Hall of Fame - Henry McCullough
Trevor Hodgett profiles an on-going NI rock phenomenon
The only Irishman to play at the Woodstock Festival and the guitarist on Paul McCartney and Wings classics like 'My Love', 'Live And Let Die' and 'C Moon' and on the original recording of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, Portstewart-born Henry McCullough’s achievements over decades have been colossal.
And McCullough remains a compelling and charismatic performer who on stage seems a driven man, utterly possessed by the irresistible power of his music. Blending blues, rock’n’roll and country, a McCullough performance is permanently at white heat, the power and passion of his playing and singing capable of enrapturing any audience.
McCullough acknowledges the importance of his early training in Irish showbands, like the Skyrockets and Gene and the Gents, with whom he began his career. 'Being allowed to go out and play music was fantastic,' he recalls with affection. 'We did everything from Jim Reeves to old-time waltzes to comedy to Chuck Berry which stood me in good stead later.'
But with the advent of the mid-sixties beat boom McCullough felt stifled and joined the People who were discovered by Jimi Hendrix’s manager, ex-Animal Chas Chandler, and sent on tours of America and Europe supporting Hendrix and gradually evolving into a psychedelic rock band.
Returning to Ireland McCullough added his electric guitar to folk group Sweeney’s Men, who also included Johnny Moynihan, later of Planxty, and Terry Woods, later of the Pogues, thus helping to invent folk rock. But after a legendary appearance at the 1968 Cambridge Folk Festival he joined Joe Cocker and the Grease Band, recording hit albums and singles and touring internationally - one American tour including that unforgettable Woodstock appearance.
After Cocker went solo McCullough became the Grease Band’s front man for two further acclaimed albums before Paul McCartney headhunted him for Wings. Hits including 'Hi Hi Hi' and 'Mary Had A Little Lamb' followed along with the massively successful album Red Rose Speedway.
McCullough recalls that McCartney often gave his musicians precise instructions on what he wanted them to play. On 'My Love', however, McCullough asserted himself and created one of the greatest solos in all of rock music. 'Five minutes before the take I said, "Listen, I have to change this solo." That panicked him! I didn’t have a clue what I was going to play and if it hadn’t worked out I’d have felt a right fool. But I got it in one take and when I listened to the playback I realised it fitted perfectly.'
After further tours and albums with Frankie Miller, Roy Harper and Ronnie Lane and sessions for Marianne Faithful and others McCullough returned to live and work in Northern Ireland. His many solo albums, such as 2002’s Unfinished Business, have been distinguished by his own compositions including 'Failed Christian', a searing, soul-shredding self-analysis subsequently covered by Nick Lowe, and 'Locked In And We Can’t Get Out', an anguished, despairing howl of pain and horror which is one of the most harrowing songs ever written about the Troubles.