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1960's - The Showbands

As is often the case in the entertainment world, the innovators do not always reap the greatest benefit from their own invention. Although the Clipper Carlton was very successful, the band would not reach the popularity of some of the bands that followed. Perhaps it is because they remained a "band," each member contributing their share to the overall sound and entertainment value of the band, but none grabbing the spotlight.

This unequaled form of fan hysteria would be reserved for the bands that copied and followed the Clippers, but with one exception...almost all these other bands had a distinct front person (mostly males, but some women also grabbed their share of the limelight in the sixties.) Although most showbands went by a single name, the most famous bands eventually had a featured lead singer. Names like Brendan Bowyer, Dickie Rock, Eileen Reid, Butch Moore, and others dominated the stage, and further defined the era of the showbands.

One of the rarely mentioned aspects of the early days of the showbands was the importance of the Irish Federation of Musicians. Headquartered in Dublin with branch offices in Athlone, Limerick and Cork, membership in the federation was a necessity if one wanted to play in the Irish ballrooms. Over time this power diminished and by the early 1970's membership in the federation was rarely mentioned, although still (I think) desired for all musicians. In a May, 1967 issue of Spotlight, Gay Byrne reported the figures from the Federation as reported by Jack Flahive. By the way, membership included a music test in which potential members were asked to read music on sight.

At the time, there were "136 bands in Dublin, 47 in Athlone branch, 43 in Limerick branch and 43 in Cork branch." Said Jack, "Of these, approximately 24 are the legitimate reading type of band and 249 are showbands." A somewhat derogatory view of the vast majority of Irish entertainers at the the time. With another 180 bands registered in the North, there were approximately 450 "official" bands touring Ireland in 1967.   

Where did all these musicians come from you may ask. Well, almost all started as part timers, playing music while labouring away at their "day jobs." Joe Dolan started life as a qualified compositor (printing), brother Ben was a carpenter. Tony Kenny was a butcher and Sonny Knowles was a tailor. Butch Moore was a printer as well and continued to pay his union dues (just in case the music didn't work out). Dickie Rock was serving his time to be an electrical welder and Dermot O'Brien was a public servant working for the Meath Country Council for over 10 years before deciding to turn "pro." Ordinary lads pursuing (at the time) an extraordinary career path.

But back to the history....

The main differences between the orchestras and the showbands were a reduced number of players (usually 7 or 8); the addition of electric guitars and bass; and often the trading in of the trusty piano for an electric organ. The showbands retained a full complement of brass, (usually one of each instrument) a sound that would define their music for the next decade.

The undisputed kings of this era were The Royal Showband from Waterford. They were formed in 1957 as a part time band featuring local paper mill clerks Tom Dunphy and Brendan Bowyer. Offstage, Brendan was shy and retiring, and played trombone with the band. However, onstage he became a different person and it wasn't long before his gyrating hips and wild take off on Elvis gained him national fame. It was 1958 and Ireland had its first superstar. Between Tom's country crooning and Brendan's wild rock n' roll act, the band was a huge success all across the country, far outpacing the popularity of the band on which they had originally patterned themselves, the Clippers.

The incredible rise of the showbands as the sixties started created an entire industry that employed upwards of 10,000 people at its height. Ballrooms started to spring up all around the country as the old parochial halls could no longer cope with the huge crowds the bands were attracting. Most of these facilities were thrown up in a matter of months, with little in the way of creature comforts. They had one purpose and one alone, accommodate as many dancers as possible.

Things started to roll along as in 1962 the Royal released the first single by a showband, Come Down The Mountain, Katy Daly, featuring Tom Dunphy. The song was a danceable country/Irish folk and an instant hit. However, nothing was to prepare the industry for the magic that was 1963. That year, Brendan recorded "Kiss Me Quick," which was to become the first number one single in the Irish charts by a showband. They also starred in the film, "The One Nighters," which was produced by Peter Collinson and followed the band through their "wholesome" private lives and onto the stage.  

The same year, a new magazine dedicated to covering the exploding showband scene made it's debut...Spotlight was published for the first time. The magazine was filled with photos of the bands and their stars and featured stories which followed their every move. If that wasn't enough, the fledgling Telefís Ireland, Ireland's only television station, which had just gone on the air on December 31, 1961 produced "The Showband Show." The weekly hour long show was to Irish showbands what The Ed Sullivan Show was in the States. An appearance with host, Paul Russell, assured bands national exposure, which they translated into higher fees with promoters.

From 1963 through 1968 the showband era was at it's height. Ireland had it's own entertainment royalty, led by names like Brendan Bowyer and the Royal, Brendan O'Brien and the Dixies, Dickie Rock and the Miami, Joe Dolan and the Drifters, Butch Moore and the Capitol, and many more.

This period also saw the rise of the folk scene in Ireland with artists like Johnny McEvoy and Danny Doyle leading the way. In fact, during the mid sixties, controversy rage on the Irish entertainment scene as many showbands saw "folk" music as a way to sell records. This lead to numerous accusations that showbands were trying to "out folk" the folkies.  

As the sixties came to a close, several changes started to occur in the world of the showbands. The huge influx of "copy cat" showbands led to a glut on the market. In fact, other than the distinct voices of a hand full of stars, the showbands were beginning to be accused of all sounding and looking the same.

Another major change was the rise of Irish ballads and folk. Early showband records had been copied from the rock n' roll and pop stars like Elvis, Buddy Holly and others. But by 1967, the folk revival had not only hit the Irish bars and hotels, but also the ballrooms. Showbands started releasing (and having major hits) with songs like Black Velvet Band, Irish Soldier Boy, Streets of Baltimore, and many others.   

Another major change was also happening. The dancers that had been packing the halls in the late fifties and early sixties were moving on, getting married, having kids and a younger set of dancers were taking their place. In this environment, bands like the Clippers and others started to look "old" and out of date. From 1967 through 1970 the showband landscape underwent a lot of changes.

Also during this time and especially between 1968 and into 1970, the local bar scene exploded with "lounge bars" springing up all over the country. Although limited to opening times set by the government's strict licensing laws (closing time was 10 pm on Sundays) the lounge bars were catering to the aging dance crowd. With comfortable surroundings, central heating, and drinks a-plenty the ballrooms continued to lose crowds.

During this period the influence of the Catholic Church also had a great impact on the showbands as it forbid dancing during Lent (the forty days before Easter) as well as on Saturdays and days before Holy Days in the Church's calendar. This caused the bands to look for work elsewhere during Lent, which usually meant going to England, Canada or the United States for extended tours. The period last usually for the whole month of March (except for St. Patrick's night) and into early April.  

The late sixties (and in  particular, 1967-1968) signaled the end of the "old" showband era and the dawning of a new age. Several major bands split: The Miami broke up, splitting into the Sands and the "New" Miami and the Drifters lost all but two of its members to The Times. Bands that didn't split brought in new blood to appeal to a younger audience, The Pacific replaced Sonny Knowles with Peter Lawlor, Butch Moore left the Capitol and was replaced by John Drummond. And a slew of "new" bands hit the scene: The Real McCoy, The Mexicans, Sands, Times, the list went on and on. 

The distinction between pop and country bands became clearer as the bands could no longer be all things to all people, and had to be "different" from their competition. Bands like the Smokey Mountain Ramblers and Cotton Mill Boys came on the scene, providing pure country and bluegrass dance music, while showbands like The Mainliners moved to a distinctly country sound with Big Tom leading the way in the field of "Country and Irish" along with Larry Cunningham of the Mighty Avons and Brian Coll of the Plattermen. Pop bands like the Memories in the South and Chips in the North, started to attract a younger audience and the old showbands faced difficult times. 

Those that successfully redefined themselves would continue to entertain new audiences. Those that couldn't went by the wayside. As early as 1966, only ten years after the start of the showband craze, critics were forecasting the end was in sight for the showbands. Articles by prominent industry magazines foresaw a bleak future for the bands and the ballrooms and many said it was over.

Even though the huge crowds and fan mania of the early to mid 60's was gone, the showband era was not done. After a shakeout in the late sixties, the industry recreated itself in a new way. Showbands morphed into pop or country acts; a smattering of cabaret artists tried their hands in the ballrooms; the Beat groups of Dublin became the pop and rock groups of the 70's and started to challenge for their piece of the pie. The industry was transforming itself......

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In Loving Memory of Grant Gallagher: Sept. 21, 1990 - Nov. 18, 2006