Athough the span of Silly Wizard’s active career was relatively brief and filled with personnel changes, the band became the leading contemporary Scottish folk group of its era. From their origins in folk clubs and school music groups, its members recorded nine albums and built an international follow ing through tours in the United Kingdom, Europe, and North America. After an initial period of resistance from purists, the group also fostered an acceptance of the use of electric instruments in folk music. The band members also wrote much of their own material, the new songs taking their place alongside traditional Scottish folk tunes in the band’s live sets and recorded works.
After the group broke up in 1988, all of Silly Wizard’s members stayed in the music business, either as performers or as recording engineers, producers, or record label owners. Yet they all looked back with pride over what they accomplished during their time in Silly Wizard. “I’d hope that we could have a place in history,” the group’s cofounder, Gordon Jones, explained to Laurie Devine in a February 1993 Dirty Linen interview, adding, “If we made a contribution, it may be that we were the first to write a lot of the tunes and songs that ‘sounded’ traditional without actually being traditional—to incorporate those elements. We did manage to hold it with the feel for the tradition. People have done it since then, but we may have made it obvious that you could do that.”
Two of the founding members of Silly Wizard met as students at Edinburgh (Scotland) University in the late 1960s. Gordon Jones had come to the school from his native Liverpool, England, to study art, while Bob Thomas, a native of Glasgow, Scotland, was enrolled in a veterinary medicine program. The friends played in folk clubs around Edinburgh while they were students. Jones took things a step further when, as president of the Edinburgh University Folk Club, he put together a folk music showcase in the summer of 1969. By the end of 1971, Jones and Thomas shared a flat with several other musicians who came and went during the next year. Conditions in the small apartment were spartan: the future bandmates had to shower at the local public baths because they lacked the facilities at home.
Throughout 1972 the friends made some headway on the Edinburgh club circuit; eventually, they were in such demand that they had to come up with a permanent name so that club and pub owners could publicize their gigs. They took their name from a phrase in a children’s book that a friend was writing: “Silly Wizard.” In September of 1972 Jones and Thomas were joined by Johnny Cunningham, a young fiddle and mandolin player. Another early member, singer Chris Pritchard, quickly joined and left.
With Gordon as vocalist, guitarist, and bodhran (an open-backed, handheld drum; pronounced bo’-ran) player; Thomas as guitarist, mandolinist, and banjo player; and Cunningham on fiddle and mandolin, the first core lineup of Silly Wizard was set. According to band legend, Cunningham was still so young that he was often picked up at school and taken back again the next day when Silly Wizard had out-of-town gigs. In addition to touring around Scotland, the group held regular Saturday-night shows at Edinburgh’s Triangle Folk Club beginning in September of 1972 and even made its first international tour to play in France.
In 1973 the group added vocalist Madelaine Taylor, who also played the guitar, the spoons, and the bodhran. After her arrival, Silly Wizard made its first recording when it was offered a contract with Transatlantic/Xtra Records. Although the group completed an album’s worth of material, the master tapes were later lost and never recovered. Taylor left the group by the end of 1973 and the remaining members continued as a trio until 1974, when bassist Neil Adams joined the group. Adams’s tenure was also short-lived and he left the band the following year.
A more permanent addition arrived in December of 1974 when vocalist Andy M. Stewart, who also played the banjo, joined the band. In addition to writing songs, Stewart added a more authentic Scottish touch to the group’s work. Raised in the small town of Blairgowrie,
For the Record…
Members include Neil Adams (born in England. group member, 1974-75), bass; Johnny Cunningham (born on August 27, 1957, in Edinburgh, Scotland), fiddle, mandolin; Phil Cunningham (born on January 27, 1960, in Edinburgh, Scotland; joined group, c. 1979), keyboards; Martin Hadden (born on May 23, 1957, in Aberdeen, Scotland; joined group, 1976), bass, vocals; Gordon Jones (born on November 21, 1947, in Liverpool, England), guitar, mandolin; Dougie MacLean (born on September 27, 1954, in Blairgowrie, Scotland; group member, c. 1979), guitar, fiddle, vocals); Chris Pritchard (born in Edinburgh, Scotland; group member, c. 1972), vocals; Andy M. Stewart (born in Blairgowrie, Scotland; joined group, 1974), vocals, banjo; Madelaine Taylor (born in Perth, Scotland; group member, 1973), vocals, guitar, bodhran; Bob Thomas (born on July 28, 1950, in Glasgow, Scotland; group member, 1972-79), guitar.
Group formed in Edinburgh, Scotland, 1972; played weekly gigs at Triangle Folk Club in Edinburgh; released debut album, Silly Wizard, 1976; released total of nine full-length albums; played last concert, April 1988.
Addresses: Record company —Green Linnet Records, 43 Beaver Brook Rd., Danbury, CT 06810, website; http://www.greenlinnet.com; Harbour Town Records, P.O. Box 25, Ulverston, Cumbria, LA12 7UN, United Kingdom, website: http://www.harbourtownrecords.com.
Scotland, Stewart had previously been part of another Scottish folk group, Puddock’s Well. With Stewart as the band’s primary singer, Silly Wizard ventured into the recording studio once again. This time, the band was more successful, and the result, Silly Wizard, was released in 1976.
After several years of touring, the group found that its approach to music was finally gaining ground. Bassist Martin Hadden, who joined the lineup in 1976, recalled in an interview with Dirty Linen’s Laurie Devine in October of 1993, “When I joined the Wizard… we went through that whole criticism. ‘You can’t play folk music with an electric instrument.’ The feeling was quite strong then. The [Folk] Revival hadn’t taken over in Scotland, and people had this entrenched attitude…. We were young and pigheaded and we decided we’d play what we liked. Ironically, at the end of the band, we were being seen as conservative in our electronics.” Indeed, after releasing Caledonia’s Hardy Sons in 1978, Silly Wizard played over 200 concerts in one year alone.
By 1979 the band settled on the lineup that became the most familiar to the public. Newly married, founding member Thomas left the band shortly before in order to spend more time at home. In addition to Stewart, Jones, Hadden, and Johnny Cunningham, Cunningham’s brother Phil joined the group on accordion and keyboards. Another member, guitarist and fiddle player Dougie MacLean joined the group only briefly.
The band conducted its first tour of America in the summer of 1979, making it one of the first folk-revival bands to make headway across the Atlantic. The experience of touring, however, took its toll on the group members. “We all knew that one day we wanted families. It wasn’t that typical bragging thing that a lot of young bands have…. We were living it out for that moment, but it was just that,” Hadden told Laurie Devine. In his interview with the journalist, Stewart agreed that the band’s antics were based on both camaraderie and competition. “Oh, it was going constantly,” he remembered. “From the minute you got into the van basically to travel somewhere, it was just… Wind-ups, off-the-wall comments, jokes, stories and red herrings and false trails. It was great stuff!”
Despite a string of well received albums throughout the 1980s, the stress of touring eventually led its members to decide to end the band. Although it never formally announced that it was splitting up, Silly Wizard’s last concert took place in Vorheesville, New York, in April of 1988. Two albums, Live Wizardry—The Best of Silly Wizard in Concert and Golden, Golden, were later released on Green Linnet Records. As Stewart later told Laurie Devine, “[W]hen we sang our last song, there was no doubt on anyone’s mind that that was the end. We did the biggest tour ever, and we had the most fun ever, and then we walked away from it.” For his part, cofounder Jones was pleased that the group had lived up to its founding mission. As he told Laurie Devine, “Taking the music, still being respectful for it, and making it accessible to our generation: The whole point being that you play in the tradition. I don’t think you want to mess around with it too much. You want to play it for now, make it relevant, but not change it.”
After the demise of Silly Wizard in 1988, its members remained in entertainment careers. Jones and Thomas founded Harbourtown Records, a label that specialized in traditional folk recordings. Johnny Cunningham, who relocated to the Boston area, continued to play as a fiddler. His brother, Phil Cunningham, occasionally performed as a keyboardist but made his primary living as a producer. While releasing some solo albums in the 1990s, Andy Stewart also began a career as a lighting designer for theater and television projects. Martin Hadden started a tape duplication service and remained active on the Scottish music scene.
Silly Wizard, Transatlantic/Xtra, 1976.
Caledonia’s Hardy Sons, Highway, 1978.
So Many Partings, Shanachie, 1980.
Wild and Beautiful, Shanachie, 1981.
Kiss the Tears Away, Shanachie, 1983.
The Best of Silly Wizard, Shanachie, 1985.
A Glint of Silver, Green Linnet, 1986.
Live Wizardry—The Best of Silly Wizard in Concert, Green Linnet, 1988.
Golden, Golden, Green Linnet, 1989.
Broughton, Simon, et al., eds., World Music: The Rough Guide, Volume 1, The Rough Guides, 1999.
Dirty Linen, August 1991; February 1993; October 1993.
Harbourtown Records, http://www.harbourtownrecords.com (December 18, 2001).
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