Last Dances at the Olympia opened the floodgates of nostalgia

By John Rory O’Connor / Editor of The Munster Express

John "Rory" in the early days John O'Connor today

A prior commitment, coupled with a well founded morbid fear of Sieges of Ennis, meant that I missed out on Saturday night's hooley in the Olympia Ballroom. By all accounts, it was a most enjoyable affair that attracted patrons from far and wide whose vigorous dancing to the Congress Ceili Band from Kildare really tested the mettle of the ballroom's floor. But I was in the Olympia on Friday, Sunday and Monday and a strange sensation it was.


Obviously there were a few slight differences, such as the Jaffora Bar on the left as we faced the bandstand, but, all in all, this was the same place. It was as if we had stepped into a time machine out on Parnell Street and emerged over 25 years ago inside the ballroom. The same echo was there, the sound and the atmosphere were very similar and the place even smelled the same.


I actually found it all a bit disorientating on the first night. I knew so much had happened to the world, to Waterford and to me since I was a regular at the Olympia but I couldn't shake off the feeling that I was the same youngster of 25 and 30 years ago who, when the night was finished, would walk home to Ferrybank instead of getting into a car with my wife and driving home to my family elsewhere in the city.


If I had let my imagination run away with me I could have believed anything so I copped myself on, got a bit of sense and enjoyed the rest of the evening and weekend. But talk about weird. Sentimental journeys really are strange trips.


Mind you, one thing soon brought me back to the present. I needed to go to the lavatory and, at first, I couldn't for the life of me recall where the toilets used to be. I eventually remembered (they are not there anymore) but it occurred to me that, in those days, I didn't drink and rarely needed to go.


There were so many familiar faces there that I couldn't possibly mention them all but I was really pleased to see Garda Donal Holman dancing the night away like a demon. Donal had been very ill and he and his wife, Miriam, were celebrating his recovery by taking a trip down memory lane. Also present was prominent Fianna Fail politician, Dan Cowman, who had the full support of his wife, Anna, when he declared that he would love to see a similiar venture mounted at the Atlantic Ballroom in Tramore.


Dick Dave 'n' Us


Dick Dave 'n' Us had the tough job of opening the show but were their usual splendid selves and soon had the crowd on the floor. Dick Hayes would have played the Olympia with the Decca Showband and Mick Coughlan and Dave Flynn with the Impact and Valentines Showbands and they may also have been part of other outfits of the late Sixties and early Seventies. Multi instrumentalist, David Hayes, would have been at home tucked up in bed if, indeed, he was even born then!


Eileen Reid


Eileen Reid, formerly of the Cadets, was the first guest artiste but, even though she is looking very well and singing better than ever, she didn't do herself justice by opting to perform to backing tracks instead of musicians. Her act is now geared more to intimate cabaret lounges. In the vastness of the Olympia, the atmosphere was lost and she really didn't get the crowd going until she was joined on stage by her husband, Jimmy Day, and Dick Dave 'n' Us to perform her bit hit, I Gave My Wedding Dress Away. Mind you, Eileen has turned her hand to more than singing in recent years and now also enjoys a successful career as a serious actress.


Brendan O'Brien joins Noel and the Aces


Noel Power and the Aces from Kilkenny were as good as ever. The band was originally formed out of the Black Aces Showband and they used to play the Waterford Musicians Dinner Dances in the late Seventies. Brendan O'Brien of the Dixies took the stage with the Aces and went down so well he had to perform a string of encores. I was delighted for Brendan because he is genuinely a very nice person who has had more than his share of bad luck in recent years. Mind you, he is not doing too bad at the moment because he introduced me to his new road manager, Aisling, a petite blonde who drives a Mercedes! The roadies were never like that in my day.


Capacity crowd on Sunday night


Sunday night had not been sold out prior to the gig but the House Full sign soon went up. It was an absolute eye opener and the heat from the capacity crowd hit you like a furnace when you entered. Talk about sending them home sweating! This really was as it was and there were so many familiar faces and friends from way back it was amazing. I even bumped into former Royal Showband star, Eddie O'Sullivan, who was enjoying himself thoroughly in the company of his wife, Celia, and friends.


But the best quip of the night came from one of the all time greats of hurling, Tom Cheasty. `I hope they don't report me to the County Board again', he joked, referring to the time in the early Sixties when he was suspended by the GAA for attending a dance in the Olympia organised by the local Bohemians soccer club. It certainly wasn't funny at the time. Tom had practically beaten Tipperary on his own in the semi final of the National League and he missed out a medal because he was banned for the final in New York. In fairness to the GAA, urged on by the Portlaw-Ballyduff mentors, they rectified the situation last year and finally presented him with his medal.


Don Duggan and the Savoy call a minute's silence for Derek Joy


Don Duggan and the Savoy Showband, reformed especially for the night, were really good and recaptured that unique showband sound seemingly with ease. In many ways they were ahead of their time and were the first Irish outfit to cover a Bob Dylan song. I'll be Your Baby Tonight was a big hit for them and remains a firm favourite with the fans. Top class musicians all, now that they are back together again, I suspect that the Savoy will continue on for a few more gigs.


Shortly before they finished, Don Duggan called for a minute's silence in memory of Derek Joy, one of Waterford's first showband stars who died on Friday, and an eerie silence fell over the ballroom broken only by the murmur of some people at the back who hadn't heard the announcement and did not understand what was going on. At the end of the silence there was a spontaneous and prolonged round of applause which, I feel sure, Derek would have appreciated.


Brass and Co plus Kelly of the Nevada


The Olympia was built for big bands like Brass and Co and they took to the venue like a duck to water. If they had been around in the Sixties as a unit they would have been huge. Of course, members like Frankie Walsh and Eddie Drey are old showband hands and Tony Comerford was practically reared in the Olympia as, together with his brothers, he was a member of the resident relief band. As usual, they were excellent and it is no wonder that they are the hottest property countrywide for all the major social occasions. It you are anybody these days, you have got to have a few Rolling Stones and U2s on the guest list and Brass and Co on the stage before the party is considered an event.


The guest artiste on Sunday night was Kelly, formerly of the Nevada Showband, and, backed by Brass and Co, she took the place by storm, especially when she sang her big hit, How Great Thou Art. I don't mean to be sexist but, as well as sounding good, Kelly really did look splendid and, throughout her set, there was a huge crowd of people just standing in front of the stage, just like they used to do in the old days. It was easy to understand how, 25 years ago and more, when Kelly used to bounce on stage in rural areas, scantily dressed and every inch the blonde bombshell, she got more notice than had she been an alien from outer space!


Kelly's mother was from Waterford and she reminded the audience that she spent most of her summers on holiday in the city from her home in Cork. On Sunday night she renewed acquaintance with many of her cousins and even met a few new ones.


Dickie Rock returns


Monday night had been sold out for ages and there were queues outside the ballroom from as early as 8 o'clock. The Comerford Brothers had reformed to play the first half of the night and the return of Dickie Rock and his Band to Waterford was eagerly anticipated. Neither outfit disappointed.


Comerford Brothers


The Comerfords, accompanied by that honorary member of the family, Hugh `Toots' McConnell, showed just why they were such a popular draw on the circuit for so long before the individual brothers went their own ways in separate bands. All the big hits of the Sixties and Seventies were included and, even though people were looking forward to seeing Dickie, they still demanded several encores before the Comerfords were let go.


Apart from Joe Dolan, Dickie Rock is the sole survivor of the old showband giants still performing on the bigtime circuit in this country and, within minutes of bounding on stage, he had the audience in the palm of his hand. Backed by a first class band and top session singer, Aileen Pringle, Dickie's performance was superb and he is now laid back enough to even poke fun at his own hairpiece.


"There ain't no way this is going grey'', he quipped, pointing to his head as he looked out over a sea of people, most of whom were showing at least a little grey, not to mention the odd receding hairline.


Dickie never drank or smoked and always kept himself in trim by practising martial arts and it showed. Looking lean and fit and dressed in a blue coat over a colourfully embroidered white shirt, his excellent voice was as sound as a bell as he effortlessly took the adoring fans on a voyage around his many hits and pop standards.  


If Dana Had Only Known!


Talking about politicians and public figures. If Dana had only known about the Olympia weekend and arrived along to sing, she would have won over thousands of votes.


Former Waterford soccer stars, Paul Morrissey and John O'Neill, looked so loose and fluid it's a wonder the player manager, Tommy Lynch, hasn't asked them back into the current Blues squad. The GAA was also well represented with the Chairman of the Development Draw, Declan O'Meara, and former Eastern Board Chairman, Frank Cullinane, expending almost as much energy as they did during their playing days.


Also present was auctioneer, Des Purcell, still celebrating his sale of Corporation land on the ringroad to Superquinn for a record price of £1.3m. He would have made some shrewd showband manager, especially if he was on a percentage.  


Vintners and businessmen, Bob Tweedy and John Kavanagh, were also surveying the scene. John is an old Olympia hand who still gets in the odd bit of dancing practice in Muldoon's but Bob, who is busy establishing a new business venture on the Continent, could only look on in awe at the heaving mass of dancers. I hope it doesn't give him any mad ideas for the Jazbah.


I also noticed construction magnate, David Flynn, jitterbugging (I can't believe I'm using this kind of language) to his heart's content. Now there's a man who could build a brand new ballroom of romance if he wanted to. St. Declan's and Scoil Lorcan principals, Harry Flynn and Eamon O'Mahony were also showing a nifty turn of foot. I also noticed Eamon's brother, Gerry, happily dancing the night away with his wife but where was his pal, the bold Austin Deasy?


Grand opera and Frank Sinatra are more to the liking of Jimmy McGrath and his wife, Eily, than showbands but the prominent optician and his wife were seen enjoying themselves in the company of their daughter, June and friends.


The Late Great Derek Joy


It was one of those cruel ironies that, just as Waterford was preparing to celebrate a Bank Holiday Weekend of showband nostalgia in the Olympia Ballroom, the news broke that Derek Joy was dead. It really was difficult to believe that Derek was gone and his death caused genuine widespread sadness. He had gone through some rough patches in his time but nobody expected that he would be called from this life so soon.


The Derek Joy Showband was very big in the early Sixties and, musically, the band was different from most others. Okay, they performed the hits of the day but the Joys had soul in huge dollops and had a big following of discerning fans, especially in the major cities. In Earl Jordan, they recruited the first black singer from London to join an Irish showband and D.J. Curtin, who later found fame with his own band, the Kerry Blues, before joining Brendan Bowyer and Tom Dunphy in the Big Eight in Las Vegas, first came to Waterford to join the Derek Joys as saxaphone player.


Derek had a marvellous voice and could handle any kind of song but he was happiest when belting out rhythm and blues, something he also did in a number of successful cabaret bands he formed in the Seventies and Eighties after he had returned to work at Waterford Crystal.


I knew Derek for many years but, what really sticks in my mind, is the time when I was a schoolboy and the Derek Joys were a nationally known band. My friends and I, who were all showband mad, used to take the Ferrybank Kenneally's bus back to De La Salle after lunch and Derek would get on at the Clock Tower. We found out later that he was visiting his dying fiancee, Ita Moran, in Ardkeen Hospital and he must have had a heavy heart and a lot on his mind. But despite being top of the heap and despite his troubles, he always found time to chat to us and tell us where he had been playing and the famous people he had met. Needless to say, we floated into school on a high because we actually knew a genuine rock star who had the time to talk to us.  That's how I'll always remember Derek - as a star.


There was plenty of 'noise' before the whisper became a scream


Like many people, I am enjoying the current RTE television series 'From a whisper to a scream' but I agree entirely with Irish Times columnist, John Waters, who wrote last week that the title itself was mildly insulting because it inferred that until the 'whisper' of the emerging rock and folk scenes of the 60s and early 70s blossomed into the 'scream' of Van Morrison, U2, Thin Lizzy, Boomtown Rats, Enya, Sinead O'Connor and the Cranberries, nothing of note occurred beforehand.


In other words, the not too thinly veiled implication is that the showbands were rubbish and only a tad better than the Boybands of today. Even the fabulous success of the Corrs is grudgingly acknowledged by some of the 'experts' and I wonder has it something to do with the fact that their father and recently deceased mother, both talented musicians and singers, were members of a cabaret band which performed in the Dundalk area in the 70s. Guilty by association?


John Waters knows what he is talking about because he is a writer with an open mind who was around at the time and, in fact, if my memory is correct, he was road manager for The Freshmen Showband for a couple of years. On the other hand, many of the people sitting in judgement of the showbands today haven't a clue what they are talking about and, indeed, some of their opinions are based on earlier biased accounts from observers who also didn't have a clue.


So how good, or bad, were the showbands and were they really so lacking in originality? A huge part of their success was down to the socio/economic and cultural climate of the period and that is an important angle to the story that I will leave aside for now. Let's confine the discussion to the music, their musicianship and their ability to entertain.


The truth of the matter is that some showbands were excellent, many were plain good, others were mediocre and there were more than a few which were quite poor. In terms of ability on their instruments, many of the showband members were superb. They were masters of their craft and the equal of professionals in any country in the world one cares to mention. In fact, many went on to carve out careers as studio session players and members of the RTE Concert and Symphony Orchestras. Below them were people who were more than adequate while some worked hard to get through the numbers in tune, in time and with the right chords. But, for the most part, they succeeded because they worked and practised hard. In other words, even the humblest showband could play a programme of hundreds of songs and tunes, including the entire Top 20 of the day, and could entertain packed ballrooms by playing live music for anything up to five hours. How many of today's so called name acts could equal that feat?


Rory and Van were ex-showband


People like Rory Gallagher and Van Morrison played in showbands and they didn't become better musicians when they left, they simply played a different kind of music and explored more original and narrower avenues which is fair enough. Colm Wilkinson, now regarded as one of the top musical stars in the world, played for years in a showband. The suggestion is that those left behind in the showbands stayed there because they didn't have the talent to follow suit but that is plain nonsense.


Many stayed because they did not have the drive and ambition of Gallagher and Morrison, others stayed because their family circumstances dictated so and there were those who stayed because they realised they had the chance to make some money and that chance might soon be gone. And how right they were. But the vast majority stayed playing in showbands because they enjoyed doing what they did and they carried on until the winds of change that started the showband era shifted and blew it all away just as quickly as it started.


I personally knew many showband musicians who wrote original material, who could play rock, jazz and blues better than many of the so called rock stars but who decided, for a variety of reasons, to stay where they were. For some of today's writers and commentators to dismiss their talent and their contribution as worthless or some sort of joke is insulting in the extreme. From personal experience, I know that Rory Gallagher had nothing but respect for the guys who played in showbands and, when he was home in Cork and felt like a jam, most of the friends he called up were showband musicians. At the weekend, on Andy O'Mahony's 'The Sunday Show' on Radio 1, I heard bandleader Paddy Cole say that Van Morrison had and has the same attitude.


Incidentally, rarely does one read or hear anything about the legions of dreadful rock bands that never made it because it isn't fashionable to slag those guys off.


During my own showband days I remember once staying for several nights in the same hotel as a top international rock star and his band. Most nights we used to meet up for a few drinks after our respective gigs and he would lecture us showband 'heads' about playing for money when we should be more interested in the music, as he was. The sad thing is that he actually believed what he was saying to us despite the fact that he wouldn't play a note without being paid in advance and his own musicians were half hungry and had to chase him night and day for the lousy few pounds he paid them.


Where have all the pub-singers gone?


Has anybody noticed that most of the old style pub singers are gone? These characters, mainly men although there were always a few good women one could count on, usually came into their own during the Light Opera Festival.

The sing- song would start, they would be asked to oblige but, with looks of horror on their faces and much pointing to their sore throats, they would decline. 'Go-on, go-on, sure you'll manage a verse or two', we would say, but still no joy and they would sit there impassive or with a sad look that said wouldn't it be wonderful if only they were fit enough to clear the frogs from their throats.


Then, when last drinks were served and the band ready to strike up the last number, word would filter through from the back of the room that, hold up everybody, Jackie, Johnny or Jimmy, or whatever his name was, had been cured miraculously and felt able to grace the occasion with a song after all.


At this stage, with the band grinding their teeth in annoyance, the late, late guest would be invited up to the microphone. 'Ah no, God, I wouldn't want to go up there where everybody would be looking at me, I'll sing from down here', he would reply modestly.


There would then follow a minute or two of chaos as our friend's pals hissed for 'Quiet' and 'One voice only' and somebody else would try and take the microphone from the stage and carry it down the room. Despite all the feedback howls and noise from the PA speakers, the microphone would eventually find its way to our man who, only at this stage, deemed to stand up. Naturally, wild applause greeted his appearance because, up to then, not everybody in the room knew exactly which one of the lads was the actual singer.


I tell you folks, these guys were past masters at acting and would not have been out of place at the Academy Awards. At this stage, usually, one of two things happened. Our singer would bang his fist off the microphone to ensure that it was live and would impress his pals by calling up to the musicians and enquiring if they had sent down the best microphone and was the echo chamber on? Needless to say, much knowing nods at the mention of an echo chamber.


However, the real prima donna would stretch the game out a little longer and up the ante by declaring that, despite all the trouble of getting the microphone to him, he would sing without it. At this point the frozen smiles on the faces of the musicians would almost crack but there would be a murmur of approval from the crowd in appreciation of a courageous singer who didn't need any new fangled apparatus to perform.


At long last, our hero would break into song and, more often than not, he wouldn't be half bad at all. With the cheers and applause ringing in his ears, he would then sit down and, with all the aplomb of a statesman waving at his people from a limousine, he would smile knowingly and decline to perform an encore.


'Thank you Jackie, Johnny or Jimmy', the band would say, as they prepared to play the national anthem. But then, with the timing of a true artiste and before the first roll was off the snare drum, our man would be back on his feet to launch into his second song. The room was his, the band was snookered and the pub singer had won again.


Much as they drove me crazy in my band days, I always had a sneaking admiration for them and their antics. Sometimes, when we were taking out our equipment, we would hear them holding court in the corner. 'Yerrah', they would inform their fans, 'those modern groups are useless and that festival crowd know eff all about opera!'


Hopefully, they have not really gone away but are just resting and waiting before reclaiming their rightful place in society.


 © John Rory O'Connor 2005

  © Irish Showbands & Beat-Groups Archive 2005

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