Andy M Stewart : 1952-2015

Singer and songwriter who was part of the resurgence of Scottish folk music. 

Born: 8 September, 1952, in Alyth, Perthshire. Died: 27 December, 2015, in Melrose, Roxburghshire. Aged 63.

Andy M Stewart was a Scots singer and songwriter who was at the forefront of a resurgent contemporary Scottish folk scene in the 1970s as the voice of the Edinburgh-formed group Silly Wizard. In their early days the band held a residency at the small but popular Triangle Folk Club in the city, a Saturday night haunt which typified Edinburgh’s rich folk scene of the time alongside venues like the Crown and Edinburgh Folk Club; at the height of their popularity they toured to great appreciation in Europe and the United States – and sold out an annual engagement at the Playhouse during the Edinburgh Festival.

The reasons for Silly Wizard’s success were many, but easy to broadly sum up: on the one hand, the striking musical virtuosity of the prodigiously talented young brothers Johnny and Phil Cunningham from Portobello, on the other the marvellously soft but powerful vocal ability of Stewart, and in between the skills of key prime-era members Gordon Jones and Martin Hadden.

A well-spoken raconteur on the live stage, whose ability to introduce his songs informatively and with genuine humour enhanced the experience of hearing them, Stewart wrote music and lyrics which are – particularly in the case of his ballads – rich and still freshly emotive.

A skilled banjo player who used his middle initial to distinguish himself from the elder Scots singer who shared his name, Stewart’s skills lay in interpreting Scottish folk standards and in writing additions to the canon which were at once traditional and modern. His songs ran a range of emotions from the delicate romance of The Queen of Argyll to the knowing humour of The Ramblin’ Rover. Now he’s gone, the latter’s choral “if you’ve been a man of action / though you’re lying there in traction / you will get some satisfaction / thinking ‘Jesus, at least I tried’” lines are lent added poignancy.

Born in Alyth to a musical family, Stewart went to Blairgowrie High School, where his classmates included the future musicians and sometime Silly Wizard members Dougie MacLean (most famous now for his composition of the song Caledonia) and Hadden. As a means of combatting boredom, the trio and other friends played music together at school and each other’s homes, and even as they listened to then relatively obscure Scottish folk, they also took influence from the growing Irish folk scene. Their young group (Puddock’s Well) played backing at a local folk club and toured their way around the Highlands.

At the same time, in Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh University students Gordon Jones and Bob Thomas formed the basis of the band later known as Silly Wizard (named after their flatmate’s in-the-works children’s book). They added talented 15-year-old fiddle player Johnny Cunningham – then still at school, meaning the group would often have to drive all night to get him to the school gates in the morning after distant engagements.

Playing Edinburgh University Folk Club and also touring the Highlands, they briefly added a female singer named Maddelaine Taylor in 1972 and signed to Transatlantic Records, for whom they recorded a never-to-be-released album.

Regrouping following the album incident and Taylor’s departure, the band decided to bolster their sound by adding a second guitarist and a more accomplished singer than Jones, who was uncertain about singing Scots songs in his Liverpudlian accent. Having previously played and become friends with the recently-split Padden’s Well in Blairgowrie, they invited Stewart to take over on vocal duties, and he accepted.

Their self-titled debut album proper was released in 1976, and shortly after this the group settled into its classic core line-up of Stewart, Jones, Hadden, Johnny Cunningham and the latter’s newly-recruited brother Phil, slimmed down to a quintet by Thomas’s departure to get married and start a new career. Other sometime members included MacLean for a brief six months and the late Rezillos bassist Alasdair Donaldson.

In the 12 years that Stewart was the singer with Silly Wizard, they enjoyed enduring success on the folk scene – despite fans’ initial wariness on account of their willingness to break the boundary regarding electric instruments, which traditionalists disliked.

They released nine albums between 1976 and 1988, including Caledonia’s Hardy Sons in 1978, So Many Partings in 1980 and the more electronic A Glint of Silver in 1986, and notably recorded the theme song for Scots soap opera Take the High Road, a variation on Loch Lomond.

An engagement to play a modest show at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in 1979 ended with the group being approached by an American booker – she got them 20 minutes on the bottom of the bill at that year’s Philadelphia Folk Festival, and the reception they received encouraged them towards a new level of international success. They were arguably more popular in the US and Europe – particularly Germany – than at home, playing 200 gigs in one year at the height of their success.

When Silly Wizard split unannounced in 1988 after a successful US tour, it was as a result of mutual belief that they had taken the band as far as it would go, rather than any commercial waning. In the decade which followed, Stewart released four solo albums (By the Hush, Songs of Robert Burns, Man in the Moon and Donegal Rain), and later three more in collaboration with Manus Lunny of Capercaillie – Fire in the Glen (featuring Phil Cunningham), Dublin Lady and At It Again. In later years Stewart, now based in Stow in the Borders, combined music with lighting design for stage and television.

In a sad final act to a life of musical accomplishment and pleasure for his listeners, Stewart last hit the headlines in March 2015, when his sister Angie announced that he was paralysed from the chest down as a result of medical difficulties including failed spinal surgery in 2012. Her attempt to crowdfund care for her brother was met with a generous response, but just nine months later Stewart died in hospital after suffering a stroke and a bout of pneumonia.

“I suppose I’d like a legacy really of just being remembered fondly by whomever, my friends and the folk I left behind,” Stewart told folk magazine Dirty Linen in 1991. “It would be nice for them to remember me in a positive way. It would be nice for my songs to survive. It would be nice for my family. I’d like them to last.”

He is survived by his son Donald.

The Scotsman

Acclaimed folk singer and songwriter who made
his name as a member of the much-loved Silly Wizard

Stewart was a song interpreter, songwriter and raconteur, 
and achieved a place in the pantheon of Scottish musicians

Andy M Stewart performing with friends in 2011- YouTube

Andy M Stewart grew to become one of the most accomplished musicians of his generation in Scotland's protean folk scene of the 1970s and '80s. Coming to the fore first with Silly Wizard, as a song interpreter, songwriter and raconteur, he achieved a place in the pantheon of Scottish musicians.

A measure of their impact is that the Silly Wizard entry in Irwin and Lyndon Stambler's hefty Folk & Blues Encyclopedia (2001) is slightly longer than Simon & Garfunkel's. Later, he performed and recorded as a solo act and in an enduring partnership with Manus Lunny, the guitarist and bouzouki player with Moving Hearts and Capercaillie, and another with Patrick Street's Gerry O'Beirne.

Born Andrew Michael Stewart in 1952, he attended Blairgowrie High School, where he joined the house band for the school's folk club. Called Puddock's Well – a puddock is a frog – its pool of talent included three future members of Silly Wizard in Stewart, Dougie MacLean and Martin Hadden. Silly Wizard began life in 1972. Stewart joined in 1974, taking over on lead vocals, and stayed until they split in 1988.

As the band coalesced, they recruited the multi-instrumentalist Phil Cunningham. Stewart invited him to come down to their Liverpool base for a weekend, "got him very drunk" and had him choose between them or marrying his German fiancée ("We saved him!"). In Martin Hadden's case, after Stewart's approach he decided not to go to college. "And his mother threw me out o' the house," Stewart recalled in a 1982 interview with the Los Angeles-based folk magazine Folkscene.

Their music was firmly rooted in traditional Scottish styles but played on acoustic and electric instruments ranging from synthesiser to banjo, from electric bass to fiddle and piano-accordion. "About half of our music or more is self-written," he told Folkscene, "but it's done in the traditional style. Folk had been asking us where do we get tunes and where do we get songs, so we started to own up to having written 'em." The Andy M Stewart Songbook (1998) contained 60 of his own compositions.

The band's most striking non-musical element was its stage banter; their stream-of-consciousness song introductions were especially prized. Aside from informing audiences about what was coming next, Stewart and Cunningham in particular used each other as foils for wisecracks and spur-of-the-moment digressions. The sheer deliciousness of their stage repartee could give Billy Connolly a good run for his money.

Over their lifespan they released 10 studio or live albums – and even a single of the theme music to the Scottish television soap Take the High Road. Live Again, released in 2012, repackaged a 1983 concert recording from Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, Massachussetts; it reminds how strong their overseas followings were. Bar a partial reunion at Celtic Connections in Glasgow in February 2007, their final appearance took place in Voorheesville, New York in April 1988.

After their disbandment he launched a solo career, one highlight of which was his Songs of Robert Burns (1990). While it featured frequently encountered repertoire items such as "Is There for Honest Poverty (For A' That)", "Ae Fond Kiss" and "Red Red Rose", he branched out with more obscure fare like "Hey, Ca' Thro", "It Was A' for Our Rightfu' King", "The Lea-Rig" and "To the Weaver's Gin Ye Go".

In her Listener's Guide to Folk Music (1983), the Californian-based writer Sarah Lifton declared, "Nearly all the Scottish bands of note can boast excellent instrumentalists and at least one or two fine singers, but only Silly Wizard has all that and Andy Stewart."

Andrew M Stewart, folk singer, instrumentalist and songwriter: born Alyth, Perthshire 8 September 1952; married Kathy (marriage dissolved; one son); died Melrose, Roxburghshire, 27 December 2015.

The Independent

The Legacy of a Not-So-Silly Wizard

…. My thoughts wandered, as the train rolled quietly through the new-fallen snow, to those who had laid the foundations of the folk and trad revival,  and in particular to the recent sad loss of one of the most inspirational musicians responsible for injecting that resurgence with a burst of exciting new life, Andy M Stewart. 

Born in Perth-shire, Andy (who used his middle initial M to differentiate himself from the White Heather Club entertainer of the same name) went to school with Dougie MacLean and Martin Hadden, where they formed a group called Puddock's Well.  They all, at different times, went on to join the young Edinburgh band, Silly Wizard, with Andy taking on vocals, tenor banjo and tin whistle duties for the next twelve years. 

The prodigious virtuosity of teenage brothers, Phil and Johnny Cunningham, was marking Silly Wizard out as a ground-breaking new force on the folk scene, their supreme musicianship on fast fiery tunes, traditional and original, infusing the music with hugely exciting energy.  With Andy's passionate and powerful interpretation of Scottish folk songs, and humorous warmth as onstage raconteur, this band of top class musicians quickly gained widespread popularity during lengthy tours of the USA and Europe, and going on to become one of the most influential folk groups of recent times. 

It was Andy M Stewart's song-writing and delivery however which, for me, took Silly Wizard to a different level.  I recall, as a young teenager, my eldest sister returning from University with albums, the like of which I'd not heard (we had no television at home) and whose very names sounded exciting...Moving Hearts, Planxty, Ossian....but it was when I heard Silly Wizard that something was truly fired in my brain!  When I bought their LP Live In America  it immediately became, and remains, one of my all-time favourite albums, and it was Andy's songs that I replayed and replayed until the vinyl was nearly worn through. 

He wrote ballads which sounded at once traditional and modern; songs like The Queen Of Argyll and Valley Of Strathmore felt as though they had always been there, his clear, soft voice filling them with warm emotion, and then his comic genius surfacing in songs like Ramblin' Rover, which I can vouch were sung, albeit somewhat drunkenly, at parties across Glasgow's west end and no doubt also much further afield.  I unfortunately never got to see Silly Wizard live before they broke up in 1988 but was lucky enough to see Andy playing with Manus Lunny of Capercaillie, and it was, of course, a wonderful and unforgettable concert, where his personality shone as brightly as their music.

Post-Silly Wizard, Andy went on to record many more highly acclaimed albums, and continued to perform, write and tour until ill-health overtook him.  Failed spinal surgery rendered him paralysed from the chest down just last year and he sadly died just a few weeks ago after suffering a stroke and a bout of pneumonia. 

The influence of Silly Wizard cannot be overstated and, in recognition of this, the band were inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall Of Fame in 2012.  Andy's own contribution to the canon of folk song was immense; his became one of the defining voices of modern Scottish folk music, and his songs touched countless hearts and lives with their emotive lyrics, gorgeous melodies and warm humour.  The tributes that have flooded in since his death, from so many of the folk world's leading lights, reflect the esteem in which he was held and the far-reaching, abundant legacy he has left, and I would guess that very few performers, young or old, at Celtic Connections – this year or any year -  were not inspired, influenced or touched in some way by the magic of that particular wizard.   Findlay Napier, Bar Room Mountaineer and one of a younger generation of acclaimed songwriters and performers, got it spot-on when he described him on Twitter as "Folk music legend.”  

Rest in peace, Andy.

Lisa Mulholland
The Highland Times

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