Obituary - John ‘Johnny' Gray, Musician, Born: 05.05.1953 Thurso Died 12.07.22
23rd August 2022
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22-Aug-22, 14:26#1 Bill Fernie's AvatarBill Fernie Bill Fernie is invisible
Default OBITUARY - John ‘Johnny' Gray, musician, Born: 05.05.1953 Thurso died 12.07.22
OBITUARY by Bill Mowat
John‘Johnny’ Gray, musician/songwriter, Born: 05.05.1953 in Thurso, Caithness. Died. 12.07.2022 at Crossgates, near Dunfermline, Fife.
JohnnyGray, whose funeral service took place at Dunfermline Crematorium on Monday August 15, was arguably the most charismatic musician of the rock era that the North of Scotland has produced.
He will always be associated with Spiggy Topes, his first professional band. Spiggy Topes toured Scotland, literally from Gretna to Shetland from their base in Aberdeen in the late 1960s and early 1970s and became prominent in the Glasgow rock-club scene from 1970 on. In contrast, many of the gigs in rural towns and Highland villages were self-promoted, with the group taking a couple of stewards with them.
Johnny leaves behind some fine songs that could be suitable for a production update. He was jointly the originator of what later became known as ‘Celtic Rock’ using Highlands and Islands themes with his songs ‘White Ghost’ and ‘Sailor till the Day’, but as part of a much wider programme. Then there are many persons’ pleasant memories of his bass-guitar stage and harmony singing skills.
In the years after Spiggy Topes. Johnny was able to display his musicianship with Fife-based ‘Crooked Jack’ which promised to ‘play and sing folk songs,kid’s songs, silly songs and sentimental Scots ballads’. These were performed at holiday camps during the Scottish tourist seasonwhen they also did children’s events. In winter they toured the Antipodes ; one stop-over at Bankok allowed them to perform at a Burns Supper on January 25 for the British Ambassador to Thailand. Notable also was Johnny Gray’s complete re-writing of the song ‘The Blues Run the Game’ to mark Raith Rovers winning the Scottish League Cup in 1994.
Johnny’s band Spiggy Topes played a link role in the siting of a 100-jobsmusic industry plant in his Caithness home area that lasted almost three decades.
Secondly it played a central role in ensuring better-quality sound output from electric-based bands playing in venues internationally from small clubs to major halls or stadiums from the mid-1970s onwards. The latter flowed directly from the reaction of its road manager to a1971 performance given by both Spiggy Topes and Glasgow’s ‘classical-music’ rockers Beggar’s Opera at the (then) Maryland Club, in Glasgow.
When he was just 17-years-old, Johnny Gray had played ‘live’ to aUK-wide audience of over twenty (20) million with his own composition‘First Time Loser’ during his band’s debut set on Radio 1Club from The Beach Ballroom in Aberdeen.
The BBC’s legendary Scottish producer Ben Lyons had been informed during the preceding evening that the booked English popsters Vanity Fayre had cancelled, giving minimum notice. Lyons asked Aberdeenmusic-promoter Gordon Hardie to nominate a replacement of the most capable and available rock-band in the Granite city, due to the short time available before the UK-wide lunch-time broadcast. But they found out that Spiggy Topes had left their residential caravan home at Nigg, Aberdeen, to catch the early-morning ferry at Scrabster in Caithness to Orkney at Scrabster, Caithness, for two weekend evening dates in Kirkwall.
Grampian Police’s Roads Traffic Section’s aid was sought and they stopped the lad’s van on the A 96 near Elgin, Moray, with a message to telephone Mr Lyons. He told them to turn up in Aberdeen for an 8:00am BBC audition. It became one of only six groups in Scotland to be cleared by the BBC for playing live spots on Radio 1 Club at the time. The massive audience figures occurred during the gap between the outlawing of ‘pirate’ ship-based pop radio and the start-up of commercial radio, one when the BBC had a monopoly of live music.
Johnny Gray was the youngest in a family of ten to boiler-man Robert Grayand his wife Annabel. He spent his first nine years in the three-room early 19thCentury house in Thurso’s town centre; there was no running water and the kitchen and living room had to double as bed-space for thefamily of seven boys and three girls. In 1956 the Grays were allocated a new four-bedroom house on the town council’s Springpark Estate, where Johnny spent the rest of his school-days.
As a 17-year old full-time musician, he wrote a tender love song ‘ A Moment Fine ... Piano Music on My Mind’ for teenage sweetheart Janis Kelly, from Inverness: much later she rose to become the lead soprano with English National Opera and starred in New York’s Broadway in the ‘modern’ opera ‘Prima Donna’ in the 21stC.
Johnny died suddenly in mid-July at his home two miles from Dunfermline thathe shared with his partner of over 30 years Ms Iona Cowper,originally from Cromarty.
He embarked on a full-time career in music at aged 16 in 1969 as bass-guitarist in a newly-formed band with two other Thurso Highschool-leavers 18-year-olds Graham Walker and Roger Niven, all with backgrounds in good-standard local semi-pro groups that they named Spiggy Topes. This was how the satirical ‘Private Eye’ magazine dubbed either Beatle John Lennon or Rolling Stone Mick Jagger, to avoid libel law scrutiny.
The Spiggy Topes band was soon joined by Marek Kluczynski of Inverness as singer, flautist, harmonica and saxophone player. Johnny and Marek became the group’s main song-writing duo and all Spiggy Topes‘s original material was jointly credited.. Before long Marek was joined as Spiggy Topes’ sole road manager ... and doorman when the band was self-promoting in places in the West Highlands and Islands ... by his brother Mike, who died in 2009, aged 59. He later became world famous for the high standards he set in in electric music productions that included epoch-defining events in London’s Hyde Park to mark the 50thanniversary of victory in WWII in front of HM Queen Elizabeth and heads of state including Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin.
A nearly Spiggy Topes tour was to Scotland’s nearest foreign-speaking country; Johnny was in the Faroe Islands when the historic moon-landing was made, but there was no TV service there.
A year later Spiggy Topes received a rapturous welcome on their Faroe return; the girls in Klaksvik, the island’s second-largest town, screamed non-stop as soon as the band struck up.
A live talent-show contest for island music groups organised by a Faroe newspaper, was a feature of winter island life. Readers were also invited to nominate their favourite international act; and that’s why Spiggy Topes were able to follow Ireland’s‘ Taste’(Rory Gallagher) and Canada’s ‘Steppenwolf’ to the ‘World’ top spot.
Niven and Walker left under pressure from parents to retain their Aberdeen University places and were replaced by guitarist Arthur Farrell from Glasgow and drummer Lanarkshire’s Derek ‘Corky’ Weir, with London playing experience. That left Johnny as the sole founding member from Scotland’s ‘white heat of technology’ town, because of the rapid advances in creating a new breed of nuclear reactors, in honing nuclear propulsion systems for RN submarines and being host to America’s most advanced radio station able to contact its submarines below the Atlantic Ocean surface.
Spiggy Topes supported ‘Deep Purple’s Scottish debut at the 1,900 seat Electric Garden in Glasgow and soon they were regular performers atthe city’s main clubs … as bill-toppers at the Buchanan Street’s Picasso Club, and at student Unions all over West Central Scotland, as well as regularly appearing at the City’s Burns Howff.
Early in its career Spiggy Topes members did a spot of recording at thetwo-track Grampian Records studios in Wick, owned by Jimmy Johnstone, at the site of the present Heritage Centre, for which traditional Scottish music was the mainstay of its vinyl singles and LP productions.
In the 1969 summer, the band members made contact with London music executive Bob Halfin. He took holidays in the North each year with his wife Ena, a Buckie girl whom he met whilst on WWII RN minesweeping duties.
The band members organised a show-piece gig at the Caledonian ballroom in Inverness and the Wick recording boss insisted on meeting Mr Halfin there.
He worked for the UK’s (then) biggest independent music publishing house Campbell Connelly. of London’s Denmark Street, better known as Britain’s Tin Pan Alley, that had just scored big when Otis Redding made its ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ a massive international hit.
This was not long after Dutchman Lou Ottens, of Philips in Eindovn, had invented the small-size music cassette to replace roll-to-roll tapes.
Mr Johnstone was then invited to London to meet Campbell Connelly’s boss Mr Roy Berry. The duo agreed that music cassettes
would take a chunk of vinyl LP album sales. Using music industry finance, Grampian Records was transformed into the firm running Scotland’s only cassette factory. In 2004, a group of academics doing a report for the Scottish Development Agency noted that Grampian Records was Scotland’s second-largest music plant by employment numbers. But a move to CD production failed, so the plant was closed when newer technology overtook cassettes. But the Spiggy Topes legacy there had lasted almost three decades.
The joint billing with Glasgow’s Beggar’s Opera at the city’s Maryland Club saw Johnny Gray on stage with his band.
To save on turnaround times, Spiggy Topes agreed to play through the Glasgow’s band’s brand-new ‘stack’ of loudspeakers made by Marshall Amplification, with its cabinets externally finished in white faux-leather. This was said to be ‘state of the art’ for top quality sound from rock-groups; it was in stark contrast to Spiggy Topes’s sparse, unique second-hand and partly home-made gear.
Spiggy Topes’ PA (public address) system was painted in unfashionable battle-ship grey. Roadie Mike Kluczynski, a keen boyhood amateur radio fan, firmly believed that Spiggy Topes’s second-hand former Ministry of Defence equipment was superior to amplification aimed at the teenage beat-group market. Its only concession to modernity were the single speakers that bassist Johnny and guitarist Arthur Farrell each played through, both hand-
made in Newcastle-upon-Tyne by Greg Burman and incorporating several suggestions made by Mike.
Mike was walking round the Maryland Club’s main floor when he was approached by five separate music fans, all stating that Spiggy Topes’ sound was not up to its usual quality.
Exasperated Mike finally blurted out : ‘It’s that crap we’re playing through tonight’, referring to Beggar’s Opera new amplifier ‘stack’.
Within three years, Mike Kluczynski had reached the senior role in charge of album chart-toppers Pink Floyd’s touring sound & vision gear. Mike’s innovations and inventions were adopted by Jim Marshall for his company’s amplifier output. The younger Kluczynski went on lead the small Britannia Row technical team aiming to ensure that British-built amplification was always competitive with products from America’s Silicon Valley that had swamped other UK electronics firms.
As well as playing on stage and song-writing, Johnny Gray’s main task with the bands was liaison with Scots music promoters especially Albert Bonici of LCB Agency in Elgin plus John McGlone and his business partner Brian Adams, of InterCity Entertainments in Glasgow.
The big disappointment of Johnny Gray’s early career came in June 1970 when Scotland’s planned first-ever outdoor rock festival … dubbed ‘Scene 70’ … at Hampden Park was cancelled with only three days’ notice. Spiggy Topes was one of only three Scots bands invited in an international line-up bill headed by classy American singer-songwriter Chuck Berry.
Spiggy Topes backed many ‘hit parade’ English bands, including Slade (several times) and Fleetwood Mac, but little did members think that one day they would share the latter’s manager, Mr Clifford Davis.
One evening in Forres, they were backing Toe Fat, whose singer was Cliff Bennett, who had two 1960s hit singles with The RebelRousers.
Most chart ‘stars’ stayed in their dressing rooms when the support band was playing, but members noted that Bennett (born 1940) was carefully watching and listening to Spiggy Topes in action. He confided to them afterwards that he was unhappy with one member of Toe Fat and promised to keep in touch.
Within three months Cliff had a proposal; he would ditch ‘Toe Fat’ and replace them with Spiggy Topes so long as they agreed to change their name to ‘Rebellion’, as the former one could not be legally registered. They would directly come under Fleetwood Mac’s manager, who would produce an LP album plus several singles and secure a release for those on the prestigious US-owned CBS record-label. The album was critically well received, sold well in Scotland but poorly in other markets. One critic wrote: ’This album is loaded with originals that a mostly the work of bassist John Gray and flautist Marek Kluczynski, who do a decent job of supplying a soul-rock template through which Bennett can show off his voice
and elevate their work’.
It was re-issued in CD form, with the singles added, in 2008, when one reviewer stated: ’Great album, definitely a hidden gem’.
But the deal did not work out. Johnny Gray and his band-mates surmised that this was perhaps because an English band with previous hits wanted Mr Davis to manage them. This reduced the investment that could be made in Rebellion, including promoting the album as part of the package.
After that, Johnny Gray spent time with several rock outfits including one called ‘Heidi’, with Glaswegian Brian Robertson (ex-Thin Lizzie) as guitarist.
Another stint was with coloured American R&B singer Curtis Knight, who made a career out of claiming to have ‘discovered’ guitar ace Jimi Hendrix.
Spiggy Topes numbers feature on two compilations; a vinyl disc dubbed ‘A Bucketful of Rubbish’ featuring British late 1960s progressive bands was published in 1993 in America and features four Spiggy Topes numbers. Those include ‘Come Away Melinda’, its version of an anti-war American song that was recorded at Grampian Records studios in Wick and is available on ‘Youtube’. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mIYd0JtCtsY
Another is ’Mister Sullivan’, the only song written by guitarist
Arthur Farrell that was included in the band’s regular stage playlist.
One of its ‘originals’ not written by its ‘in house’ duo was an instrumental called ‘Love in the Wind’. This Spiggy Topes number is included in a five CD package of late 1960s Scottish material called C’mon, C’mon’ on the Particles label, published in 2020.
Johnny Gray leaves Iona. Two of his siblings were ‘high-fliers’ in their fields. His late brother Duncan was the most successful club manager of amateur football in the Highlands and Islands with Pentland United. His brother Jimmy, who was largely involved in the funeral arrangements, was long-service Trade Union Shop-Stewards Convener at the 4,000 employee McDermott Scotland oil yard at Ardersier, near Inverness, that is now closed. Afterwards
as an elected Highland Councillor, Jimmy went on to be the first-ever Labour Party member to be chosen as Provost of Inverness.