The Henry McCullough Interview
Henry McCullough began his musical career in the early 60s with the show band the Skyrockets in Ireland. He later moved to London, and with his band Eire Apparent, toured on bills with Pink Floyd, the Move and Jimi Hendrix. From there, he played in Joe Cocker’s Grease Band, even joining the singer at Woodstock. Then, of course, as the lead guitarist for Paul McCartney & Wings, he played that iconic lead on “My Love.”
McCullough has utilized his guitar skills with just about everybody. He’s also released some spectacular solo albums that showcase his amazing range of influences. I had the occasion to speak to McCullough about his solo album, Unfinished Business, originally released in 2002 album and reissued in the Summer of 2011, as well as other highpoints of his illustrious career.
Here’s a little trivia for you: The next time you’re spinning Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon and you hear, “I don't know, I was really drunk at the time,” think about Henry McCullough because he’s the one who spoke those words. Paul and Linda McCartney apparently didn’t make the cut.
What I was most struck with was the wide variety of music on Unfinished Business. You seem to be a guy with lots of influences you digested and made your own.
It comes from learning to play during a period when I joined bands at 17, on the far side of Northern Ireland, a generation of show bands which were a bit more colorful. It was an apprenticeship that included all sorts of stuff and continued in my life when I was young and innocent and took that stuff in stride.
It sounds like a lot of lot of American country music and bluegrass in the mix. Where does that come from?
The history of Ireland and Scottish music includes fiddles and all those kinds of instruments, and those people immigrated to America so a lot of American blues/country has a connection to Irish melodies. It was no different to me as a young man listening to the Beatles, the Stones, and the Animals as it was prior to that listening to Hank Williams, John Lee Hooker, and Gene Vincent.
In your career, you seem to have taken to stepping out front, releasing solo albums as well as doing sessions and being a band member.
Well, with the Grease Band, one day I just found myself singing because Joe (Cocker) just went off, and said, “I’m going to America for four years” and the Grease Band was dumped. So I was floundering and Alan Spenner, the bass player, and I felt, “Hey, that country thing sounds great!” I liked that style and it made me want to yelp and shout, so I just went from there.
On top of all your other accomplishments and all the people you’ve played with, you’re also known for one of the most iconic electric guitar leads of all time on Paul McCartney’s “My Love.” I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about that recording.
Well, that was all done in one take, that’s the first thing I can tell you. It was me, George Martin, and Paul in the studio with a 50-piece orchestra, and Paul says, “Henry, I want you to play this for the solo,” and I simply said, “No, I didn’t come in here to be told what to play. I am a guitar player.” So he asks me what I am going to play and I said, “I have absolutely no idea.” (laughs) I didn’t want to be in a band like that. I had done that in shows bands – play this, copy this. So I went into the studio with that orchestra and played that solo, which was one take. What you hear is what I played.
That’s pretty amazing considering how highly regarded that particular solo is.
It was a hell of a stroke of luck. It was unusual for Paul because he always worked in blocks –add to it, take it away, no extended solos. In Wings, you could be given 16 bars to play something but you couldn’t go any further, even if the last four bars were magical. I knew with that solo I had to do this for myself. So I walked back into the control room after and there’s a silence and I thought, “Jesus…” But then Paul came over to me and asked, “Henry, have you been rehearsing that?” I said, “I swear to you I never heard any of those notes before.” It freaked Paul out. He didn’t like to go into the unknown.
Are you still in touch with Sir Paul?
Yes I am. We’ve remained friends for a very long time, in fact, send Christmas cards, etc. In fact, he just played Dublin and I got through to his office to come see the show. They organized it for me, I got backstage to see him and he was so nice and so generous with his words. We had a hug and a little talk. In fact, he said to me, “Henry the guitar player is going to play the solo in ‘My Love,’ are you OK with that?” (laughs) Then he asked what seat I was in, that he might get me to wave to him, that he’d bring me into the picture so to speak during the show. So just before the opening chords, when he was sitting at the piano for “My Love,” he got the lights on me and introduced me to the crowd. I signed more autographs in the toilet at that show than I had in 15 years! The concert was fantastic as well.
How about your own prospects for playing live? I know you play a lot in Scotland, Ireland and even Poland. Any dates planned for the U.S?
It’s very possible. I have a band and I tour, like you said, go off to Scotland for a wee period across the pond. Norway for a few weeks, do Poland and France, have some great musicians over there. I have choice musicians from Japan through t Ireland I can work with and I do so as often as I can. The last few weeks, I just came back from the west of Ireland. As far as the U.S. though, I’ll let things take their course. If there is any kind of strength for it, I am hopeful some gigs will happen in that short period but it all really depends what comes. Things change at the drop of a hat. Confirmed things get pulled, nobody’s fault, some hiccup that has nothing to do with me, but I’d love to get back to America with a band. (McCullough was recently in the States for the Chicago Beatlefest)
I wish you great luck with the reissue of Unfinished Business, touring and continued happiness with your career.
Thank you Ralph, it was great talking with you. Be well.