I have just been flipping through ‘From the Candy Store to the Galtymore’ – stories from Ireland’s showband era by Dr Joe Kearney and PJ Cunningham – some great memories and anecdotes from that era, the 1950s to the ‘70s. Among the many stories, it tells of things like the excitement of going to the first dance, of hearing some of the top names in the industry for the first time etc., and what an industry that was!
The early ‘60s was such an exciting time for me and for thousands of others like me when we were in our early teens. For some reason, when I became a teenager, I yearned to get to what I thought was the magic age of 16 but now, looking back, I can remember very little of significance from that time, with the exception of getting interested in music (and possibly girls!!).
At that time (1963), a group of lads from Kilworth and Mitchelstown had come together to form a band. These eventually became The Panama Showband (later to become The Southlanders), the members of which were Denny Brien on lead guitar (names as we knew them – no room for ‘O’ Brien back then), Sean Hegarty (bass guitar), John Joe Cahill (R.I.P.) on trombone, Jimmy Geary (trumpet), Johnny Keeffe (alto and baritone saxophones), Pierre Young (clarinet) and Christy Hayes (drums).
Prior to their big opening night in the Sunflower Ballroom which was owned by the O’Donnell family, they rehearsed several nights in that venue as the big date approached and whenever I could, I took the opportunity of sneaking into the back of the hall to have a listen.
John Joe (RIP) sang the Fats Domino hits ‘Be My Guest’ and ‘Let the Four Winds Blow’. Another of his favourites was ‘The Jug Of Punch’; Sean (who even today will sing at the drop of a hat) sang the Country number ‘Pick Me Up’ and if I’m not mistaken, ‘Jambalaya’ and ‘The Wild Side Of Life’ were also some of the many numbers he sang; Denny sang ‘I Was Lookin’ Back To See’ (which he still sings today!) and Christy was the man for the Buddy Holly hits of the time ‘Rave On’, ‘It Doesn’t Matter Any More’ etc., (Buddy Holly had been killed in a plane crash three years earlier at the height of his career).
Chubby Checker was all the rave at the time and ‘The Twist’ was the latest dance craze. I recall being in the Red Cross section of the FCA around that time (maybe a year later), and being ferried in the back of an army Larry to Collins Barracks for a fortnight’s summer camp. It was the night that Chubby Checker was appearing at The Arcadia in Cork city. It was around 8pm when we passed ‘the Arc’ and a large queue had already formed along the Lower Glanmire Road. The following morning it was announced on radio that someone had been stabbed on that night outside The Arcadia – an incident that made big news at the time.
The Panama, wanting to be right up to date with the Chubby Checker hits, had Jimmy out front gyrating, as he belted out ‘Let’s Twist Again’, bringing the temperature in The Sunflower to its highest as the condensation ran down the walls.
Bill Hayley was another chart topper with ‘Rock Around The Clock’ and if memory serves me right, Johnny did the honours on this one! It was also at a time when Val Doonican had made his big breakthrough with ‘Walk Tall’ and again, Johnny did the honours here.
There wasn’t standing room in The Sunflower on that Sunday night in mid summer. People queued on the street before the dance began and tickets were sold through O’Donnell’s front room window.
The Panama Showband, resplendent in their brand new green band suits. The money taken on the night (all of £110) was taken to Cork the following day in payment for the suits. With the admission price at 5/- (five shillings), a quick calculation would make the attendance on the night somewhere around 440 people – capacity surely for The Sunflower!
Fermoy businessman John McCarthy (better known as Johnny Mac) having been in the band business himself, took an interest in the lads and be, himself dressed in his white tux, on to the stage of The Pinewood Ballroom, Glenville. The band could be booked by calling Johnny at Fermoy 241 (far from mobile phones we were then).
But, back to The Panama’s opening night in Kilworth: At that time, I was at in what was to be the first of many jobs, employed as a sawyer’s assistant to Dave Fleming (RIP) in ‘Barry’s Yard’ on Fermoy’s Courthouse Road. I had been giving Dave (who himself had been a drummer in a band in his earlier days), the low-down on the band and telling him this was going to be the biggest night Kilworth ever witnessed. Dave had taken delivery of a brand new bike around that time, and so decided he wanted to be part of the action.
I thought no more about it until shortly before10pm that night while the dance was in full swing, there was a bit of commotion on the road leading out of the village towards Fermoy. The news filtered through that there had been an accident involving a cyclist. Wanting to know more, I ran to the scene (no more than 100 yards from the hall) only to find my good friend Dave, unconscious in the ditch. Was there a car involved or was it how Dave may have been slightly inebriated as he headed back for his home in Fermoy? I never really knew the real truth.
Dave was rushed to hospital and the following morning, Dave’s wife called to me at Barry’s to get the lowdown on what had happened her husband. I wasn’t much use to her, only being able to tell her what time it happened, how he was at the time, etc. Luckily, Dave made a full recovery!. A jovial character, we had many happy days in Barry’s Yard during my twelve or fifteen months there.
As I say, The Panama morphed into being The Southlanders and while they didn’t share top billing like The Royal, The Dixies or The Drifters, they did enjoy quite a bit of the action sharing the stage with Dermot O’Brien and The Clubmen in Redbarn, with The Capitol in The Mayflower and with other top bands around Munster.
Looking back on the ‘ups and downs’ of the business, the lads would fondly recall one particular night heading to Kilteely in Co Limerick . Travelling in what was a very dense fog in a van provided by their manager Johnny Mac, they were ‘somewhere around Ballylanders’ when the lights in the van failed. Luckily, one of the lads had a flashlamp. If they were to play in Kilteely that night, there was nothing to do but for him to sit out on the bonnet of the van and guide the driver as best he could, hoping and praying to stay between the ditches. The reached their destination and played the gig. Yes folks, that’s showbusiness!. Happy days indeed!
In the early 60s, showband fever was well and truly in the air and it wasn’t unusual to see a band of some kind or other come out of every second village in Ireland.
Myself and a few of my pals decided to get in on the action and in our haste to get started, travelled to Crowley’s music shop on Merchant’s Quay (now long gone to make way for the shopping centre there) to buy ‘guitars’. And that we did – three of us bought identical lead (or rhythm) guitars – none of us wanted to play bass!! The innocence (or should that be stupidity) of it all.
Eventually after a few false starts, Ronnie Dawson, Francis Kearney, Mick English and myself became ‘The Cymbals’. Our first gig outside of Kilworth’s Sunflower Ballroom was for the Donoughmore Sports dance, secured for us by our ‘manager’ my late brother Jimmy (Jeff). We had purchased an Anglia car (FIU 110) and, with trailer in tow and roof rack loaded to the hilt, we headed for Stuake Hall, near Donoughmore village about 10 miles outside of Cork city.
Within a short time, we were getting requests to play at various events, some being open air stages (The Pound in Kildinan and Aghern stage). We got a rather prestigious booking for a dinner dance in Mallow’s Central Hotel and co-opted Mickey Masterson on accordion to add a bit of meat to our old time waltzes and, of course, be in a position to offer dancers a Siege of Ennis.
The goings and comings of The Cymbals would take up more space than this column allows so that’s for another day. Yes, The Panama (Southlanders) blazed a trail that The Cymbals followed! Happy days!