Fionna Duncan, June 2018, by Sean Purser
When singer Fionna Duncan received the call telling her that she was to be the recipient of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the Scottish Jazz Awards, she took the night off cooking – heading instead for a celebratory dinner at the local Chinese restaurant with her partner, veteran bass player (and winner of the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award) Ronnie Rae. And she also began a trip down memory lane which pretty much lasted until Sunday evening’s ceremony.
“I realised when I put the phone down that it’s nearly 60 years since I won my first award,” laughs Duncan. “It was at the JazzBeat 1960 awards at the St Andrew’s Halls in Glasgow, when I was with the Clyde Valley Stompers. I don’t actually remember anything about the night at all!”
Piecing together when things happened and in what order has been something of a challenge for Duncan, but then she is looking back over a life that’s had more twists and turns, ups and downs than most. “My life seems to have been a series of mishaps,” she chuckles, “but I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Which is entirely understandable when you consider that one of her proudest moments was meeting and being admired by the greatest jazz legend of them all, Louis Armstrong, when she was the singer with the band, Forrie Cairns’ Clansmen, that was supporting him on the bill in Bridlington in 1962. But it’s maybe less understandable when you consider such setbacks as having to spend a full year in hospital in her early thirties, or having to make her debut at Green’s Playhouse in Glasgow the same day as having every single tooth taken out at the dentist’s.
However, it’s perhaps not surprising that Duncan – who, at 78, is as ebullient as ever – has such a “no regrets” perspective on her own life: she is known for her optimistic outlook and ability to find and focus on the positive, a trait that has made her a sort of fairy godmother to younger musicians and enabled her to add teaching to her list of accomplishments relatively late on in her singing career.
That singing career swung into action before Duncan had even left Rutherglen Academy, where one of her teachers – Norman Buchan – got her involved in the folk music scene. Duncan, who had been taught to play guitar by her engineer father, began to take part in competitions, singing and accompanying herself on the ukulele. One of the most memorable was a talent contest organised by Hoover in Kilmarnock.
“My friend’s dad was the managing director of Hoover and they asked me to take part – though I didn’t really want to. I went along and reluctantly sang two songs – and won. The prize was a Hoover iron, an electric kettle, the chance to make a recording and an audition for TV.” Around this stage, the talented teen spent a lot of time trying to dodge small-time impresarios who wanted to put her on the bill of local theatres on the west coast. “I’d have had my name up in coloured chalk! That was the level of the Clyde circuit,” she recalls with a shudder.
A much more tempting offer came during Duncan’s ten-month visit to the States, with her parents, in 1957. “I became friends with this girl, Ann White, who had cerebral palsy, and whose dad was a millionaire. She was a talented songwriter and she told her father that she wanted me to record some of her songs so we went to New York and traipsed around the record companies there.”
At Riverside, the label whose roster of stars at that time included Chet Baker and Thelonious Monk, Duncan was offered the contract of a lifetime. But she turned it down since it required moving permanently to the States. Still, the trip did provide her with a first-hand experience of the biggest singer of the day, if not of all time – and triggered her ongoing fear of meeting her heroes.
“We were at a reception with people from the recording company, and I saw this man fawning over Frank Sinatra. He put his hand on Sinatra’s shoulder, and Sinatra snapped at him: ‘Get your hand off the material, creep!’ I saw this and thought: ‘Oh f**k, I’m not going to try to speak to him!”
Luckily, other big name stars proved much more approachable. Through a “Rasputin-like” boyfriend in the business, Duncan met Lena Horne in London in the 1960s and confirms that she was every bit as elegant and beguiling in real life as she appears on film.
“She looked amazing – so composed and elegant in a white tailored suit – and she sounded amazing. She did this song The Eagle and Me, just voice and bass, and it made a big impression on me.” So much so that Duncan slips into song, and proves that her memory for good lyrics – in this case those of a protest song – is better than her memory for dates and chronology.
Indeed, there’s some dispute between them over when exactly Duncan met Forrie Cairns, the Glasgow-born clarinettist with whom she worked in various trad bands over the years – but what they do agree on is that it was during the auditions for Stars in Your Eyes, the TV show which she went on to win, and that the first song he heard her perform was Jimmie Rodgers’s hit, Honeycomb – which, of course, Duncan pauses her story to sing.
“It suited my ukulele playing because, like many of these tunes, it only had three chords – and that was about my stretch,” she laughs. “When I got on the TV show Stars in Your Eyes, they put me with Geraldo’s orchestra. They said to me: ‘Do you want to leave the ukulele?’ And I said ‘no, I need it!’ I was singing Pennies From Heaven while this stagehand was dropping great clumps of coins onto the stage from above – like missiles.”
Cairns recalls: “When I heard her for the first time, I immediately asked her if she would be interested in joining my group. She said she would have to ask her mother! Fortunately, her mum said yes and we appeared the following Saturday night at Whitecraigs Tennis Club.”
From the Forrie Cairns All Stars, Duncan and Cairns were recruited into the hugely popular Clyde Valley Stompers, led by Ian Menzies, and it was with the Stompers in 1959 that the gravelly, bluesy, Americanised Duncan vocals were first recorded – on the LP Have Tartan Will Trad. The JazzBeat award for Top Singer followed soon afterwards.
It’s little wonder Duncan doesn’t remember details as she was on such a gruelling treadmill at the time – this was, after all, the age of the trad jazz revival, when jazz bands regularly topped the pop charts and filled dance halls.
“I never got time off,” she explains. “I sang in Dundee with the mumps because Ian Menzies said it was just swollen glands. It was awful. I thought my face would never go back to normal.” When Duncan, Forrie Cairns and his pianist brother John were all injured in a late night car crash in September 1959, it was front page news in Scotland. Two days later, Menzies assured Evening Times readers that the trio would be out of hospital and on the stage that night “at a Woodend tennis club hop”.
In 1971, following an accident abroad which left her with five slipped discs and resulted in a year in hospital, Duncan decided to jack in the singing game altogether. “All I could think about was the pain – the idea of sitting in vans all day put me off returning. I decided to train as a hairdresser and really liked it – it was the first time I had had any female friends; in the bands it was all men.”
However, it turned out that hairdressing was not Duncan’s calling and she gradually returned to full-time singing, a transition that ushered in a chapter of her life which included setting up home with her partner, bass player extraordinaire Ronnie Rae, and forming her own trio – Rae, plus two up-and-coming talents, Brian Kellock (piano) and John Rae (drums) – in the mid-1980s.
It also included a broadening of her repertoire and development of her style through working with younger musicians and through participation in workshops in the States; a format which she brought back to Scotland with her fondly remembered Fionna Duncan Vocal Jazz Workshops which ran during the Glasgow Jazz Festival for more than a decade.
These days, Duncan performs less frequently – though she notched up both Edinburgh Jazz Festival and Fringe appearances last summer – but is regularly called upon for her teaching skills at jazz singing workshops, the next of which takes place in August. Until then, expect her to be busy rearranging the mantelpiece in her Garelochhead home so that the household’s latest Lifetime Achievement Award is centre stage ….
* Fionna Duncan is one of the tutors on the Pathhead Vocal Jazz Workshop which runs August 18-19. For more information, visit www.sophiebancroft.co.uk/teaching/workshops
First published in The Herald, June 9