Alan Darby – an appreciation

The Fife-born musician, Alan Darby, who has died following a protracted illness, has been described as a “guitar giant” by the Queen guitarist Sir Brian May. Such is the disparity in popular music, one man sells millions of records and is knighted for his trouble while his peer remains largely unknown in his home country.

As a touring and session player, Alan's CV is stellar: having grown up playing Beatles' songs and Eric Clapton riffs in his school band, he later would perform with both Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and tour as second guitar player in the Eric Clapton band. If we then add sessions with Rod Stewart, Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Palmer, Jim Mullen, Heather Small and countless other top-line artistes, a picture emerges which confirms May's assessment of Alan as a truly great player.

Alan was born in Dunfermline in 1952 and attended Dunfermline High School. His father was a civil servant and he had two sisters, one of whom pre-deceased him. He was not initially academic but did achieve a degree in Civil Engineering from Edinburgh University and there he met the musician and lyricist Alastair Robertson, friends of whom were putting together a group in Glasgow. Cado Belle comprised Alan, Colin Tully, Gavin Hodgson, Davy Roy, Stuart McKillop and the outstanding vocalist Maggie Reilly who would go on to record with Mike Oldfield, Jack Bruce and others and who still sustains a creditable solo career.

Alan was a handsome man, a reflective person with a good sense of humour. The group enjoyed some artistic success including an eponymous album (1976) recorded by Fleetwood Mac producer Keith Olsen but commercial success eluded them and, following a Radio Clyde bursary at Berklee Music College in Boston and a small part in the Bill Forsyth film Local Hero, Alan headed for London where he played in the Tommy musical in the West End before a tour of Japan with Les McKeown. He then joined Troy Tate in the eighties group Fashion and worked with Steve Harley's Cockney Rebel and, by that time, his abilities were becoming more widely recognised.

Alan had supreme guitar technique, particularly in the general blues area. His solos were often simple but masterfully constructed and he frequently eschewed effects pedals for purity of tone and vibrato. A visit to Russia with Bonnie Tyler and a tour of the Far East with Robert Palmer were undertaken but, following various upheavals in his private life, he began to unravel whilst touring with Paul Young and a period of alcoholic dependency left him wondering whether he should continue in the music profession.

Thankfully – and with the assistance of Eric Clapton – things took a turn for the better and there was one amusing episode in 2003 when he performed with the house band at the Royal Jubilee Concert at Buckingham Palace. When the artistes came forward for a final bow, a photograph appeared in most newspapers featuring Cliff Richard, Elton John, The Queen, Paul McCartney and – Alan Darby. The Sun in Scotland ran an amusing “Who's this with Alan Darby?” story.

Financially, Alan was also finding his feet. He recorded a solo album for Siren/Virgin in Los Angeles, was music director for one of Lulu's TV series and he became a stalwart of the house band for the West End Queen musical “We Will Rock You.” Besides his multifarious, star-studded sessions, Alan continued to write and record solo and video material and performed latterly with the Guitars De Luxe band in London pubs and clubs.

He first became ill in 2015 but was able to continue playing and appeared at Clapton's Dallas Crossroads blues festival in 2019. Whilst in remission from his illness, he also recorded an album for the Turn Up for Recovery/Crossroads addiction charity and enlisted friends including Paul Carrack, Peter Frampton, Bonnie Raitt – and Ringo Starr who sent a delightful audio message thanking Alan for asking him to play. Alan died in January. He is survived by one son, Luke.

Jim Wilkie