A founding member of Newfoundland and Labrador’s most beloved folk-rock group who later had a fruitful career as a writer and actor has died.
Philip Dinn died Thursday in Halifax. He had recently become ill after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
Dinn was a singer and percussionist in the earliest incarnation of Figgy Duff, playing alongside his brother Noel Dinn. He went on to help establish Sheila’s Brush Theatre Company alongside actress Mercedes Barry and Frank Barry (unrelated).
Former Figgy Duff member Kelly Russell can remember first meeting Dinn in the mid-1970s. Russell was playing in a cover group at the time called Rakish Paddy, which also featured Tommy Sexton on vocals.
“Figgy Duff were just getting on the go, and Philip heard me play one night with this little band we had, Rakish Paddy. We played at what is now The Ship. Then it was called Dirty Dick’s. We were playing there, and Philip spoke to me after the gig, introduced himself to me ... and said to me, ‘You’re pretty good on that fiddle. Why don’t you come join a real band.’”
Russell found the Dinns were very committed to making traditional Newfoundland folk songs popular.
“They were both very focused on the mission,” he said. “Phil was always very enthusiastic ... I would credit he and Noel with the revival of interest in Newfoundland music amongst the younger generation.”
Dinn left Figgy Duff in 1979 and established the Sheila’s Brush Theatre Company in St. John’s that same year. According to an obituary piece for Mercedes Barry published in the Globe and Mail in 2004, the troupe was formed in the rented apartment of a young Andy Jones.
Jones worked with Dinn for the first time in 1979 on a pair of plays called “Jack’s Christmas” and “Jack Meets the Cat,” which were performed at The LSPU Hall and resulted in tours the following two years.
They eventually collaborated on a play called “Jack-Five-Oh” to mark the 50th anniversary of Confederation for Newfoundland and Labrador and later adapted it into a book called “Peg Bearskin” that was published in 2003.
“He was passionately interested in all things Newfoundland — the history of Newfoundland, the culture of Newfoundland, and certainly the music of Newfoundland,” said Jones.
In addition to writing and performing for theatre, Dinn also worked in film and television. He appeared in the feature film “The Boys of St. Vincent” and the television mini-series “Random Passage.”
Both Russell and Jones acknowledge that their friend had a great sense of humour.
“He was very well liked and had a broad circle of friends and colleagues in St. John’s,” said Jones.
While his later years were focused more so on writing and acting, Dinn did not entirely abandon his musical background. He took park in Figgy Duff reunion concerts in 1999 and 2008, neither of which involved his brother, who died in 1993 from cancer.
“He was very much an all-around talent,” said Jones, who was particularly fond of Dinn’s ability to sing songs acapella.
“He was famous for singing a thing called ‘The Barque in the Harbour,’” he said. “He was such a beautiful singer, and that song, I think anyone who ever heard him sing it remembers it so well.”
Jones said there are talks of holding an event at the LSPU in the near future to honour Dinn's life.