Stained-glass artist, songwriter and musician

In June 1999, aged just 56, Billy Brown passed away after a long battle with illness. A brief mention in the national papers the following day noted his passing. It didn’t remind its readers that Billy Brown was one of the heroes of the Irish music business; one of our greatest ever singer/songwriters; an exceptional musical arranger and the bandleader of one of the top showbands in Ireland during the ‘60s.

Born in Larne in 1943, his father was a fine musician. Having completed his formal education, he enrolled at Belfast College of Art where he began to study stained glass design. While there, he joined Billy McFarland's Showband.

Ladies dressmaking and interior design

“We were told that we could study ladies dressmaking or interior decorating so I opted for the lesser of two evils,” said Brown. “I could see some use for interior decorating but clothes have never interested me. I just wear them to cover myself.”

As a young boy, Brown loved football. He also loved music but knew that if he asked his parents for a piano, it would mean an end to football on the street as he would have to stay in and practice. But his father did ask him if he would like one and he spent a hard-earned £200 on a new piano for his son.

An excuse for a piano!

“I have a feeling that my father really wanted the piano and used me as an excuse to buy it!” said Billy. He was still allowed to play football but it wasn’t long until he was skipping games so that he could spend more and more time practising his new instrument.

It was while he was with the Billy McFarland Showband that he and some friends decided to form what was to become Ireland’s best-loved pop band of that decade, The Freshmen. The Ballymena-based band sought perfection in everything they did. Their stage outfits, their presentation, their performances and their music were a cut above everybody else. Their soaring harmonies were the best of any Irish band before or since. And Billy Brown was the director, arranger, producer and puppeteer.

Appearances on RTE’s ‘Showband Show’ and UTV’s ‘Pop Scene’, further raised the  band’s profile and following minor success with their second single, ‘I Stand Alone’ (written by vocalist Derek Dean), they finally broke into the charts with the memorable ‘Papa Oom Mow Mow’.

Movin’ On

Another single followed, ‘The Little Old Lady From Pasadena (Go Granny Go)’, which had been a hit for surfers Jan & Dean in the US. Because of their vocal strength, the ‘surfing-sound’ of Jan & Dean and The Beach Boys suited The Freshmen to a tee. They began to be known for their note-perfect renditions of Beach Boys songs more than anything else, and this in fact became a hindrance, overshadowing their excellent original numbers.

They played support to The Beach Boys at their Dublin and Belfast concerts in 1967 and released a groundbreaking album ‘Movin’ On’ in 1968. This collection included three originals from the pens of Brown and band members Damien McElroy and Davy McKnight as well as a song by Danny Ellis and another by Phil Coulter and Bill Martin.

The name Billy Brown was spoken with respect and reverence, not only by the thousands of Freshmen fans but by his contemporaries in the music business. Billy Brown was a musicians’ musician and The Freshmen arguably the best showband of them all. They brought music standards of their era to a higher level and paved the way for today’s successful Irish musical exports.

Peace On Earth

Always innovative, The Freshmen staged a ‘Peace Concert’ in Dublin in 1970, a live performance of their second LP ‘Peace On Earth’ on the CBS label. Narrator on both projects was the renowned actor Micheál Mac Liammóir. Early in the 1970s, however, cracks began to show in what up to now had been an incredibly cohesive unit and Brown decided to leave and form his own band. Soon the Billy Brown Band was launched with sax-players Keith Donald and Paschal Haverty, trumpeter Mick Nolan, drummer Dessie Reynolds, Tiger Taylor on guitar and Johnny Browne on bass. Musicially, a very strong unit but in an Ireland which was leaning more and more towards ballads and Country 'n' Irish, the band was not a commercial success.

Another venture followed when Billy teamed up with former Real McCoy vocalist Mike O'Brien to form 'Brown & O'Brien'. Slightly more successful on the ballroom circuit than his previous band, from which only Tiger Taylor remained. New members included Pat McCarthy, Ray Elliott, Gerry Anderson, Eddie Creighton and Paddy Freeney. In 1971, following the release of just one single record, the band left for Canada. Not long after, Billy returned to Ireland and rejoined The Freshmen. A new album, 'Now And Then' was released.


Though Billy wrote songs throughout his musical career, only one of his compositions, 'Make It With You' featured on any of The Freshmen's albums though others such as 'Better Believe It' and 'Time Hasn't Changed Her' appeared on B-sides of singles. Freshmen guitarist Damien McElroy was an equally prolific songwriter in those days. His compositions 'Gone Away' and 'Don't Say Love' featured on the B-sides of their second and third singles while another of his songs, 'Saturday And Sunday' opened their 'Movin' On' album. Drummer Davey McKnight also had a composition on that album, 'When Summer Comes', which became the title track of the 2001 Pye Anthology.

Billy Brown only really blossomed as a songwriter after The Freshmen though his highly-collectable punkish song, 'You Never Heard Anything Like It' was their last single release (apart from re-issues). His most memorable composition, ‘Cinderella’, a song inspired by Limerick mezzo-soprano Suzanne Murphy went to No.3 in the Irish charts and his autobiographical rocker, 'Look What Jerry Lee Did To Me' still remains popular today. A rare unreleased CD of Billy's songs shows the brilliance of his songwriting talent. The haunting 'My Cup Runneth Over', the humorous 'Dear Mums And Dads' with its Freshmen-style harmonies, the tongue-in-cheek 'Off The Wall' and the romantic 'You Came Through Love With Me' are only four of the songs that should be heard. One of the aims of this website is to have these magical songs released commercially.

The Country Life

Billy always had a great interest in wildlife and wild birds in particular. In latter years, when he lived near Naas in Co. Kildare with his wife Angela and daughters Katie and Paddy, he often gave informative talks, sometimes on the radio show Poparama. His slight stammer never hindered him on these occasions. Here he also developed the artistic talent which had first led him to stained-glass design and he spent hours in his studio drawing and painting. His works were sold in the Tuckmill Gallery in Naas.

Not long before his death, Billy teamed up with his old colleagues for a one-off performance when The Freshmen reunited for a concert at The Waterfront in Belfast. It was a very special moment when the old, familiar soaring vocal harmonies filled the air again, bringing back vivid memories of the long-gone, packed ballrooms of the 1960s.

© francis beirne kennedy 2007

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