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Obituary By Bill Mowat

JOHN GEORGE  ‘Johnny Fats’ SUTHERLAND, b. 22.08.1944 Thurso, Caithness,  d. 08.12.11 Aberdeen.


John Sutherland, who died in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary on 8th December, two days after a sudden heart attack at his Dunnet Head Lighthouse Cottages home, was the most influential electric blues and rock guitarist that the Highlands has produced.

Known by the stage-names ‘Johnny Fats’, or simply ‘J.Fats’, Sutherland led a succession of ground-breaking blues-inspired bands on stage in England, Europe and North America as well as in his native Scotland for over 40 years.

In the early 1990s, he converted redundant  (on automation) the light-keepers’ cottages on the 400 feet high cliff-top at Dunnet Head, Caithness, the British mainland’s most northerly cape overlooking the Pentland Firth, into a comfortable home for his family and a recording studio with live ‘house’ performance space attracting, amongst others, internationally-renowned blues, rock and folk musicians. The QPQ Productions facility now has 64-track capability and his 31-year-old musician son Isaac is its capable production manager.

A multi-instrumentalist and songwriter with a powerful on-stage voice, Sutherland had a deserved Scotland-wide reputation as an outstanding mentor, facilitator, and instructor to successive generation of young musicians, some of whom have since sustained lengthy careers.

Tributes have poured in from many musicians, including Scots Benny Gallagher (of Gallagher & Lyle performing & song-writing fame), triple UK 1980s ‘Top 20’ singer Jim Diamond and from America, players Paul Barrere and Fred Tackett, of seminal US band ‘Little Feat’ . They played at a Dunnet Head ‘house party’ with Johnny and his son Isaac in 2008 in the lighthouse’s former ‘engine room’. 

Sutherland was brought up at the Glebe housing estate in Thurso, where neighbour Stroma Island native, the late Ian Simpson, a World War II Royal Navyman and Scrabster-based fishing-boat skipper, introduced the young schoolboy to guitar. Simpson had bought the instrument while ashore in Canada to cheer himself up during dangerous North Atlantic crossings on merchant-ship convoy escort duties.

On leaving Thurso High, young Sutherland embarked on a short-lived scientific work at the nearby Dounreay Experimental nuclear-electricity complex, leaving to embark on a lifetime’s professional music career.

Dounreay,  the largest single UK research establishment in Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ vision, brought boom-times to Caithness and saw Wick’s BB Hall, and later Assembly Rooms, becoming part of the main UK circuit for 1960s-era rockers on the Scottish legs of their tours.  The atomic complex’s ‘fast reactors’ and associated chemical and metallurgical plants, saw an influx to nearby Thurso of some of Britain’s brightest science and technology talent. Their offspring were often keen on playing ‘modern’ sounds, while the Cold War-era US Naval Radio Station, Thurso, brought transatlantic musicians as servicemen and as visiting American ‘soul’ bands to the Far North.   

Sutherland, who took his music seriously throughout his life, was an eager. Inquisitive, learner of electric-guitar techniques. As leader of local 1960s backing groups such as ‘The Federals’ and ‘Aktual Fakts’, he picked up playing tips from aces such as Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, as well as some of the Americans.

His forefathers had been forced to quit Assynt during the 19th C. Highland Clearances so he took an early semi-pro band to Lochinver to give teenagers in his ancestral West Sutherland their first taste of live beat music.

‘Keeping music live’ became a lifelong passion; he felt empathy for American black bluesmen descended from servitude, a background which he considered to resemble the lot of pre-emancipation Highland crofters, liable to be evicted on a whim.

By the mid-1960s, his horizons had broadened and he took his playing to Aberdeen and Edinburgh and then with mainly young North musicians whom he often had helped to train to Europe, first Switzerland and then on a US bases tour of Germany.

There he accepted an invitation from a soon-to-be demobbed musician GI to come and join his New England-based rock-band. After 6 months, Uncle Sam bid him farewell, so he hot-tailed it over the border to Canada.

The late 1960s saw a highlight of his young professional career when he played on stage with Arlo Guthrie, son of the legendary American folkster Woody Guthrie.

It was while living in Quebec that he met a young Caroline Lockerbie, who shared his birthday. She kept in touch as Sutherland married primary school-mistress Christine and brought up their young family of three in Caithness; grown-up sons Isaac, Edward and daughter Christina. As Church of Scotland minister Rev Dr Lockerbie, of St Christopher’s Kirk, Craigentinny, Edinburgh, she officiated at his well-attended funeral service on 15th December at Ormlie Lodge Service Rooms in Thurso, talking about his ‘spirituality, honesty and passion’ before his interment at the North coast town’s Riverside Cemetery. She acceded to his ‘no hymns’ request and the many mourners were treated to recordings of two of John’s compositions. Christina delivered an appropriate poem, while Isaac talked about his loving father being ‘passionate’ not only about music but of the causes he believed in, including his cooking skills.

In the mid-1970s, Sutherland teamed up with tin-whistle player the late Bobby Murray, then a pensioner, with John playing a variety of instruments on their recordings. They played the round of Scottish Folk Festivals as a duo. More recently he recorded his boyhood mentor’s brother, Stroma’s owner Jimmy Simpson, 80, plying guitar and singing the songs of his youth as performed in the pre-TV era around peat fires in homes of the now uninhabited Pentland Firth isle.

Sutherland had been a long term musical collaborator with Martin Stephenson, the County Durham-born former The Daintees leader. He and multi-instrumentalist son Isaac recorded several albums at Dunnet Head with Stephenson. 

Johnny was a true ‘wizard of the fret-board’ on his beloved Gibson instrument. As a ‘finale’ of his shows in the 1960s and 1970s he played it first behind his head and then with his teeth, the latter a feat few if any British players could match.

At one Festive-season late 1960s show at Stornoway on Isle of Lewis, a girl in the audience stood first entranced, then leapt upwards shouting  ‘Jimi Hendrix’, before collapsing in a cold faint!

Johnny campaigned for the legalisation of cannabis for most of his adult life. This, and cultivating herbal plants, sometimes brought him in conflict with ‘authority’ and on occasions, actual incarceration.

In the mid-1990s, High Court judge Lord Maclean passed sentence, suspended for two years, for growing marijuana plants. Later admonishing him, the High Court judge enquired what he’d been doing with his life during the interval. John said that that he’d written 13 new songs for his forthcoming album, without revealing the CD included his numbers Free the Weed and Smoke up the Ganja.

In the run-up to the General Election of 2005, BBC 2 TV’s front-man Jeremy Vine embarked on an ‘End to End’ odyssey’ to take the political ‘pulse of Britain’, setting off from John O’Groats and travelling to Land’s End via Dunnet Head. John delivered the closest to a nationwide TV Party Political broadcast that the ‘Legalise Cannabis Campaign’ has ever had.

He strongly believed that smoking ‘spliffs’ was far less harmful than the alcohol abuse that observed wrecking so many Highland lives and families, while actively campaigning against the spread Northwards of the addictive drug heroin, which he saw as an even more evil curse, certain to be accompanied by an addicts’ crime-wave of theft and robbery.

When the Minister described John as ‘a larger than life character’, most of the congregation would have agreed with her.

John always asked to be judged by his music saying that members of the public could ‘take it or leave it’. His tastes and styles were broad, including jazz, country, Scottish as well as rock and blues.

As well as his family, memories of his ‘legendary lifestyle’ status and stage-shows, plus the enhanced abilities of so many musicians whose skills he honed, Sutherland leaves behind a lengthy back-catalogue of his recorded material. At least one memorial concert is planned.

Bill Mowat