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 20, 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 Kerbstones alongside Derry Whitelaw, after which he joined legendary showband Jim Tobin & The Firehouse. He went to The Plainsmen, and from here his sound lead to Real Country, before his major breakthrough came when he was asked to join Mullingar outfit The Times, formed from the ashes of Joe Dolan’s Drifters.
Here Vinny forged a lifelong musical bond with his great friend, keyboardist Des 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.
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 Smyth’s, 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 days.
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.
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 concert’s 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 18, 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 practice 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, 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 Dé go raibh a hanam dílis.
Your friend and fan, Ronan.