Henry McCullough: Irish guitarist who played at Woodstock and with Wings

Obituary: He made his name playing with Sweeney’s Men, Joe Cocker and Paul McCartney

Henry McCullough: July 21st, 1943-June 14th, 2016. Above, performing  on stage with The Grease Band in Copenhagen, November 1971. Photograph: Jorgen Angel/Redferns

Henry McCullough: July 21st, 1943-June 14th, 2016. Above, performing on stage with The Grease Band in Copenhagen, November 1971. Photograph: Jorgen Angel/Redferns

 

The guitarist and session musician Henry McCullough, who has died at his Co Antrim home, aged 72, made his name playing with Sweeney’s Men, Joe Cocker and Paul McCartney, and is reputed to be the only Irish musician to have played at the fabled Woodstock festival in 1969.

Later in his career McCullough was constantly asked for his memories of the festival, at which he performed with Joe Cocker and the Grease Band.

However, there was little to remember of what was literally a flying visit. The band was helicoptered in, played a set and departed, all in a matter of hours. Then it was on to the next venue on the tour itinerary.

Born in Portstewart, Co Derry, in 1943, Henry Campbell Liken McCullough was one of the skiffle generation, and got his first electric guitar, a Gibson 355, when he was 17. He recalled how he used lay it out on his bed just to admire it. But he soon mastered it, and became lead guitarist with the Skyrockets showband, a popular outfit on the Northern dancehall circuit.

In 1964 with three other band members he left to form the pop-oriented Gene and the Gents, fronted by South African-born singer Gene Chetty, a Trinity law student. After a few years, however, McCullough left to broaden his horizons with psychedelic rock band The People.

The former Animals’ bass player Chas Chandler took over as manager of what became Éire Apparent, and the band toured the UK with the likes of Pink Floyd, Jimmy Hendrix Experience and Amen Corner. But while touring North America McCullough ran into visa problems in Canada and had to return home.

Teaming up with Johnny Moynihan and Terry Woods he spent the summer of 1968 playing with Sweeney’s Men, adding a rock dimension to the band’s folk repertoire.

He next joined the Grease Band, backing band of Joe Cocker who had a major hit with his version of the Beatles’ With a Little Help from My Friends. Cocker and the band appeared at Woodstock in the course of an arduous US tour.

In 1971 McCullough was recruited to Wings, joining Paul and Linda McCartney, Denny Seiwell and Denny Laine in what is regarded by many as the band’s best line-up. He remembered his spell with the band as a “really happy time”, notwithstanding his gaffe when he suggested that the band should find a better keyboard player than Linda.

After backing off “real quick” he later made full amends with an inspired solo on My Love, the single from the album Red Rose Speedway.

“He was a pleasure to work with, a super talented musician with a lovely sense of humour”, Paul McCartney has said, adding “McCullough’s solo on My Love was a “classic that he made up on the spot” in front of a live orchestra.

McCullough left Wings in 1973 to gig with a host of artists including Roy Harper, Marianne Faithfull, Ronnie Lane and Eric Burdon. Following a spell with Spooky Tooth, he spent two years with the Frankie Miller band.

He subsequently settled in Dublin, where in the early 1980s he accidentally severed tendons in his playing hand. This almost cost him his livelihood but he recovered and resumed playing, sitting in with the Fleadh Cowboys at their Sunday afternoon residency in the Lower Deck, Portobello.

He formed his own band to tour Ireland in 1988, and in the 1990s moved back to Portstewart. In 1998 he toured Poland with a pick-up band, attracting a following which led to an album and further tours.

His songwriting skills were acknowledged when his composition Failed Christian was covered by Nick Lowe. In 2008 he recorded the album Poor Man’s Moon. Consisting of self-penned tracks and others co-written with Eamonn Carr, the album was well received.

Joe Breen in this newspaper wrote that it testified to a “man still in love with the r’n’b fundamentals of his youth”. Editor of Hot Press Niall Stokes wrote: “Mixing Irish influences with country, rock’n’roll, funk and the blues, he has fashioned a record of real depth, character and emotional weight.”

Other solo albums include Mind Your Own Business (1975), Hell of a Record (1984), Get in the Hole (1989) and Blue Sunset (1998).

In more recent years, he regularly gigged with such blues stalwarts as Ed Deane, James Delaney, Noel Bridgeman and John Quearney. Percy Robinson was another long-time collaborator. However, he suffered a heart attack in 2012, which left him incapacitated.

McCullough wholeheartedly embraced the rock’n’roll lifestyle, but stopped drinking in the mid-1990s. Looking back on his career in 2008, he said: “I’ve had a better life than most players, because it’s not every day you get to play with Paul McCartney. I saw flower power, ’69, the summer of this and that and Woodstock. I remember 85 per cent of it. Not many do.”

He is survived by his wife Josie and his son Jesse.