacher, TV and radio presenter, record producer and Grammy winner, Phil Cunningham is one of Scottish traditional music’s finest exponents and one of the music’s greatest ambassadors.
Born on January 27, 1960, Phil grew up in Portobello and following in older brother, Johnny’s footsteps, by the age of fourteen he was the star violinist at Portobello High School. It was the accordion, however, on which he was already Scottish champion, that would prove his passport when Phil left the teacher who told him he’d never go anywhere with not so much egg on his face as a whole omelette.
Leaving school at sixteen, Phil joined Johnny in Silly Wizard, where their lightning fast playing wowed audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and energised albums including Caledonia’s Hardy Sons and So Many Partings. Recorded with Johnny, the Against the Storm album later showcased the more sensitive side of Phil’s playing that would become equally familiar through solo albums including Airs & Graces and Palamino Waltz and a huge body of work that has accumulated over the years, with many of his tunes passing into the tradition.
After Silly Wizard, Phil became involved in record production, beginning a career that has seen him oversee albums by Altan, Dolores Keane and Wolfstone, and teaming up with Johnny again, he joined Triona Ni Dhomnhaill and Micheal O Domnhaill in the hugely respected group Relativity. Then in 1986 came an invitation that would lead to Phil’s enduring and much loved partnership with Aly Bain. Beginning with the TV series Aly Bain & Friends, the duo have gone on to tour and record to huge acclaim and have played for state occasions, including the reopening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and first minister Donald Dewar’s funeral, as well as becoming synonymous with the BBC’s Hogmanay television schedules.
With a busy schedule of his own, Phil has worked in sessions with Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Rosanne Cash and Eddi Reader. He composed the music for the BBC’s revival of the Tales of Para Handy series, was musical director for theatre productions The Ship and The Big Picnic and for Gaelic television series Talla a Bhaile, and as well as presenting Live at the Lemon Tree for BBC Radio Scotland, he has been the knowledgeable and affable presenter of the Scotland’s Music television programmes.
In January 1997, Phil presented his most ambitious work to date when his Highlands and Islands Suite, some seven years in development and written for a one hundred fifty-strong cast comprising orchestra, choir and hand picked group of traditional musicians and singers, premiered at Celtic Connections in Glasgow.
For all of these achievements and more, Phil has been rightly rewarded. He was awarded the MBE in 2002, was voted Composer of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards 2007 and received, with Aly Bain, the Tartan Clef Award that same year. He holds an honorary degree from Glasgow Caledonian University and honorary doctorates from Stirling University and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, and having been appointed Artistic Director of the RSAMD’s Scottish Music course in 2008, he became the Academy’s first Professor of Scottish Music in 2009.