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, 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
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 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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
'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.