Sunderland loses a 'powerhouse' - Dave Harper's cultural legacy in his home city

As ambassadors for Sunderland go, they don’t come much more loud and proud than Dave Harper.

Thursday, 26th August 2021, 4:28 pm
Updated Thursday, 26th August 2021, 5:17 pm

Today the city’s cultural landscape is all the poorer after it was announced that the 43-year-old musician and dad-of-one, who had been receiving treatment for dilated cardiomyopathy for a number of years, had passed away in hospital.

Not only is it utterly devastating news for his family and friends, Dave’s passing has left a huge hole in the city after his years and years of grafting and campaigning to enrich Wearside.

Born in Murton, the talented drummer and songwriter formed Frankie & the Heartstrings, along with frontman Frankie Francis from Houghton and guitarists Michael McKnight from Grangetown and Steven Dennis from Downhill in 2008, and would go on to become a powerhouse in Sunderland’s arts and culture scene, which saw him in his final weeks getting ready to open the new Pop Recs in High Street West.

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Dave Harper, a legend in the city's culture scene

Speaking to the Echo in tribute to his friend and band mate, Frankie said: “We knew in recent times Dave had been receiving treatment for a heart condition but no one expected things to take such a dramatic turn for the worst.

"Dave was the driving force in everything we achieved as a band and forged a legacy with Pop Recs in Sunderland. We have the best stories from our times together that I’m sure we will roll out forever. A real one of a kind whose passing will be felt everywhere he stepped.”

After their very first gig in the old Independent site in Holmeside in December 2008, the band toured the globe in what Dave told the Echo was “the best job in the world,” racking up a Top 40 album, high profile festival slots at the likes of Glastonbury, Leeds, Latitude and T in the Park, and support slots with household names such as Florence and the Machine, Kaiser Chiefs and The Vaccines.

The anthemic Hunger was even used on a Domino’s pizza advert for years, something Dave told me, very proudly, earned them a black card from the pizza shop.

Dave Harper at the new Pop Recs in High Street West in its early days

As the relentless pace of touring took its toll and the lads became dads, the band’s focus shifted to Pop Recs, the culture hub that brought big names to their home city whilst also fostering home-grown talent.

It started life in June 2013, to coincide with the release of the band’s second album, The Days Run Away, in the old Tourist Information shop in Fawcett Street.

They’d only intended to run the pop-up record shop for a fortnight but it soon snowballed into a gallery, gig space and independent coffee shop that would host gigs from the likes of The Charlatans, Badly Drawn Boy, Franz Ferdinand, James Bay, The Vaccines and Edwyn Collins.

The building was sold to developers, but Dave and co were determined to keep it going, launching a crowdfunder to open Pop Recs mark II in Stockton Road, which became home for a number of culture groups – and also just a great place to meet people and chat to the always affable Dave and Michael behind the counter.

Inside the new Pop Recs, part of Dave's legacy in the city

In the past few years Dave has been working tirelessly on the third Pop Recs due to open soon in the original Binns store at the far end of High Street West.

Like everything he did, Dave, who lived with wife Ruth and son Sonny off Chester Road, put his all into the project and oversaw it transforming from a shell of a building into a venue and culture hub which will no doubt go on to do him proud.

All who worked in arts and culture in the area know of Dave, with tributes pouring in in honour of his contribution to Sunderland and the wider North East.

Emma Horsman, project director at The Cultural Spring, said: "We worked with Dave on a couple of projects and he was so helpful, knowledgeable and enthusiastic.

Frankie and the Heartstrings band. Frankie Francis, Michael McKnight, Dave Harper, Dennis, Mick Ross at Herrington Country Park in 2013

"He was a hugely influential and important figure on Sunderland's music scene - a real powerhouse. His drive and determination were key to the success of Pop Recs and he was also such a talented musician. He'll be a massive miss in Sunderland and the wider regional musical community."

Rebecca Ball, chief executive of Sunderland Culture, said: "The Sunderland Culture team was deeply shocked and saddened to hear about the loss of our dear friend Dave Harper. Dave was an incredible person. With big ambitions and an even bigger heart, he was a force of nature who gave so much to Sunderland and we will miss him terribly."

Always blunt, honest, fiercely passionate and certainly never dull, Dave was a hugely memorable character with a wicked sense of humour.

He’d contact the Echo often to keep us posted on gigs and cultural goings on and was always an entertaining interview – even though you couldn’t print half of what he said!

Never afraid of speaking his mind, you’d often find him contributing in the comments section of the Echo Facebook where he would champion culture and the advancement of the city, whilst also highlighting social injustices.

He was a man that cared deeply, for his immediate friends and family, but also for his community.

Setting up the shop in Fawcett Street - Dave Harper (left) and Frankie Francis.

If ever there was a legacy for Dave it will be the new Pop Recs.

Rich in Sunderland history, the once dilapidated building will open as a venue for top music acts whilst also working with partners across the city, including Sunderland College, to help young people on a pathway to a career, whether it be in music through to cookery, and to help foster creative talents.

One of its in-house groups will be the accredited Crew School giving disadvantaged young people the chance to learn about sound, lighting and audio.

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Inside the new Pop Recs culture hub as it prepares to bring more live music to S...

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Promoting Split Festival at Ashbrooke Sports Club in 2011
Frankie and the Heartstrings at the gig to launch their third album, Decency, at The Cluny in Newcastle. Photo by Gary Welford
Dave with Frankie & the Heartstrings at the old Pop Recs in Fawcett Street in 2013
One of many Echo photoshoots with the band
Dave at the Bands FC exhibition at Pop Recs Ltd, one of many cultural activities he brought to the city