By Derek Fanning
Last year when Johnny Carroll played in Birr Theatre & Arts Centre he had the audience dancing in the aisles. Johnny returns to the Centre this Saturday the 23rd of February. Johnny has been belting out big-band sounds, Rock n Roll, international hits and traditional Irish tunes on his trumpet as a solo star and with various top bands since the late 1950s. DEREK FANNING has been talking to him.
MT (Midland Tribune): When did you start your musical career?
JC (Johnny Carroll): I started in 1958 with a showband from Roscommon, the Premier Aces. I was 13. We were a very, very successful band right through the 60s. We made the top 10 in Ireland and England. We toured Britain, the USA and Canada. At one stage we were joined by Housten Wells. He was a great singer and had just enjoyed a big hit in the English charts. We became very popular with him and enjoyed this popularity for many years.
Then I joined a band called Magic. This featured a fellow with a lit up suit. During the show he would jump out of a box in his lit-up suit. This was the Gary Glitter era and it was all about glam and glitter. Magic did extremely well and we toured all over the place.
In the late 70s the show band scene dried up a little bit. There was no alcohol unfortunately in the ballrooms which began to tell against it. We ourselves didnt drink. We were all pioneers.
In our heyday we had attracted 3,300 people to the Casino Ballroom in Castlerea in 1966 and in Mallow we drew 2,500 people. It was an enormous business at the time. We often played in marquees and people would exit the marquee and dance out in the fields. We worked extremely hard, but we were young and it was not a big deal with us.
Then the ballrooms started to close because there was no alcohol in them. People started to move into the plush, soft-lit environs of hotels. I couldnt afford to keep our band going and it disbanded in the early 80s. I then ventured out on my own with my trumpet. You needed to be able to sing, you needed a front-singer or else you were at nothing, and I started doing this. I sing quite a lot now during a show.
At the time Phil Coulter was coming. I was also inspired by Acker Bilk and Eddie Calvert. Eddie Calvert was my great idol. He was the original man with the golden trumpet. The marvellous song Oh Mein Papa was an enormous hit for him. I thought of them and the fact they had done well in Ireland, but no Irishman of their ilk had ever tried what they were doing.
I eventually got a record company interested in me. It was very difficult to get a company interested. Eventually I made my first album with CMR Records, A Touch of Class in 1987. In that year it was the biggest selling album in Ireland. It was easy listening music. Now my solo career really took off. I am now into my eighth album. I have been extremely fortunate over the years. The business has been very good to me.
I play cabarets, concerts and dances and I go to the USA a couple of times a year. One year an American fellow visited Ireland and bought one of my CDS. He played it on a US radio station and the station received a lot of telephone calls. The station then arranged some concerts for me in Cleveland. I have been going to the States ever since.
I love visiting Branson in Missouri when I go to the US. Its a famous place with famous musicians who have retired there, people like Andy Williams, Charlie Pride, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton. Those people would open your eyes they are so professional. They do two shows a day. You would think they would have had enough of it but they still work very hard. I prefer Branson to Nashville. In Nashville you dont meet the stars. Its a place for making records.
Andy Williams has his own theatre. It cost $40m and is more elaborate than anything we would have. In this theatre he often puts on a total show which would have a cast of 30 people. There would be magicians in the show. The show would have a theme, for example Fiddler on the Roof. Williams shows are very fast running. It starts off with a comedian, the band then comes on and then the star.
MT: When and where were you born Johnny? And who were your parents?
JC: I was born in Castlerea, Co Roscommon in October 1943. My parents were Joe and Rose. My father was a painter in Castlerea Hospital. I had one brother and three sisters and I was the eldest.
MT: Did any of your family play musical instruments or sing?
JC: Music came from my mothers side. My grandfather played the accordion and my mother played the fiddle. When a brass band started in Castlerea in the mid 50s I joined. I played the cornet at the time. There was nothing at that time: There was no TV, no electricity. All young lads were doing was standing around on street corners. The band shows were the only thing. My Dad had a great love of brass bands and he tried to entice me to join this new brass band in Castlerea.
MT: Why did the Premier Aces break up? Was it due to a personality clash?
JC: Yes it was. We worked in very close proximity for six nights a week for 16 years. A personality clash was bound to happen in those conditions.
We worked extremely hard. During Lent no music was allowed and so we travelled over to England. We played there for six weeks and then returned for Easter Sunday when marquees would be erected at every crossroads in Ireland. Sometimes in the summer we would play 42 nights one night after the other.
It was also extremely disciplined back then. No matter how hot it was we werent allowed to take off our jackets. We always had to look really smart. I still dress well now in a white jacket and dickie bow.
MT: Do you still enjoy your profession?
JC: Ah yes, I love it. Financially speaking I could actually give it up now at this stage, but I love it so much I keep on at it. I now do about 120 dates a year.
MT: How much do you practise every day?
JC: I dont practise very much. I do need to keep my lip in shape. You have to develop a muscle in the lip for blowing. Even when going on holidays I bring a mouth piece with me to keep my lip in shape. Or else I would be in trouble after ten minutes into a concert. After seven or eight days on holidays Im dying to get back to my music life.
MT: Whats the current album you are working on?
JC: Im working on a Celtic album, which features famous pieces such as Mise Eire and She Moves through the Fair.
MT: It says on your publicity information sheet that you have Velvet Vocal Chords, but you were saying to me you didnt think your singing was too good.
JC: Well, I dont know about velvet vocal chords but, without blowing my own trumpet (he laughs here) my singing has turned out pretty successfully.
MT: Do you play any other instruments?
JC: I play a bit of bass guitar and a little bit of tin whistle.
MT: What kind of music will you be playing in this Saturdays show?
JC: Ill be playing James Last, Glenn Miller, the Old Bog Road, Elvis Presley. I mix it the best way I can and I mingle with the people. The show will last about two and a half hours. Ill also tell little entertaining stories before the pieces. There will be two other musicians with me who will play the synthesizer and guitar and will sing vocals. I might play a couple of jazz pieces, and maybe Danny Boy, Slievenamon, a little bit of country, Nat King Cole and some rock and roll. We wont play modern pop music because its not that sort of setting. In a dance setting we would.
I really enjoyed playing in Birr the last time. Oxmantown Hall is a beautiful place. There are a lot of little theatres throughout the country now like Oxmantown Hall which have opened in the last few years. Its marvellous for the likes of me.
MT: Where are you living now?
JC: I moved to Galway about 32 years ago. I live in the outskirts of the city in Salthill.
MT: Are you married Johnny, and do you have any children?
JC: My first wife Stella died of cancer in 1986 and left me with four children. That really devastated me and I had a very bad time.
I met my second wife Ann when I was playing in a hotel one night in West Limerick and met the bosss daughter. We fell in love and married.
MT: Do any of your children play musical instruments or sing?
JC: None of my children are into music.
MT: How much longer will it be Johnny, do you think, before you retire?
JC: Im now 58 years of age but dont look my age. Ive ginger hair. I feel as good as I did 20 years ago. I dont drink too much nor do I smoke. But if anyone should ever have been killed from passive smoking it should have been me, spending all those hours in those smokey ballrooms and in those smokey cars.
MT: You should write to the Minister for Health and say that.
JC: (laughs) Ill give it up when I dont enjoy it anymore.
MT: Do you have any pastimes Johnny?
JC: I dont really have any pastimes. A lot of my friends play golf. I love to be at home. I love pottering around the home. Will you mention that I am also playing in Dunamaise Theatre, Portlaoise on Friday the 1st of March next?
MT: I will indeed.