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DRUMMING MAN CUNNINGHAM
Mark Lewisohn catches up with the ace drummer and discovers he's actually carrying out the family tradition
It's an unusual situation tor Blair Cunningham. He's already been a part of the Macca band for 18 months yet relatively few fans have had a chance to enjoy his fine playing. Joining the set-up after the World Tour he's only been seen, publicly, on a few 'All My Trials' TV spots, Unplugged and in those six "secret" summer shows: in Harlesden, St Austell, Westcliff, Copenhagen, Barcelona and Naples.
But he's very well-established all the same, and (as "Watching The Perfcctivcs" elsewhere in this issue underlines) will certainly be evident on the forthcoming band album, and the tour to follow. Small in stature he may be, but he's big on drums.
Which is not surprising really, considering that Blair has nine brothers and they are all — yes, all — drummers. Not to mention several cousins who are also active working musicians. "My Mum always said 'Why don't somebody pick up another instrument?'", Blair laughs (as he so frequently does), acknowledging that her plea fell on deaf ears — little wonder, bearing in mind that there were ten drummers around the house.
Home now is London but then it was Memphis, Tennessee and Blair doesn't have to think hard to impart some long-distance information about his formative years. Born of American parents in October 1957 (so he's now 34) he grew up with the sounds of the locally-based legendary Stax record label ringing in his ears — some of his brothers were session musicians or in bands, and star names in the world of soul were friends of the family. "Everybody knew everybody," Blair recalls, "and I always used to hang out in the studios, despite shouts of 'Get off those drums you little rat!' I was a kid but still it was fun, hanging out with people like Isaac Hayes. They'd call your Mum 'Mum' because it was like family. Roy, the fifth brother, is still playing the Memphis circuit, which I was doing before I came to England, and my brother Carl was in the Bar-Kays with Otis Redding. He died with him in the plane crash in December 1967, when I was 10."
The much-used family drum kit was set up in the garage and the young Blair used to sit and watch his brothers play, learning all the while. He also used to have a bash himself, if the coast was clear. "If I heard a car coming I'd jump down and pretend to be looking for a hacksaw or a drill or something," he remembers, "then finally came the day when I was so into my playing that I didn't hear my brothers Kelly and Roy coming and I was caught. I froze, but they encouraged me to keep going and then Roy found out that I could do something that he couldn't, so I got their approval."
From then on, music was the obvious career move. Although the teenage Blair avidly devoured the Rolling Stones, the Who and Janis Joplin, Memphis meant mostly soul/R&B and work meant sessions. The first record he drummed on was by one distinctly unknown Alfred Brown. "He was a dentist who really wanted to be a singer/songwriter, but he couldn't sing. I hope to God I still have this record because one line was 'If I die I'll kill you' - he had the right idea but couldn't quite get it across! I was about 17 then."
Word soon spread that there was a hot new drummer in town and very quickly Blair progressed, playing on records by Rufus Thomas, Eddie Floyd and many others, including Anita Ward's 'Ring My Bell', a number one in Britain and America in 1979. "Everything was an experience to me and I played it all, from soul to rock and roll to country music sessions. I was hungry to learn."
The Big Move came in late-1979. "A friend of mine from the Memphis circuit, a guitarist called David Cochran, came to London and suggested I join him to do an album with Philip Rambo. I arrived in Baron's Court and I've been based here ever since. Well, apart, that is, from some Immigration trouble. Mum always said 'Tell the truth and shame the devil' so I told the Immigration official at London Airport that I'd be working, even though our work permits hadn't turned up by the time we left America. So I got us deported: we had to fly back home, sit there for 24 hours, get hold of the permits and fly back again: we spent 36 hours travelling for a two-week session!"
After recording and then touring with Philip Rambo, Blair was seen drumming in a London club one evening by an up-and-coming singer called Nick Heyward, as a result of which he was persuaded to join Heyward's group, the then unknown Haircut 100. A few months later "the Haircuts" were the toast of the town and the target of considerable teenybop attention, turning out a succession of hits like 'Favourite Shirts', 'Love Plus One', 'Fantastic Day' and 'Nobody's Fool'. The records still bring in royalties but the band soon found the media heat stifling and broke up. "Just like in every band we had a nice little run but then, because of everyday sagas and traumas, it gets taken away from you," Blair remarks, philosophically.
Very much the thinking man, determined to understand and explore and not just live life, Blair then took the first of several long sabbaticals from work - "a year off to find my bearings" as he puts it. "You get in the studios and on the road and you lose perspective over what's going on, so I like to take as much time off as possible." Although he then helped an unknown singer called Sade get a recording contract Blair resisted an offer to join her band and instead only returned to active work in 1984/5, teaming up with the Explorers — Roxy Music without Bryan Ferry.
This was followed in 1986 by the accomplishment of a long-felt personal desire, to join a band from the north of England. He became a member of Echo and the Bunnymen, the lads from Liverpool. "That was what I really wanted to do. I lived in Liverpool for a bit, in the Adelphi Hotel, and really got into it up there."
The extent to which Blair "got into it" is evident when he speaks: his accent is scarcely American anymore, rather it's a curious mixture of scouse and cockney, with a slight yankee twang. It's the sort of voice you don't take long in recognising.
A spell in Chrissie Hynde's Pretenders came next bringing future McCartney drummer Blair Cunningham into daily contact with future McCartney guitarist Robbie McIntosh and leading to two albums and three years on the road followed by another 12 months off.
It was towards the end of 1990 that Blair, still based oop north, received a call from MPL. "I flew down from Manchester and was driven to Paul's studio where I sort of auditioned along with three other drummers. We just jammed, really. I came down twice and then the job sort of became mine. We did a couple of TV things first, one of which, just before Christmas 1990, was Wogan. I sensed that something was happening and right before we went on Paul called a band meeting. He said, 'We were really excited listening to you play the other day — do you want to join the band?' So I said 'Yeah, alright', someone made some tea and then I suddenly got an attack of the nerves - the cup and saucer were shaking and I had to go to the toilet and throw some cold water on my face.
"When I returned they said they'd been joking, that I wasn't wanted in the band after all. I felt like a lost kid and my face dropped. But this — I found out later - was the joke. I really was being invited in, although it took several phone calls from Richard [Ogden] to convince me that they actually meant it. So I discovered straight away that you've definitely got to have a sense of humour to be in this band! "Then we did Unplugged. I'd never played brushes in my life and really enjoyed it. Music is such a vast experience to go through because there are so many things to learn and keep you excited. I always think, how can any musician get bored with music? Then after Unplugged we did the little shows.
"One thing I found out immediately working with Paul is that he's a workaholic. He's a devoted musician but it's fun working with him, absolute fun, because you know you can try whatever you want. He doesn't want you to look at him as the leader, he wants to be just one of the band."
The McCartneys propensity for vegetarianism is well-known, and it's a lifestyle wholeheartedly shared by drummer Cunningham. "I've always been against eating meat. My Mum thought I was a bit weird, eating butter-beans and corn-bread instead of meat loaf. I'd give that to the dog under the table. Now in England I've got right into eating cakes and pies..."
To use his own words, Blair was "the last little squirt" in a large family (not only the ten brothers but also three sisters), which, four decades on, is now scattered across the States. "I'm the only 'foreigner' at the moment and I think I'll stay living in England. From the first day I landed here in 1979 it's seemed like home. I can go to sleep in peace.
"As for the new album, that's going great. I'm really pleased with it. We're making it stronger and stronger with every session. And then we'll be back on the road, my first time with the band. I can't wait..."
Yes, it's certainly great to have someone like Blair around. It's taken too long in coming, but we'd all like to bid him a sincere and belated welcome. And, honestly Blair, that's no joke...