Des de Moor

Russell Churney 1964-2007

Photos: Theo Cohen (above), Total Blam Blam (below)

"Learn to drive and everything..."

UPDATE: The Lovely Russell, an all-star celebration of Russell's life and work, is at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London, at the end of June 2008. See the gigs page for more details.

Russell Churney -- pianist, singer, guitarist, composer, actor and comedian -- died on 27 February 2007 after a 14-month battle with pancreatic endocrine cancer. Russell was most famous for his stint as pianist and sometime comic foil to comedian Julian Clary on stage and television in the 1980s and early 1990s. But he was also a key figure on Britain's music theatre, cabaret and chanson scene right up until his death. He had an enduring working partnership with Barb Jungr, became the only ever male member of Fascinating Aida and a veteran of countless Edinburgh fringes, and worked with many others including Elizabeth Mansfield, Robb Johnson, Howard Samuels, Sue Kelvin, Sandra Lawrence and myself.

Russell grew up in Liverpool in a family with Ukrainian Jewish roots, and though you'd have to listen hard to catch any trace of a Merseyside accent, it's tempting to suggest that there were doses of both sardonic Scouseness and self-deprecating Yiddishkeit in his trademark bemused deadpan humour. He was a classically trained pianist with an unerring ear and a taste for boogie woogie, blues and glam rock. He read law at Cambridge, inevitably got involved in the Footlights as a writer and performer, and planned to be an actor -- he still took the occasional drama role in his later career. One day someone suggested him to up-and-coming comic Julian Clary, then trading as the Joan Collins Fan Club, who had an urgent need for a pianist on some imminent live dates. Seven years of cult TV, international touring, records and videos followed.

I first met Russell at my club, Pirate Jenny's, on New Year's Day 1996, when he accompanied Barb Jungr, another regular in Julian's supporting cast who was transforming herself into a solo cabaret and chanson singer. When I myself needed a pianist I was at first nervous of asking Russell as I thought he was too good for me! But I found not only did we work together well, we also got on extremely well too. We had views in common on politics and society as well as arts and culture. Russell was a sharply intelligent, perceptive and kind man, decent, progressive and humanist, whose bemusement at the idiocies of the world was quite genuine. We'd often get distracted from rehearsal by long conversations setting the world to rights over tea, and he'd frequently reduce me to hysterical laughter.

We shared a youthful passion and continuing admiration for the work of David Bowie, which led to us creating a piece together in 2000. Entitled Darkness and Disgrace, it was a music theatre piece directed by Barb, re-interpreting some of David's songs with spoken inserts, and it later became an album. Russell not only played but also sang, acted and wrote. It was an intimate two-hander that was very intense to perform, but Russell was an unfailing delight to work with throughout.

During the show's Edinburgh run in 2001, we had to stop the show one Saturday night when a member of the rather rowdy audience at our late-night performance vomited in the stalls. The performer-audience barrier immediately broke down into warm-hearted banter as Russell was quizzed about his time with Julian and the fate of Fanny the Wonder Dog. He was in his element that night, spontaneous, confident and relaxed. All the more remarkable considering he'd already performed two shows with other artists that day!

Russell was a true professional who loved performing and had immense affection and respect for the audience. As an accompanist he had a marvellous responsiveness borne from a deep understanding of the needs of the singer and the weight and meaning of the song, perhaps because, although he rarely did so, he was perfectly capable of fronting a song himself.

Nothing can replace Russell for his friends and family, but his enduring monument is his work. He always had an enormous rapport with Barb and it's no insult to the many other high calibre musicians she has worked with to say that I always enjoyed her performances with Russell best of all. For proof listen to the 1999 album Bare featuring just the two of them. On Metro with Robb Johnson his playing is breathtaking. On Dillie Keane's solo album Back with You he's the perfect support to Dillie's wit and occasional tenderness.

I'm proud to name Darkness and Disgrace, too, among Russell's great achievements. My very favourite track on the album is 'Always Crashing in the Same Car', where Russell delivers a stunning lead vocal perfectly capturing the numbed anguish of the lyric, as well as milking the sentimentality of the changes with dazzling pianism. I feel honoured to have known and worked with him, and I'm not sure that music, let alone words, can adequately express his loss.  

Des de Moor

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Darkness and Disgrace