A show like a Joe show
Sunday Jul 6 2008
WHEN Joe Dolan died of a brain haemorrhage last December there was a huge
outpouring of grief. Thousands filled Mullingar's Cathedral of Christ the King
to pay their respects to the singer and his mourning family.
The day before the funeral, Joe was laid out in his coffin in his trademark
white suit. With the permission of the Dolan family, the press and fans took
their final photos of him in the funeral parlour. They did so with respect -- to
honour the entertainer who had brought them so much joy over the years. They
held banners with their mantra 'There's no show like a Joe show' and felt bereft
that the main source of their musical pleasure was no more.
"Joe was 68 when he died," says his brother Ben. "Everybody wanted to be nice
to Joe for some reason; even down to the papers knocking a few years off his
Ben does not look very like Joe but the moment he starts talking the
similarity is clear. He shares his younger brother's sense of decency and lack
of pretension. When you hear his hearty laugh you may as well be listening to
On the journey from Connolly train station to the Westbury Hotel, the taxi
driver spotted the unmistakable Dolan resemblance and told Ben that he was "shockin'
sorry about Joe".
"I didn't even know who the man was," Ben says, "but I appreciate it and all
the goodwill. It keeps it very fresh in your mind."
Ben has come up from Mullingar where he lives with his wife Helen, to talk
about a new show in which the band will commemorate Joe.
"Shortly after the funeral people were saying 'Our social life is gone. What
are you going to do? Would you not arrange something?' We said no." A little
while later they relented, and decided on a summer show. "That was back in
January and July seemed miles away. Now it's on top of us and it only seems like
a couple of weeks since."
They got together and organised a show. It is to honour Joe's memory and to
meet the fans' demands.
"We're calling it a reunion show because it is a reunion," says Ben. "The
band is broken up. But as for meself, I kind of miss the craic with the fellas
in the band and doing the gigs and meeting people.
"I'm not saying that I want anything off them or that they want anything off
me but it's just that over the years people in Cork knew the people in Donegal
and the people in Dublin just by going to a show and meeting up. We're doing a
show but there are loads of other acts in it too.
"In the show, Joe is up on the screen singing live. When he picks up the mike
and counts 1,2,3,4, we'll be playing live. We've rehearsed it with the film
we're going to use and I thought it was great because I never saw the show
before. Then all of a sudden, we see it from where the audience sees it and I
thought it was fantastic."
Ben realises that it may seem a little eerie having Joe up on the big screen
but as he points out, these days screens are a part of all shows.
"When you go to open air shows, even in a match in Croke Park, a lot of the
time you watch the big screen but with us it'll mean that you watch the big
screen all the time. Screens are being used all over the world. We're trying to
give something good and we hope that the people will enjoy it. I hope they're
all in good humour rather than being sad."
For all his cheerfulness Ben's grief is palpable. How could it not be? Since
1960, Ben had played saxophone in his brother's band.
"I miss him terribly. I find it hard to believe that it really happened. Some
mornings I wake up and since Joe's death I don't have a clear day in my mind.
You wake up and you think, 'What am I worrying about?' and then it hits you.
It's just there all the time. You think, 'Why did it happen', and then you
think, 'Why shouldn't it happen?'"
Ben tells me that Joe was the sort of person who was never sick and if he was
feeling groggy, he would never complain. He'd still get out on stage and after
about two songs he would sing himself better.
"Even when he was on stage and he was hoarse, he would never tell the crowd
that he wasn't the best. I used to say to him, 'Why don't you tell them that
you're feeling groggy?' but he'd say that it was nothing to do with them and
that they had paid their money and deserved a good show. He never complained
about sickness but then we always thought that Joe was only a young fella and he
had a young outlook. We never thought he was getting old but I suppose that's
because we're all getting old but don't feel it."
Two and a half years ago, Joe had a hip replacement operation. (His original
hip was put on eBay and auctioned off for charity.) "Just a bit of fun," as his
brother puts it. Ben traces Joe's decline in health to around the time after the
hip operation was done. All of a sudden, he would be unwell for short spells.
"He would never ever let the papers know that he was sick. No papers ever
printed that he was in hospital. They might have printed that he missed a show
but he never wanted that sort of publicity. I see a lot of singers when they get
a cold and they're looking for publicity, it's in the paper."
Ben is still numb by the suddenness of Joe's death. While his brother had
been sporadically unwell, he didn't think it was anything fatal. Joe was having
trouble with his platelets and while he had been in hospital right before
Christmas, he was allowed go to his Dublin home for Christmas Day. He didn't
feel well shortly afterwards and went back into hospital by ambulance. He died
on St Stephen's Day. This was a shock for Ben as Joe had still been working hard
right up until the end.
"Four weeks before Joe died he made a record of old jazz tunes," says Ben.
"He did Mona Lisa, Dean Martin's Ain't That a Kick in the Head and he even
went to the bother of learning Italian for one of the songs. The record is
"He came down to Mullingar a week before Christmas with the Christmas boxes.
He just went around all the houses. He'd give six bottles of wine or whatever. "
Joe Dolan's generosity was legendary. At the funeral, Fr Brian D'Arcy told
the congregation of how Joe would frequently slip him money for charities. He
always gave discreetly.
"Joe had no interest in money so long as he had plenty of it," says Ben. "Do
you know what I mean? He always bought himself a good car, he wore good clothes
and he had a good house and he played golf. He didn't think that much about
money. I can't say that Joe ever took show business seriously. He liked what he
was doing but there was no big deal about it. When he was in Australia he had to
rehearse with an orchestra and he hated rehearsals. If someone told him that it
was important to go to something, he would say, 'Important for what? I'm playing
golf.' Most of his friends had nothing to do with show business."
As Ben talks of Joe, it is clear that he looked out for his younger brother.
When they were growing up Joe was always confident but Ben was the one who
advised his younger brother to avoid taking risks early on in his musical
career. Ben trained as a carpenter and Joe was in the middle of his
apprenticeship as a compositor for The Westmeath Examiner when the bug hit him.
Impatient to break into the music world, Joe wanted to leave his job and go
at the music full time but Ben told him that it would be better if he finished
his trade, so that he would have something to fall back on. Ben concedes that in
some ways Joe was like the elder brother in that he was more daring.
"I made sure that he finished his time because I couldn't see the band
business being successful. Joe went up to Dublin and bought a guitar off a fella
he knew who worked in McCullough Piggots. He came home with a guitar and an
"I asked him how he was going to pay for it and he said, 'Ah sure, I'll pay
for it some way.' He didn't have a penny but he really got in on the guitar and
it took him no length to pay it off. I was afraid of my life leaving my job, but
Joe was confident. He could only see the good side of everything. The first gig
we ever did we got paid £10 pounds and we were lucky to get the gig. Soon we
were playing outside Mullingar in places like Kilucan and Kinnegad."
In 1963 they made a record called The Answer to Everything and that was the
beginning of the big time for them.
"Larry Gogan was the first person to play the record. Our audiences shot up
from 400 to 800 people -- and the fella who was booking us was the promoter, not
the parish priest anymore. Make Me An Island was our first international hit.
All the international tours to South Africa, Israel and Vegas came out of that.
And we went to New York, Boston and Chicago after Good Looking Woman came out."
Ben has tried to come to terms with his brother's death but sometimes when he
speaks about him he is on the brink of tears. Although he says that he is
looking forward to the concert, I suspect that it may be an emotional night for
him and the other members of the band. Being surrounded by Joe's loyal followers
should help him get through it. He says that he finds solace when the fans
sympathise with him and tell him of their own stories. Listening to them takes
him out of himself.
"Since Joe died I've heard of far worse cases. People are telling me about
family they have lost. Only last week I met someone who told me that her
27-year-old son committed suicide. He was a fan of ours. As she was explaining
it all I thought, 'Jesus, there's no point in her being sad for Joe, she's
enough to be sad about.'"
Just like his brother, Ben Dolan takes the time to think of others. He is a
The Dolan Family and James Cafferty present 'Joe Dolan, The Reunion Show' --
a live production that reunites former band-mates with a video projected Joe --
at Inec Killarney, July 11-13. To book call 0818 300888 or visit
- Ciara Dwyer