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Thread: OBITUARY - John ‘Johnny’ Gray, musician, Born: 05.05.1953 Thurso died 12.07.22

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    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 at the 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.

    See a longer version at https://community.caithness.org/article/6812

    Click image for larger version. 

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    Last edited by Bill Fernie; 23-Aug-22 at 19:52.

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