Another fine review written by Amy Hughes…
Rock guitarists have the unenviable task of comparison, either as mass media idols or underrated geniuses who didn’t get peer recognition during their lifetime. A handful thankfully straddle both hemispheres and if needed, get that extra push by someone who will deep dive into their life & career and emerge with an appreciation that wasn’t there before.
Author (and fan) Paul Salley has brought forth the heart in Little Wing: The Jimmy McCulloch Story (Lotown Publishing, 2021). No one reading this blog should not know McCulloch’s time with Paul McCartney: he was Wings’ lead guitarist from 1974 to 1977 and contributed several defining moments to songs in that time period, most notably the soaring interludes and name-dropped solo in “Junior’s Farm” and the highlight breaks in the live version of “Maybe I’m Amazed” from ‘Wings Over America.’ However, what overshadows all his accomplishments was his sudden death in 1979 at age 26.
As a young child, McCulloch showed himself as a guitar prodigy that belied his stature, literally. Born in Scotland, he was a ‘wee lad’ and many remembrances of him from those much older (including brother Jack) are often laced with warm humor: that he could even hold a guitar are among the repeated stories from his youth.
Coming from a musical family, McCulloch began his vocation with Jack in the local band The Jaygars. Rising in popularity across the UK, they were astonished at the reception and attention that McCulloch (at age 11 in 1964) was receiving. He caught the ear of The Who’s Pete Townshend, which would prove fortuitous in a few short years.
Moving onto another band configuration (One In A Million), the McCulloch brothers were soon on the rise as recording artists with a move to London in 1967. After their band split in early 1968, Jimmy McCulloch the guitarist transformed into Jimmy McCulloch the guitarist with a Number 1 hit. Townshend brought together McCulloch, singer-drummer-songwriter Speedy Keen and pianist Andy Newman to form Thunderclap Newman. The Who’s guitarist wanted to foster a creative environment with musicians he found favor with (Keen had written “Armenia City In The Sky” for ‘The Who Sell Out’) and this quirky ensemble fit the bill. With Townshend as producer, the trio recorded a Keen original “Something In The Air.” The song was released in July 1969 and McCulloch became the youngest person (at 16) to top the UK charts.
While Thunderclap Newman wrestled with the notion of becoming a performing band (and eventually added Jack McCulloch on drums and Jim Avery on bass), the pressures of living up to the newly minted status of rock stars began to take its toll. A 1970 album did emerge (‘Hollywood Dream’), gigs on the road brought notice and television appearances helped elevate McCulloch’s presence, but his commitment to the group began to falter. A summer 1971 US tour with The Who would have brought them high recognition; instead, Thunderclap Newman quietly disbanded.
McCulloch was finding his feet within the world of UK rock, however his next big move – working and touring with John Mayall – had an enormous impact on his post as a guitarist. Within three days of a phone call, McCulloch was on stage in Germany playing the blues next to the legendary statesman, who remarked later that McCulloch “had a lot of potential as an individual stylist.”
A short-lived namesake group was a time-filler for McCulloch’s next spotlight gig: Stone The Crows. Having tragically lost guitarist Les Harvey in a freak on-stage electrocution, the band were seeking out a replacement. McCulloch came to an audition and impressed everyone, especially vocalist Maggie Bell. His debut in May 1972 and his work on their album-in-progress further showcased his ability to interpret a back catalog on tour (the band’s forte) and break out from the cage of ‘teen idol.’ His position ended in 1973… however there were better days ahead.
McCulloch’s tenure in Wings began with a serendipitous invite from McCartney to attend a recording session in Paris to work on solo tracks for Linda McCartney (which were released on her posthumous ‘Wide Prairie’). This friendly venture set off the chain of events that saw McCulloch work with the band on Mike McCartney’s 1974 release ‘McGear’ (now acknowledged as a ‘lost’ Wings album), which morphed into the new lineup that included drummer Geoff Britton, the McCartneys and Denny Laine.
The group relocated to Nashville in June of 1974 to begin rehearsals, find their chemistry and jell musically. While there was plenty of time to play and relax, McCulloch did catch some trouble with the law with a bit of arrogance that wasn’t appreciated by the local authorities. Although proving himself worthy of a callout in the hard rocking “Junior’s Farm,” the cracks were already showing. During a brief respite, McCulloch nearly left, tempted by an offer to join The James Gang. His reasoning (no official tour plans akin to a lifestyle he enjoyed) nearly spelled the end of his tenure with McCartney. However, when Linda McCartney stepped in (and the offer of a wage arose), McCulloch felt secure enough to stay aboard for the foreseeable future.
The public’s first viewing of the new line-up in November 1974 with the release of “Junior’s Farm/Sally G” and the ensuing sleeve photoshoot, (with McCulloch dressed as a gambler) garnered strong notices in the rock press. His addition to the group reinforced McCartney’s new direction: take this band seriously and by the way, we’re kicking ass as well. Unfortunately, by the time the group were setting up for the ‘Venus and Mars’ sessions, Britton was out.
His replacement – Joe English – slotted in on a recommendation from Wings’ horn player Tony Dorsey. With the group in formation, they alighted in New Orleans during Mardi Gras for the recordings at Sea Saint Studio. ‘Venus and Mars’ dropped in May 1975, shooting to the top of the charts in both the UK and US on the strength of “Listen To What The Man Said.” McCulloch’s contribution “Medicine Jar” (not autobiographical, but inspired but a close friend’s drug addiction) was a hard-rock number and his understated blues-tinged licks on the closing tracks “Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People” were highlights as was Wings’ reinterpretation of the theme to the popular UK series ‘Crossroads’ with McCulloch’s lone voice signing off: “That’s basically it.”
With a solid line-up in place, Wings started rehearsals in the summer, with the intention of hitting the road. The official launch of what would become ‘Wings Over The World’ started in September and met with fan and critical acclaim, including much McCulloch family love when the band hit his hometown of Glasgow, an indication that life was very good for ‘the boy down the road.’ The break over Christmastime and subsequent reconvening in January 1976 for the next album ‘At The Speed Of Sound,’ with McCulloch’s anti-drug composition ‘Wino Junko’ (with it’s ethereal almost wistful melody) wound its way into and around a concepted ‘showcase’ album for each member. The subsequent European dates came off without a hitch, but the US leg was delayed after McCulloch slipped in his Paris hotel bathroom and broke his hand.
The US audiences that experienced those gigs in 1976 saw a band on fire. However, as was the case with alot of what was going on in the rock world of the ‘70s, McCulloch seemed to have a hard time adjusting. To many, he was the whiz kid from Glasgow that had superstardom thrust upon him. Some close friends acknowledged he was a “complex soul” who had a quiet introverted side that juxtaposed with the stroppy Scotsman who’s drinking brought out a gregarious, immature personality. However the overall sentiment from those who had noticed his immense talent was akin to being a parent. As Pete Townshend said, “I was so proud of him.”
McCulloch’s time with Wings now appears to be pre-ordained to end as quickly as it started. While he never seemed comfortable with downtime, his orbit of musician-friends and family had him in gatherings such as White Line and sessions with Roger Daltrey. While there was rampant speculation he was on the outs with McCartney, the 1976 triple album ‘Wings Over America’ (which showcased McCulloch’s standout work on “Maybe I’m Amazed”) dovetailed into the next scheduled Wings project in February 1977. The recording of ‘London Town’ on boats in the Virgin Islands proved precarious at times and when the sessions moved back to the McCartney farm in Scotland in August, McCulloch’s (and English’s) tenure with Wings would soon be over.
The accounts vary from source to source on why and how the split came, but most agree that McCulloch was growing restless and felt that his position should be one of peer recognition and fair compensation. As there would be no touring in the foreseeable future (due to Linda McCartney’s pregnancy), McCulloch took this as note and while he played on several of the farm sessions (one of which resulted in “Mull of Kintyre”), he and English were not part of the ensuing promotion for ‘London Town’s’ release in March 1978. McCulloch had flown Wings.
He was not without a band for long. McCulloch joined the reunited Small Faces and with Steve Marriott, he slotted in beside the fiery guitarist/vocalist. Alongside drummer Kenney Jones, bassist Rick Wills and keyboardist Ian McLagan, they hopped onto gigs in September 1977 and cranked out ‘78 In The Shade.’ Yet with no real original contributions forthcoming, McCulloch once again bade farewell to a band setting.
Most of 1978 and 1979 saw McCulloch moving between projects he either contributed to (charity gigs, testing new guitar technology) or joining up with old colleagues in the hopes of moving on from the shadow of Wings. With The Dukes, that prospect seemed positive and after a spate of gigs in the summer and an album release, the fall of ‘79 was a time to look forward with a Dukes tour.
But that was not to be. McCulloch was found motionless in his London apartment by his brother Jack on September 27. He was 26 years old. Although he had been prescribed medications for various issues, the official cause of death was morphine poisoning. While Jack and close friends believe it was accidental, the circumstances up to and surrounding his death have and will remain a tragedy that can’t be fully explained.
For a large majority of this biography, Salley has remained focused on McCulloch’s brief, but enormous contributions as a guitarist, bandmate, friend and brother. He has included dozens of unseen photos, memorabilia, clippings, interviews, discography, gear gallery and tributes exclusive to this book and with the addition of editor/designer Mark Cunningham, they have put together a visual and tonal layout that elevates this above the run-of-the-mill term ‘self-published.’
For the hard work and details that show throughout and lovingly dedicated to ‘Jimmy Mac,’…
I give this biography 4 out 4 beetles.