THE hits that dominated the ballrooms of romance will be highlighted at a special show this month.
On Sunday, March 19, the Everyman Sunday Songbook will pay homage to the heady days of the great showband craze in Ireland and, more specifically in Cork, with a concert entitled Tie A Yellow Ribbon: Songs We Danced To. With special guest, Cork showband legend Declan Ryan of The Regal Showband, the programme will highlight the songs that rung out through ballrooms across the county, and played each day on the radio.
Last year’s concert was a complete sell-out, this one looks set to be the same and there are currently three showband shows touring the country on an almost continuous basis — Dickie Rock, Ronan Collins and Reeling in the Cork Showband Years. But why? What is it about that era that keeps the audiences coming back in their droves?
One major attraction, of course, is the legendary performers themselves. Cork icons such as Joe Mac, Art Supple and Declan Ryan are living proof of this. Oozing talent, charisma, and energetic personality from every fibre of their beings, these performers have lived through the highs and lows of the showband scene and are impressively still gigging, over 50 years later.
The other is the music itself. Beautifully rich compositions, with memorable melodies, and singalong choruses. Toe-tapping, foot-stomping, hand-clapping songs that leave you yearning for more.
But more than these combined, are the memories that they evoke of a time lived.
“It was nostalgia for a time long past, of being footloose and fancy free,” says Art Supple.
Emerging from the post-war gloom, he believes the late 50s and early 60s represented ‘a social reawakening of the Irish scene’. Up until then, life was a bit dull. The 60s saw people ‘looking out a bit more’.
There was ‘a sense of occasion’ to those ballroom days, Supple attests. From the dapper suits and choreography of the band, the starched petticoats and ponytails of the ladies with maybe a hint of lipstick and a touch of mascara, to the brylcream, jackets and ties for the boys with a whole dose of Old Spice!
And then of course there were the quicksteps, the fox trot, the romantic slow waltzes, the spot prizes… and the all-important Ladies Choice. Let’s face it, guys: if you didn’t get asked for Ladies Choice, chances are you were going home alone!
The showband scene exploded in Ireland with the Clipper Carlton, and pretty soon there were bands springing up all over the country. In fact, at its height, according to Declan Ryan: “There were over 600 show bands operating in Ireland”.
Obviously, with varying degrees of success. However, the bigger bands would play five to six nights of every week.
The challenge for the bands, Joe Mac believed, was to constantly be up to date with the hits of the day. TV still hadn’t impacted on the Irish psyche so the bands listened each week to the Top of the Pops on the radio and would have to have the chart toppers rehearsed and finessed in time for their next gig. It was an ‘intensely competitive’ time, according to Art Supple.
“Everyone was young with tremendous energy’ so it was imperative to come up with ‘new ideas and an energetic approach to the business’, that gave you ‘the competitive edge.”
Supple believed it was a wholly Irish phenomenon that the politicians of the day took for granted. The contribution of the showband era, and its champions, to Irish society and to the local economies who benefitted hugely, has never been fully acknowledged by our government. In the UK, they have Sir Cliff Richard. In Ireland, we have our memories and our crumbling ballrooms.
At their zenith, bands like The Dixies and The Victors were regularly touring the US, Canada, Europe, Middle East, as well as playing to home crowds of 2000 plus. The Dixies topped the bill at the hallowed Carnegie Hall in New York in 1964, and even had a 15-week residency in Las Vegas.
A golden age for the performers and general public alike. However, Ryan says while they were revered by their passionate fans, life on the road could be gruelling. A three-hour gig in Belfast could involve a 20-hour round trip for the band. And it wasn’t always glamorous, he insists.
Supple never ‘subscribed to the idea of it being tough’ however. He loved the diversity of life he encountered as he travelled around to different places. The tough schedule was alleviated by the fun the band had while touring.
For Ryan, it could be the random encounters and side-of-the-road football with a band travelling in the opposite direction.
For Joe Mac, it was the soccer-dates arranged between the band and the security staff at 3am, after a gig, when the hall had been cleared and the gear packed away in the tour bus.
These were the halcyon days. Any weekend in Cork could see thousands flock to the Arcadia, St Francis Hall, Shandon and Cork Boat Clubs as well as the Majorca in Crosshaven. Friends travelled to the dance any way they could: by bike, on the laps of friends in a borrowed car, thumbing a lift, even queueing for one of the 12 double-decker buses outside The Grand Parade. Five hours of dancing was promised with not a drop of alcohol in sight.
Those grand ballrooms went into decline with the introduction of nightclubs, and the showband scene eventually dried up. But the appetite for the music and the memories it evokes remains as insatiable as ever.
Joe Mac, Art Supple and Declan Ryan are headlining the Reeling in the Years with the legends of the Cork Showband Era on October 7/8 in the Cork Opera House.
You can a;sp catch Joe Mac every Sunday 6-8pm in Canty’s Pub.
From the music of Dusty Springfield and Butch Moore, to Dickie Rock, Tom Jones, and Abba, Tie a Yellow Ribbon: Songs We Danced To will transport you back to those wonderful days of showbands and dance halls. The event runs March 19, 7.30pm start. Tickets €25 from The Everyman Theatre on 021-4501673 or www.everymancork.com
The appetite for showband music and the memories it evokes remains as insatiable as ever, says Linda Kenny, ahead of a concert at the Everyman this month.