GUITARIST RESTORES FALLEN STAR

The solitary man in black, standing behind a worn acoustic guitar in a corner of the Poseidon restaurant's dimly lit lounge, looks vaguely familiar.

Each Friday and Saturday night since December, he has been entertaining a small but loyal group of regulars with a mix of original ballads and folk-rock standards like Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice" and the late Harry Chapin's "Taxi."

His voice warbles and breaks. His fingers caress the strings of his guitar like an old friend. And his finely chiseled features radiate with appreciation at the first hint of applause.

"Thank you," he says with a grateful smile. "Thank you very much. It's sure good to be back--and I'm glad not everyone has forgotten me."

It's not likely that many San Diegans have forgotten Barrie Cunningham. After all, just three years ago he was one of the local music scene's brightest stars--until a freak accident in which he nearly lost a finger sent his star plummeting back to earth.

"After surgery, I was told I would never be able to play again," Cunningham, 37, recalled. "And having spent my whole life playing music, I felt I had lost my life's purpose."

Cunningham had a lot more to lose than most nightclub musicians. After more than a decade of paying his dues on the local bar circuit, Cunningham three years ago was finally starting to reap some rewards.

From a much bigger stage in the same lounge he's playing now, Cunningham and his band, Black Slacks, consistently filled the house with steamy renditions of such rockabilly favorites as Buddy Holly's "Rave On" and Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues," as well as a selection of equally perky originals.

Between engagements at the Poseidon and other top nightclubs like the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach and the Bacchanal in Kearny Mesa, Cunningham and his group were on the road. One night, they would play a gritty rock 'n' roll bar in Hawaii; the next, the Sands hotel-casino in Las Vegas.

In the spring of 1984, Cunningham was named Entertainer of the Year at the North County Entertainer's annual music awards. By then, he had an album in the can that had already attracted the interest of more than one major record company.

But one day a few months later, Cunningham was pruning a tree outside his Leucadia home with a chain saw. His attention was momentarily diverted, and the chain saw roared up the tree trunk, severing the middle finger on his left hand.

All of a sudden, his career was over.

"I had six operations to reconnect my finger and ended up wearing a cast for more than a year," Cunningham said. "And since everyone I knew was in the club scene, I didn't want to stay in San Diego. It was just too frustrating."

Upon his release from the hospital, Cunningham said, he and his girlfriend moved to Long Beach to be closer to her family. Once his cast came off, he taught himself to play the guitar all over again.

"I still remember the first time I picked up my guitar and couldn't even put my hand around the neck," Cunningham said. "I was so overwhelmed that I threw my guitar across the room and said, 'That's it. I give up.' "

He didn't, though. Instead, he kept on trying, and eventually he regained enough movement, first in his hand and then in his injured finger, to land a job in a tiny Huntington Harbor club, playing five nights a week as a solo artist.

"Even though I stuck to simple chords, my finger kept going in different places than I told it to," Cunningham recalled. "I was constantly making excuses, but the people got behind me.

"And before long, I had built up a following. It was kind of a thing in which people were saying, 'Let's stop in and see how Barrie's finger is doing.' "

By last summer, Cunningham's finger was doing remarkably well. As his injury healed, Cunningham began playing other Orange County nightclubs.

In December, Cunningham decided he was well enough to come home--even though he had regained only 25% of the feeling in his injured finger.

"When I first got back to town, I happened into the Poseidon one night around 11 p.m. and there were two people in the place--and one of them was me," Cunningham said.

"I thought back to the time when I used to pull in 400 people a night with Black Slacks, so I asked the manager if I could come back as a solo act, and he agreed.

"Every once in awhile, my finger still has a mind of its own. But I'm playing better all the time--and by summer, I hope to have the old band back together."

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