Sunday, 12 September 2010

Sunday Morning Coffee with Phil and the Late Johnny Cunningham

After last week’s no-show I’m happy to be back with you again with two of Scotland’s finest musicians, the brothers Cunningham.  Johnny and Phil have featured in several music posts but now the virtuosos take top billing.

Mug of coffee?  Comfy seat?  Right, let’s go with a session of Scottish music played by two of the best musicians to have come out of Scotland.

The first video is from a Silly Wizard concert in 1986 but here Johnny (fiddle) and Phil (whistle and accordion) play a duet of reels at unbelievable speed.

Unknown Set of Reels

“If they decide to play fast only dogs can hear them”.  I’d believe that.


Both Johnny (1957)and Phil (1960) were born in Portobello on the Eastern outskirts of Edinburgh close to the Firth of Forth.

Johnny left school at 14 to follow music although he didn’t know where or how.  He did follow his Dad’s advice,

"My father said something important to me when I told him I was leaving home (to play music.) '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.'”

Phil lasted a wee bit longer at school – 16.


We have two videos from recorded in 2003 at The John F Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington.  Just a few months later Johnny died suddenly.

The Pearl

This is a beautiful composition of Phil’s to mark their parents’ pearl anniversary.

You can watch the full Kennedy Center show here.


Phil joined Johnny in Silly Wizard, then one of Scotland’s top folk bands and this is where I first encountered their music back in the 19……’s.  Their virtuosity was clear from the very early days.


Our third piece of music is also from 2003 from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival which brought the brothers to their first joint concert for 11 years.

Flett from Flotta plus others and a long story

Sit back and enjoy 14 minutes of entertainment.


Johnny moved to the States where he composed, formed two bands but wherever he went his music and charisma swept all before him.  After his untimely death, Casey Neill wrote the following tribute to Johnny.

King Neptune                                                       Casey Neill

An incredibly moving tribute.  Thanks, Casey.


While Johnny was in the States, Phil flourished as a composer and as a partner to the legendary Shetland fiddler, Aly Bain.


We continue with a set of strathspeys and reels.

Unknown Strathspeys and Reels

The video quality isn’t as good as I had hoped.  The original video has embedding disabled and so I downloaded and uploaded again.

Do they have extra fingers?


 King Holly, King Oak

Not to be outdone by his brother we showcase one of Johnny’s compositions.

The gentleness is wonderful.


Only two songs to go now and here we have a tune of Phil’s with words by Rosanne Cash.

The Secret Life of Roses                 Phil with Andrea Zonn

I’ll put my oar in here: I have written words to two of Phil’s compositions but only I have heard the music and words together  and none have heard my words sung.


We finish up with another beautiful composition of Phil’s.

Sarah’s Song                                                                     Phil

This is our second clip from the Kennedy Center.  I was torn between this accordion-only version and one in which Aly Bain plays the fiddle.

Beauty unbounded.


That two of such talent should appear in Scotland is amazing but within one family well that’s …… !

Each of you has brought so much to the world and will continue to do so. 

In death, Johnny, your greatness shines forever.

Thank you, Johnny.  Thank you, Phil.


Thanks for listening.  Join me next week for another coffee.  You’ll be made very welcome. 


  1. Well done Calum.
    A welcome return to our screens with something extra special.
    And some good advice from Papa Cunningham-
    "If you're going to do this, just do it properly"
    ...and that applies to all of us, whatever we are doing.

  2. Trust the Celts to produce the best music.

  3. James, We'd let you become an honorary Celt if you so desire.

  4. Great musicians and music. Thanks, Calum. I went to the Kennedy Center, and listened to it all. They also have a great sense of humour. I was asked if I liked the presentation. I clicked YES! My name appeared at the top of the video: Claude Prévost Gamble likes this. I went back to see if it was still there. It is! Now I'm part of the Celtic world forever...An honour!