Showband legend whose 'Lovely Leitrim' made him 1960s star
LARRY CUNNINGHAM:THE SUCCESS of showband star Larry Cunningham, who has died aged 74, owed much to two records in the 1960s. His Tribute to Jim Reeves was the first record by an Irish-based artist to achieve UK chart success, while Lovely Leitrim confirmed him as the leading Irish country singer of his day.
Other career highlights include performing at Wembley with Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams jnr and Johnny Cash; appearing at the Royal Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall and Grand Ole Opry; and performing for Prince Rainier and Princess Grace.
Fr Brian D’Arcy this week said: “Larry was not a celebrity – he was a star and there is a difference. A star is a real human being who wins respect, a celebrity is a lot less than that.” Big Tom McBride described him as “one of the greatest-ever country singers”.
He was born in Clooneen, Granard, Co Longford, in 1938, one of seven children of Michael Cunningham, a farmer, and his wife Julia (née Cosgrove). He was educated at the local national school and Granard vocational school. He initially wanted to be a woodwork teacher, but eventually became a carpenter.
He played the fiddle and tin whistle as a child, and learned tunes by listening to Vincent Lowe and Jackie Hearst on Raidió Éireann. He first sang in public in the local parish hall, aged 12.
A keen Gaelic footballer, he won a minor championship medal when Granard defeated Longford Slashers in the county final.
As a young man he plied his trade in Derby, and played with a céilí band several nights a week. Returning home, he continued to play music part-time with the Grafton showband.
Cunningham quit the band to concentrate on building work. However, after six months he accepted an invitation to join the up-and-coming Mighty Avons showband.
The Mighty Avons attracted a big following in the Border counties, and added to it when they played support to Jim Reeves at the Orchid ballroom, Lifford, Co Donegal, in June 1963. After Reeves cut short his performance, complaining that the piano was out of tune, Cunningham rescued the situation by singing a medley of the American’s hits.
He quickly established himself as the foremost Irish interpreter of Reeves’s songs. When Reeves was killed in an air crash in 1964, Eddie Masterson wrote a mournful monologue in memory of the singer and gave it to Cunningham to record. Forty thousand copies were sold in the first two weeks of its release in Britain.
Cunningham’s appearance on Top of the Pops marked his arrival in the UK charts. In early 1965 he was awarded a silver disc for worldwide sales of 250,000.
Lovely Leitrim, a song his mother taught him, followed. It held the No 1 spot in Ireland’s Top 10 for four weeks.
“Up to then they would throw pennies at you if you were a showband playing a ballad,” Cunningham recalled. “But Lovely Leitrim changed all that.”
Such was their popularity that Larry Cunningham and the Mighty Avons drew a crowd of 6,850 to the Galtymore ballroom in Cricklewood, London, in 1966. The following year Bill Fuller engaged Cunningham for a St Patrick’s Day concert in Carnegie Hall. He subsequently returned to New York to perform in concert at the Lincoln Centre, with the Chieftains. He and the Mighty Avons also played to dancers at City Hall.
Cunningham’s follow-up to Lovely Leitrim was Among the Wicklow Hills, which struck a particular chord in Northern Ireland.
He first appeared at the International Festival of Country Music at Wembley stadium in 1969. He returned in 1971 with his new band, the Country Blue Boys, having left the Mighty Avons two years earlier. Also in 1971 he appeared at the Country Music Convention in Nashville.
In the mid-1970s he joined forces with Margo, sister of Daniel O’Donnell, touring with the Country Blue Boys. They also recorded a duet Yes Mr Peters, a cover of the US hit for Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn.
He later went solo. Having last topped the Irish Top 10 in 1971 with Slaney Valley, he had his last domestic chart hit with Galway and You in 1983.
In 1986 he took part in a Mighty Avons reunion tour. Thereafter he continued his career as a solo performer in Ireland, and performed on cruise ships and holiday resorts in Spain, Portugal and the Canary Islands.
His business interests included a supermarket in Granard. He stood for Fianna Fáil in the 1979 local elections. Known for his charity work, he was a stalwart of the Jimmy Magee all-stars. He was Longford Person of the Year in 2004.
His wife Beatrice (née Nannery), daughters Sinéad and Regina and sons Lorcán and Barry survive him.
Larry Cunningham: born February 13th, 1938; died September 28th, 2012