I was knocked for six on July 20th to learn that the incredible Irish guitarist, songwriter, producer, family man and friend Vinny Baker died suddenly. Aged just 62, Vinny had years left in him and I was always sure that one day he would gain worldwide attention for his art. A master guitarist in many genres who gave freely of his talents teaching and encouraging others to play and record, I first met Vinny when my father Seamus managed The Times, who for most of the 1970’s and early 1980’s were one of Ireland’s biggest bands. Formed from the ashes of Joe Dolan’s original Drifters, members of The Times were often in my dads office when I was a nipper. In particular, I always remember the good humour and the kind and gentle nature of Vinny and Des ‘The Doc’ Doherty, their keyboardist. Both men were fixtures of my childhood as musicians, and as I grew up I followed Vinny as he played with a succession of bands (including one which gave us the cover of “Reeling in the Years” which later sound-tracked the RTE programme of the same name). Two of the big bands for me were Baker Street and Undercover, vehicles for Vinny’s breath-taking guitar. Even though I was too young and legally not allowed to be in venues and pubs I’d sneak out, often on my own with my dad’s blessing or with him as company, to see Undercover rock venues in Mullingar and elsewhere in the midlands that are all long since gone. I couldn’t play a note on a guitar, not would I ever be able to, but I was always in awe of Vinny’s style, and I loved what Undercover did – simple, effective rock n roll. They would extend 2 minute songs to 10 minutes with Vinny adding solos that were beyond belief, and I was chuffed to bits when my sister had Vinny and Undercover as her wedding band!
As I reached the ripe old age of 16 and was tall enough to pass off as an 18 year old I’d follow Vinny in other venues, this time with a pint in hand and able to drag along a few pals to see this amazing guitar player in action. Vinny was my Rory Gallagher, and his band mates in Undercover, son Gary Baker, bassist Jack Weymes and drummer Gerry Byrne were my Gerry McEvoy and Rod de’Ath, the classic Gallagher side-men.
I also followed a duo called the Oliver Brothers, fronted by Marc and Jeremy Oliver, brothers in guitar as they were in life, with Marc handling rhythm and vocals and Jeremy laid back with a glass of milk to his side handling the most amazing lead guitar solos and vocals. They would play under their own name, or as The Cool Cats and they guested in several other bands whenever the mood took them (including an Eagles tribute that were better than the real thing), they were an incredible pair. Jeremy was to me, James Bond incarnate. He drove sports cars but shot to kill with a guitar instead of a gun.
I’d also venture out when I should have been studying for the Leaving to see any of the numerous bands in Mullingar which featured Cani Bruton on bass. Cani was like legendary Joe Dolan drummer Tony Newman, quick with a quip and a savage bass player, almost too good. To a young lad he was cool as fuck, with a fag permanently dangling from his mouth, a box of cigs folded into the arm of his t-shirt and a bottle of Holsten Pils always close at hand. Tommy MacManus in the Yukon had to order crates of Holsten in especially for Cani, and when I started to drink it there was war! Like Vinny, Marc, Jeremy and most of the other local heroes I loved, Cani was a complete and utter gent. Easy going in life as he was with his talents, he was always walking somewhere with a bass guitar on his shoulder, his distinctive stride that of a man who meant business.
Tony Newman was probably the most intelligent drummer who ever sat behind a kit. There would be no drummer jokes around this man, for he used words as weapons. With an acid tongue and an incredibly sharp wit, Tony drummed for many acts in Ireland and the UK (even, it was rumoured, for Bowie and T-Rex) before settling down behind the kit for Joe Dolan. When Joe used to introduce his band I was always cheered loudest for Tony and guitarist Joe Meehan. I loved Tony’s company, and as a child was fascinated by his drum-kit, this huge thing that only a few people would be allowed near. For some reason he let me play it when we used to holiday with the band in Killarney. No other child was let near it. For a couple of years I drummed in a succession of bands that never made it, influenced by Tony and footage of Nick Mason in the Pink Floyd Live in Pompeii video. Tony was indestructible. When he was sick in a hospital in Killucan, before I visited him once I asked if he wanted anything. “Dope,” came his reply. “And none of that brown shit.” I spent a whole weekend trying to score him good grass, which he immediately rolled into a joint and lit in his hospital bed.
On Saturday morning, Vinny Baker died. A suspected heart attack taking him at 62, far too soon. Two Christmases ago Cani Bruton was killed by a heart-attack as he took down Christmas decorations in his home. He wasn’t even 50. Just 47. In Christmas 2004 Jeremy Oliver took his own life, barely into his 40s. Tony Newman died from testicular cancer in his 50’s in May 2000. Four amazing musicians from my childhood, four men who had more of an influence and an effect on me than they ever knew, dead.
When I ran gigs for a living and the men above were alive, I would always try and let them in for free, apart from Newman who would never go. I was lucky to grow up in a house where music was the main source of income, and there was always going to be something written in the stars that I would at least dabble in it for a while. To me these men were stars, and I am eternally grateful for all they did – but they never knew that they did anything. Even if I lost my bollocks on a gig, if they were in the audience, a ‘thank you’ from Vinny, Cani or Jeremy as they left was more than enough for me to know that I was doing the right thing.
I was asked on Saturday as I came to terms with the news that Vinny was dead to write an appreciation for my former newspaper the Westmeath Examiner, a paper where a decade ago I wrote a farewell to Tony Newman. I immediately agreed. They were so good as to put his passing on the front page, and my appreciation on page 2, it’s what Vinny deserved. I hope I did Vinny the right thing, and may God rest his gentle soul.
Vinny Baker – an appreciation by Ronan Casey
In the many tributes that have been paid to the late Vinny Baker, who
has passed away suddenly, the one word that kept cropping up was
“gentleman.” Never has that word been more apt, for Vinny was the
consummate gentleman. A much loved husband, father, grandfather,
musician, producer, songwriter and friend, Vinny was aged just 62 when
he passed away suddenly surrounded by his loving family on Saturday
July 20th 2013.
In a wide and varied career across a vast number of musical genres,
Vinny excelled as a guitarist. Initially influenced by The Beatles and
a Bert Weedon book, Vinny’s first guitar came courtesy of his sister
Elsie. He was soon rated as one of Ireland’s best guitarists by fellow
musicians, fans and peers alike, and he will be remembered as such for
generations to come.
Vinny first came to notice aged 15 with The Uisneach Stars with Davy Joe Fallon and then The Kerbstones alongside Derry Whitelaw, Davy Hynes and the Kirbys after which he joined legendary showband Jim Tobin & The Firehouse. He went to The Plainsmen,and from here his sound lead Real Country, before his major breakthrough came when he was asked to join Mullingar outfit The Times, at that stage one of Ireland’s biggest bands with numerous Top 10 singles and packed concert halls to their name.
They had been formed from the ashes of Joe Dolan’s Drifters, and here Vinny forged a lifelong musical bond with his great friend, keyboardist Des ‘Doc’ Doherty and bassist Jimmy Horan. Most recently, the trio were reunited in the breathtaking Tennessee Breakdown Band, a supergroup featuring some of the midlands finest musicians, Vinny, Des, Jimmy, Pete Mulkearns, Barry Coffey, Claude Whelan and Marty Monaghan. This week Des recalled joyous days and nights with Vinny on the road, and often when the band arrived back to Mullingar from a gig at 4/5am, he and Vinny would immediately go out fishing, catching the sunrise – and the odd fish – before setting off to do it all again the next night.
After his successful stint in The Times Vinny played in a number of
groups, but in the wake of his passing it was astonishing to learn
from his son Gary that when disco began to reign supreme over live
music in Ireland’s venues, Vinny considered hanging up his guitar. He
took a job at Penn, the tennis ball factory in Mullingar which was one
of the town’s big employers. This week he was fondly remembered by
former colleagues as a fair and decent foreman, a gentleman of the
factory floor said one, able to get the job done, and done well.
He worked in an office in Penn as well, where the first half of the day was invariably spent talking music to his colleague Adrian Keaveney. But the guitar was always calling.
It was an unlikely inspiration which lead Vinny back on the path to
being a professional musician. American hard rock guitarist Eddie Van
Halen was doing things with a guitar that few had done before, and his
technical playing inspired Vinny to try new things with the six
string. He was soon back on stage, and even brought his then 14 year
old son Gary with him, touring every inch of Ireland with self-titled
band Baker Street. Gary remembers Vinny’s ‘second act’ fondly. His dad
told him if he was keen to learn guitar, then the road was the best
place to learn. He said it was natural for his dad to be practising
for six hours straight every night. “Dad is upstairs practising” was a
common refrain to callers to the house. He threw himself back in
playing, and after Baker St, he formed the band Undercover, again with
son Gary joining him on stage. Together with Jack Weymes and Gerry
Byrne they rocked the country for over a decade, but Vinny also formed
other bands in different genres as his love of his instrument was so
broad. A lifelong country music and bluegrass fan, a bluesman, a
traditional musician, a rocker, a roller and a midnight soldier, Vinny
brought his artistic interpretations of these genres and more to
venues all over the country. Recently he had several projects and
bands on the go, including the Tennessee Breakdown and Joe Dolan
spin-off group Karen & The Dolans. He was tremendously excited about
his new acoustic group, Hard Station, with lifelong musical pal Joe
Meehan on mandolin/guitar, alongside Johnny Gleeson and Roy Brennan.
The late Mullingar bassist Cani Bruton, who passed away in 2011 also
before his time, was an early member of this group. Only a few weeks
before Vinny himself passed away, Hard Station played an ecstatically
received concert in JJ Smyths, a hard-to-please venue in Dublin. Gary
says his dad came home from it on a high, smiling from ear to ear with
the rich rewards of an appreciative audience ringing in his ears for
As well as being a noted player, Vinny was also rated as one of the
country’s top producers. At their dream home in Newdown, The Downs,
Vinny and wife Josie established Veebee Studios, and hundreds of acts
passed through their doors. Many remember going in without a clue what
way their project should sound, but Vinny’s encouragement, advice and
patience shaped projects all the way to their release. Vinny knew that
a good producer can make even the most nervous musicians great. He
often played on these albums, uncredited on a variety of instruments,
and added to lyrics. He equally showed musicians new tricks and many
left with playing skills freely given to them by this enthralling,
beautiful guitar player. Vinny also taught guitar and passed on his
incomparable talents to many youngsters (and a few more seasoned
learners). “May they forever play on in memory of you,” said the
Mullingar Arts Centre following his passing. Among the many tributes
paid to him by his former students was one who said he would happily
leave his guitar at home, just to be able to hear Vinny play for a few
Vinnny Loved helping others to play as much as he loved playing himself, and he gave freely of his time to many charities, and to playing for the sick, the elderly and to children.
Just over a week before his passing, Vinny and his beloved Tennessee
Breakdown Band were in top form at the Greville Arms Hotel for a
fundraising concert for charity work carried out in Tanzania by his
son Bobbie. Especially for the concert, prolific man that he was,
Vinny recorded an album of originals, and it was touching that at the
concerts conclusion, Bobbie made a speech praising and thanking his
father, who stood centre stage, warmly and modestly receiving the
plaudits. Equally touching was the fact that his entire family were
present, as some live abroad, and they were with him for the duration
of his last week on this earth. Vinny tipped down to Kerry to play
with Karen & The Dolans on Thursday night last, July 18th, and
bandmates and fans remember him being in great form. On Friday he,
wife Josie and all the family travelled to Meath and enjoyed a super
family day together. He was due to play at the weekend, and had
practise sessions lined up with other musicians. However, on Saturday
morning he suddenly took ill, and surrounded by loving wife Josie and
family, he passed away peacefully.
Thousands of tributes have been paid to him, with social media sites
such as Facebook and Twitter full of warm words of comfort for his
family. He leaves behind his loving wife Josie, his children Gary,
Lorna, Bobbie and PJ, his brothers and sisters Gabriel, Des, Harry,
Elsie, Phyllis and Rita, his son-in-law Fab, his daughter-in-law
Caroline and his grandchildren Lucas, Zakk and Erinn who gave him so much pride and joy, mother-in-law, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, nieces, nephew, relatives, a large
circle of friends and his many fans. He was pre-deceased by his
parents Josephine and William, from Ballinagore.
Vinny’s removal was to St. Camillus’ Nursing Centre Chapel, Killucan,
on Monday, after which he returned home for one last night before
funeral mass at St. Camillus’ on Tuesday at 11.30am and a final
journey to Mount Jerome Crematorium in Dublin. As it was for the huge
numbers present, it was another chance to be in awe of the man, but
sadly there would be no encore or a gentle wave goodbye this time.
However, his family, friends and fans can take comfort that the
inspirational qualities this man imparted and gave freely of
throughout his career will last forever.
Ar Dheis De go raibh a h-anam dilis.
Your friend and fan, Ronan.