Denny Laine, who has died aged 79 from lung disease, was best known as a long-term member of Paul McCartney’s band Wings from 1971 to 1981.
He contributed vocals, guitars, percussion and keyboards on all seven of their studio albums, from their debut Wild Life (1971) to Back to the Egg (1979), and including Band on the Run (1973), a chart-topper on both sides of the Atlantic that delivered big hit singles with Jet and the title track, and is often cited as Wings’ finest hour.
However, before he linked up with McCartney, Laine had already enjoyed a variety of musical experiences. In 1964 he joined Mike Pinder and Ray Thomas to form the Moody Blues, who started out playing cover versions of blues material before switching to a more pop-orientated direction. Success came rapidly, with their version of Go Now (previously recorded by the American singer Bessie Banks, and featuring Laine on lead vocals and guitar) topping the UK chart in 1964 and also cracking the US Top 10.
Laine’s stint with the band ended in 1965 after the release of their debut album, The Magnificent Moodies, when he quit over a financial dispute with their record company. “Like every other band, we got ripped off,” he said. “We got the fame, but we didn’t get the money.” The Moody Blues recruited Justin Hayward and John Lodge, and went on to huge international success.
Subsequently Laine carried out some psychedelic experiments with his outfit Denny Laine & the Electric String Band, whose use of an amplified cello and violin quartet prefigured the approach later adopted by fellow Brummie Roy Wood and Electric Light Orchestra. However, the group failed to make an impact commercially, despite good reviews. After taking some time to visit Spain and teach himself classical guitar, his next move, in 1969, was as a member of Balls, alongside the Move’s former guitarist Trevor Burton.
Despite being managed by the inventive entrepreneur Tony Secunda, Balls foundered amid a welter of personnel changes. Then Laine was recruited as lead guitarist and vocalist with Ginger Baker’s Air Force, the jazz-rock ensemble assembled by the former Cream and Blind Faith drummer.
The original lineup included such luminaries as Steve Winwood and Graham Bond, though after causing much initial excitement in the music press, Air Force disintegrated after a disastrous American tour. His next stop was Wings.
Laine was born Brian Hines in the Channel Islands to Herbert Hines and Eva (nee Bassett), but grew up in Tyseley, Birmingham, and attended Yardley grammar school. There he began learning guitar, and one of his chief inspirations was the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Having first performed solo at age 12, he formed his first band, Denny Laine and the Diplomats, with the drummer Bev Bevan, who later became part of Electric Light Orchestra.
It was only in 1971 that Laine at last found a stable berth with McCartney. The two had known each other since the early Moody Blues had toured with the Beatles, and McCartney had also seen Laine opening for Jimi Hendrix at the Saville theatre in London. “Because he was impressed with seeing me trying to do something different onstage with my Electric String Band, and because we became friends, that inspired him to call me because he wanted to do something new and different,” said Laine.
He soon found himself in Scotland with Paul and Linda McCartney and the drummer Denny Seiwell, working on material for Wings’ debut album. The world was struggling to adjust to a Beatles-less McCartney, and the album received unenthusiastic reviews, though it reached No 11 on the UK chart and No 10 in the US.
There was better to come with Red Rose Speedway (1973), which topped the US albums chart and made it to No 5 in the UK, while Band on the Run, their third album, was a smash hit, reaching No 1 in both countries. Recorded in somewhat rudimentary conditions in Lagos, Nigeria, and with Seiwell and the guitarist Henry McCulloch having quit the band before recording began, it was assembled amid creative chaos.
“It was basically just me and Paul doing the backing tracks,” Laine recalled. “And it was more of a relaxed approach to doing an album than if you’re going in with a band and there are all these parts. We were thrown into that as a last resort because two of the guys didn’t come to Lagos.”
In all, four Wings albums topped the US charts and two did likewise in the UK. The band also scored 24 Top 40 hit singles in the US and 20 in Britain, and six No 1 singles in the US. Their only chart-topping single in the UK was Mull of Kintyre (1977), on which Laine received a co-writing credit (one of several in his Wings career).
However, this proved to be a bone of contention, since he was only paid a flat fee for his contribution, and thus did not share in the royalties accruing from a record that sold more than 2m copies in Britain and remains the UK’s bestselling non-charity single.
Laine also became disgruntled over McCartney’s arrest for possession of marijuana in Japan in 1980, which prompted the cancellation of Wings’ Japanese tour and a follow-up trip to the US, causing substantial financial losses.
In December 1980 Laine released the album Japanese Tears, his third solo effort, but he stayed with McCartney while the latter recorded his own solo album, Tug of War (1981), before handing in his notice. In all, Laine made a further nine solo albums, the last of them being The Blue Musician (2008).
From 1997 to 2002 he toured with World Classic Rockers, a group of rock veterans fronted by Nick St Nicholas from Steppenwolf. He also toured with his own bands, playing songs by Wings and the Moody Blues, and did a series of concerts featuring a complete performance of Band on the Run. In 2018 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Moody Blues.
He is survived by his second wife, Elizabeth Mele, whom he married in the summer. He had a son and daughter, Laine and Heidi Jo (Hines), from a marriage in the late 1970s to the American singer Jo Jo Laine (nee Joanne LaPatrie), which ended in divorce.