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Johnny Cunningham; helped spark Celtic revival

Johnny Cunningham was an internationally renowned Scottish fiddler and a world-class partier who loved to have a good time almost as much as he enjoyed blurring the lines between musical genres. As a founding member of the acoustic-electric fusion band Silly Wizard, he helped spark a revival of Celtic music in the 1970s.

 

Mr. Cunningham, 46, who also performed with the rock band Rain Dog and who toured and recorded with folk artist Bill Morrissey, died of an apparent heart attack Monday in New York City.

"He was a stunning musician, and I was honored just to play with him," Morrissey said yesterday. "He was also just plain fun to be around."

Morrissey said that when he was recording with Mr. Cunningham they kept a tape running between takes just to capture Mr. Cunningham's patter.

"He was effervescent, outgoing, and hilarious," said Morrissey, who recalled visiting Mr. Cunningham at the Chelsea Hotel in New York several years ago. "He had only been in New York for four days, but he knew the name of every waitress and bartender for a block," Morrissey said.

Morrissey also toured Italy with Mr. Cunningham. When they arrived in the country, Morrissey said, they attended a luncheon with the local promoters, and Mr. Cunningham stood up and toasted them in Gaelic. After the luncheon, Morrissey asked him to translate the toast. "It means, `I just peed my pants,' " said Mr. Cunningham.

"The promoters remembered," said Morrissey, "and when we arrived in each town they were on hand to salute us with `I just peed my pants.' "

Mr. Cunningham was born in Edinburgh. In recent years he lived in New Bedford and New York City.

"I learned to play the fiddle in self-defense," Mr. Cunningham said in a story published in the Globe in 1986. "My mother played piano, and my brother played accordion and flute. They tried to get me to play accordion or piano, but I was totally uncoordinated -- I couldn't get it together, the both hands. When I was about 7, I discovered the fiddle and thought I'd only have to work with one hand. I didn't realize what problems there'd be with the bow until later on."

When he left home at age 14 to pursue a career in music, his father was supportive. "In my life I didn't get to do a lot of things that I wanted to do because of responsibilities. If you're going to do this, just do it properly," he told his son, according to a profile in the journal Dirty Linen.

Mr. Cunningham moved into an apartment with the members of the group that would become Silly Wizard.

"Life was indescribable: no money, no bathroom, communal baths, which we could afford once a week, where we would share one bar of lye soap," Mr. Cunningham told Dirty Linen.

One winter, according to the article, he and his bandmates burned the floorboards of the apartment for heat. "Eventually, all we had to walk was the beams," he said.

A thin man with a red beard and wild hair, he was often described as looking like a druid or a wizard as he sawed away at his fiddle. He could make the instrument dance wildly or wail in sorrow, and he had an uncanny ability to play both lead and high harmony parts as though he were performing a duet with himself. He gave his compositions humorous names such as "The Fox and the Microwave." "Fiddle players are all slightly strange as human beings," Mr. Cunningham admitted in the 1986 Globe story.

Morrissey related a story about Mr. Cunningham's exploits that says much about the man.

"We played at a convention in Austin, Texas, and he spent most of the night teaching the members of a punk band how to drink," he said.

The next afternoon, when their tour bus arrived in Houston, a harp festival was in progress at the venue at which they were to play that night. "There were about 11 harps on stage," said Morrissey, and the musicians asked if Mr. Cunningham would honor them by sitting in.

Mr. Cunningham was back in the bus sleeping off the previous night's excess. Morrissey woke him. Mr. Cunningham quickly got dressed and stepped out from his hangover and onto the stage. "I'm not at my best," he explained to the audience in his thick Scottish accent. "I had many margaritas last night. I was lying in me bunk and heard this beautiful harp music and I thought me liver had gone out for good this time."

He leaves his mother, Mary of Scotland; a brother, Philip, also of Scotland; a sister, Laura of Scotland; and his companion, Trisha McCormick of New York City.

His family will receive friends from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday in the Parish Hall of St. Mark's Church in New York City. A memorial service will be held in New Bedford in January.

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