Sunday 23 October 2016

Ireland has lost a rare talent in music legend Henry

Henry McCollough
Henry McCollough

Guitarist Henry McCullough, who has died, was the great unsung hero of Irish rock.

His legacy is remarkable.

Paul McCartney was among the first to pay tribute when the news broke. Paul liked Henry. A lot. Henry always spoke highly of the former Beatle. They had a lot in common, but not enough to prevent Henry walking out of Wings.

He could be stubborn. Minutes before recording My Love live with an orchestra, he told Macca that he wasn't going to play the notes Paul had worked out for the solo.

Henry told me he was so nervous he relied on intuition while playing. What followed was a marvel of the artistic high-wire acrobatics he thrived on. The resulting one-take solo has been hailed as one of the most sensitive guitar pieces in rock.

Henry's influence on the Irish music scene was immense. There's a solid case for his being acknowledged as part of a divine trinity that includes Van Morrison and Rory Gallagher.

He'd rocked the ballrooms as a kid before arriving in Dublin as part of an explosive soul 'n' blues beat group called The People. Every gig was a rock masterclass. I went to see Henry playing five times in one week.


Legend has it that when Jimi Hendrix saw him he urged his managers to sign him. They did, changed the name of the band to Eire Apparent and gave Jimi his first job as a producer. But by then, footloose Henry was gone.

It was the start of a maverick journey that took in a trail-blazing stint with Sweeney's Men, controversially combining folk and rock influences, a heady ride with Joe Cocker's Grease Band that included touring with Hendrix and playing Woodstock which, for Henry, was "just another gig".

George Harrison released Henry's first solo album - Mind Your Own Business - on his Dark Horse label, which closed when George was hit with a $1.6m fine for publishing rights on My Sweet Lord.

Henry admired Hank Williams, who died in the back of a car on the way to a New Year's Eve concert in 1952. His first big hit was I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive.

There were times when we worried about Henry, who died on Tuesday at the age of 72. He lived what's euphemistically called a rock 'n' roll lifestyle.

Janis Joplin fell in love with him. He wound up ill with hepatitis when Cocker parted company with the band.

There were other mishaps, including arrests in the US, deportation from Canada, a broken hand on the eve of a tour and an accident with a bread-knife that severed tendons in three of his fingers. Surgeons in Belfast, used to performing microsurgery on bomb victims, saved him. It was the wake-up call he needed. Henry quit drinking.

He'd worked with Andrew Lloyd-Webber on the Jesus Christ Superstar album and played on countless hit records by artists including Marianne Faithfull, Frankie Miller, Donovan and Ronnie Lane.

When he invited me to come and stay at the rural home he shared with his devoted partner, Josie, I was honoured.

"Put on your rock 'n' roll boots. We'll make some music," he said.

He'd written a melody around a little poem of mine. "It's a deep Celtic blues," he said excitedly on the phone, adding that he'd sobbed with emotion while singing, "I planted that tree in the burial ground".

With arts-aware solicitor Paddy Goodwin doing what some official body should have done, by producing an album, Henry and I wrote songs for Poor Man's Moon, an album he insisted was the most satisfying he'd ever recorded.


The days we spent driving around the Glens of Antrim, visiting his favourite tearooms at the Giant's Causeway (where he was welcomed like a hero), posing for snaps at the statue of Joey Dunlop and capturing his artistry in the studio will live forever in the memory.

Henry, the restless spirit, was back home among his own, content and expressing himself like never before. He had few regrets and was at one with the Irish landscape. He was an unerringly true and genuine artist.

We've lost another glorious talent and all-round good guy.

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