HE is 82 and recently got a new knee, but Cork drummer and showband legend Joe Mac is still walking the walk.
When I meet him ahead of his concert to mark 60 years in music, I almost expect him to leap up and perform Boney Moroney, giving it wellie like he always did on stage.
“Ah, I know,” he says, as he settles down on the armchair for a chat. “I’m not as young as I used to be.”
He can still have the cráic though.
“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours!” he quips when I tell him I too have a new knee a year old.
Joe McCarthy is firmly installed as one of Cork’s most famous sons and an institution. The man former Taoiseach Jack Lynch greeted with ‘How are you, Mac?’ still loves doing what he does best, playing to the masses with his own special brand of entertainment.
“I still love gigging in Canty’s pub a couple of nights a week,” says Joe, who lives in Ovens with his wife, Ann. “It is good fun and it keeps me young, you know. I still love flaking the drums.”
He became a legend with the Dixies, despite admitting he had a drawback on the showbiz front.
“I was a plain child who wore spectacles,” says Joe, who has nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. “The spectacles were like spy glasses that I used to peer through.
“At school, I was called the Professor, or Doc. I knew back then that I had to wise-crack to get attention. The crowds loved it. I was an ugly mug but I could always make them laugh.”
His band-mate, Brendan O’Brien, on the other hand, was a vision. “Brendan was the heart-throb. We put him out front,” says Joe.
Joe, with his natural Cork wit and on-stage antics, had dance-hall audiences in the palm of his hand. The Dixies were Cork’s biggest show- band, regularly packing them in at the legendary Arcadia ballroom, and topping the Irish charts with covers of international pop hits. Little Arrows made number one in the Irish charts 50 years ago, in 1968.
“Our big break came when we were the resident band in the Arcadia,” says Joe.
At the height of their fame in the 1960s, they were up there with the Miami, The Royal Showband and the Capital, filling dance-halls around the country and becoming superstars in their native Cork.
Joe remembers those halcyon days with great fondness. “They were glory days. The people were great. The punters were great.”
He often surprised the punters, always game for a laugh. “I’d announce, ‘Next dance please’, says Joe, giggling. “The lads made a mad dash across the dance-floor to the ladies. Then I’d say, take your partners for ‘Ladies’ Choice!”
Joe remembers other nostalgic times from his childhood in Copley Street. “My mother, who loved jazz, had great hopes for me,” he says. “She paid for piano lessons for me. I used to ‘go on the lang’ from school and I’d sneak into the cinema to watch movies.”
As a kid, the limelight beckoned Joe. He could see his name in lights. “I knew I wasn’t going to be grinding stone like my father, who was a stone-mason,” he says. But he had to get a trade to earn his bread and butter.
“My mother had a cousin who worked in Cash’s, now Brown Thomas, who was an upholsterer. I started work there, earning a shilling a week. Having a job was a bit of a novelty in the early 1950s.”
Joe soon swapped the needle for the trumpet.
“I joined the Butter Exchange. I was told; they’ll teach you the trumpet.”
He graduated to the drums, flaking them. Joe had found his true calling.
“My dad went guarantor for my first drum kit,” says Joe. “I had the knack!” he says.
And he got the gigs.
“A few of us did the rounds of the socials at tennis clubs, boat clubs and school dances. We enjoyed the circuit and having the tea and cakes after. It was all very proper.”
He got the bug.
Joe formed the Dixielanders as a jazz three-piece band in 1954, with Sean Lucey and Theo Cahill.
“We shortened the name to The Dixies,” says Joe. “It looked better on the flyers.”
The Dixies were soon flying. Joe heckling the crowd with his Cork banter; Brendan making the girls swoon. “We started playing rock ’n’ roll, The Beatles, and pop,” says Joe.
The band took off, adding other musicians along the way, playing venues up and down the country. In 1961, Brendan was invited to become a fully-fledged member of the band, singing and playing rhythm guitar. Now the band had a zany drummer and a sexy singer.
“We travelled to the UK and to Vegas,” says Joe. “We saw the world, Dubai, Jordan, the States. Ann, my wife, came to Spain with us in 1967. The boys were mighty company and we had a few good p**s ups too!”
But they were still home-grown lads who had their feet on the ground.
“I remember once, playing the Olympia ballroom in Waterford,” says Joe. “The band there before us had left a note on the dressing room door saying ‘Fame and fortune hasn’t changed The Dixie’s, they’re still ba****ds!”
In January, 1972, Brendan and Joe followed many of their contemporaries and broke from the band that guided their careers for over a decade. They formed Stage 2.
“The circuit was the same and then we decided to re-form the original Dixies,” says Joe. “The reunion gig was a huge success and we were back on the road again. There was no other job like it.”
Except things didn’t stay the same.
“Brendan suffered a freak accident when he grabbed a ‘live’ microphone and was thrown 10 feet across the stage. He came back to play with us for a month or so. But eventually his back problems made him give up. For a time, I tried something different when I went into the restaurant business.”
Brendan O’Brien died in 2008. “He was sorely missed,” says Joe. “It was a big change, performing without him.”
Joe suffered personal loss too, when he lost his son Aidan, the eldest of his four children, and Aidan’s wife, Linda, in a tragic car accident in 1981.
“Ann and I were minding their baby, Amy, four months old,” says Joe. “I remember going to the garda barracks in McCurtain Street. We had been told to come in; there had been a road fatality near Thurles. I thought, who is dead? Which one would be better for the baby?”
Joe’s voice lowers, his bright blue eyes dim behind his trade-mark spectacles. “They were both dead,” says Joe, his voice wavering. “I had to tell the wife that.”
And he had to do the right thing.
“We went after the baby,” says Joe. “We brought up Amy as our own. She’s 35 now with two children of her own, Chloe and Zach.”
Through the sorrow, he couldn’t wallow.
“There was a family to bring up,” says Joe. “You get through it and put it at the back of your mind. I’d cry some of the time. Nothing you can take will ease the pain. Every year it gets a bit easier. You get through it and you carry on.”
Joe is carrying on too, courtesy of his new knee, his enduring good-humour and his natural joie de vivre. A drop of Captain Morgan here and there doesn’t go astray either.
“I like a couple of drinks in the evening,” say Joe. “I enjoy a drop of Captain Morgan with a couple of cokes. I make it last.”
Joe has lasted through the decades. After all, there is no show like a Joe show.
“I love doing it. I can’t do it when I’m dead and gone, can I?”
Old friends are best, he says.
“My wife, Ann, is my best friend. In 2020, we’ll be 60 years married. Yes, she still gives out a bit to me for gigging. She says ‘Stay home and play with the grand-kids’.”
He’s still there for all the other lovely ladies.
“I’m looking forward to the 6th of January, performing with all my old pals who I know most of my life, for 60 years.”
Will the knee hold up?
“I don’t think I can do the splits anymore like I used to!”
Joe Mac appears in Rolling Back the Years, a dinner and show, with the legends of the Cork showband era, at Clayton Hotel, Silver Springs, Cork, on January 6. Tickets on sale, €55.