Tribute to Harrogate’s Brian Dunn: He helped build early British rock n roll

Brian Dunn with family members and  Joe Brown in 1962. Brian is pictured with guitar on the left.
Brian Dunn with family members and Joe Brown in 1962. Brian is pictured with guitar on the left.
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By Graham Chalmers

Obituary

Brian Dunn’s name may seem like the stuff of legends but his was a life which encompassed much of the history of early British rock n roll, as well as the local music scene.

Now, after his passing last week at the age of 75, Harrogate musicians are paying tribute to the man who played for Marty Wilde, Joe Brown and Billy Fury, was friends with The Beatles and Cilla Black and the Rolling Stones and performed babysitting duties for a very young Kim Wilde.

In advance of the talented guitarist and vocalist’s funeral at Stonefall Cemetery in Harrogate tomorrow, Friday, Barry Corbett said Brian had been a man who usually let his music do the talking.

“He was a clever musician, he was fast at learning new guitar parts, And he was a good singer. But he was modest. He didn’t push himself into the limelight. He was always happy to be in a supporting role. He didn’t have that ego.”

Coming from someone whose band famously supported The Beatles at the Royal Hall in 1963 and who has enjoyed as much financial success from the music business as possibly anyone in the Harrogate scene, thanks partly from co-writing songs for The Smurfs, those remarks mean a lot.

Born in Liverpool in March 1940 in the early years of the Second World War, Brian moved to Ripon as a three-year-old when his father got a job at Claro Barracks.

He was the youngest of 11 children but was already making his mark with the guitar at the age of nine and quickly formed his first band with his brother and some school friends.

Called The Grasshoppers, they were soon gigging locally, as and Brian continued to do right through the 1950s and into the early 1960s.

In those pre-Beatles days of starmaker Larry Parnes, the era’s Simon Cowell in some ways, singers were ‘discovered’ by impressarios, then renamed, then allocated a backing band.

It could all have been a million miles from Brian’s life in Ripon until his niece Margot telephoned Brian out of the blue at home one fateful day in 1962. Margot Quantrell was a member of the singing group The Breakaways, who had split away from hit outfit The Vernon Girls who had appeared regularly on Jack Good’s legendary TV music show Oh Boy! in the late 1950s.

Another member of The Breakaways, Vicki Haseman was married to famous ukele-playing rock and roll singer Joe Brown, then one of Britain’s biggest stars.

She was ringing up Brian to tell him Brown needed a rhythm guitarist to join his band the Bruvvers and ask him if he wanted the job?

Brian replied in the affirmative despite being told he would to learn Joe Brown’s entire set overnight.

The chirpy Cockney singer was setting off on his new UK tour the next day.

It was typical of the character of Brian Dunn that he survived this baptism of fire to appear on some of Brown’s seminal recordings of the period such as A Picture of You (a UK number two) and It Only Took A Minute (a UK number six) on Piccadilly Records.

In those package tour days when ‘rock music’ was still finding its feet, Brian found himself playing gigs on the same bill as the likes of the Rolling Stones ans The Beatles.

He met and got to like the latter at shows in the cramped confines of legendary Liverpool venue The Cavern.

Backstage at one show there in 1962, Brian was killing time with an excited George Harrison who said he had a present for him - a free advance copy of their debut single Love Me Do.

Brian replied “no, you’re alright”, seeing George strictly as a friend, rather than a future superstar.

Durning his time as a member of the Bruvvers, Brian also appeared on the big screen in the British rock n roll musical movie What a Crazy World, starring Joe Brown and Marty Wilde.

The latter soon offered him a new role - as guitarist and backing vocalist in his group the Wildcats.

By 1964, Brian was on tour in a world of backstreet digs and theatre gigs with Marty Wilde.

The phenomenal success of The Beatles had transformed the scene but, despite the arrival of a flood of new bands like The Who, this was still largely the era of “Parnes, Shillings and Pence.”

Despite the 60s ‘youth explosion’, the times were still pre-rock music, pre-modern PA systems and, crucialy, pre-musicians getting paid well!

Brian found the rigours of touring and lack of cash not completely to his liking.

Despite his success, he elected to turn his back on life on the road and, indeed, on a career at the highest level.

Brian was also about to get married to local girl Ann, with whom he would have two children - Teresa and Wayne.

He came back to live in Ripon.

He would never quite hit such peaks again, though he did play with a lot of local bands throughout his life - from Barry Corbett and the Mustangs to The Diamonds where his versatility and talent quietly made an impression on everyone he worked with.

At one point he did join the band Wytchwood who won a recording contract and appeared on ITV’s hit talent show New Faces in the post-Beatles, longhaired 1970s.

But he was happy to continue music in a part-time fashion while he paid the bills as a decorator and from a job in a Currys store.

Along the way he appeared for a time in the same band as his son Wayne, a drummer. Brian didn’t usually suffer fools but he was always greatly respected by his peers, and by talented local guitarists who play regularly to this day such as Phil Dean and Rob Donnelly.

In the 1980s he had moved back from Ripon to Harrogate where he was to end his days at sheltered accomodation at Dene Park in Bilton.

The list of musicians both ‘national’ and local Brian played with over half a century would run to a too fantastic length to cover here.

An incredible history of music in a single life.

Brian Dunn’s funeral takes place on Friday, September 18 at Stonefall Cemetery, Harrogate with the wake at Hammerain House/Manhattan Club.

This tribute was compiled with the close help of Des O’Hara and Barrie Corbett.