Joe Mac spent six days in hospital with Covid

As he receives a special Cork Culture Award tonight, legendary musician Joe Mac tells LINDA KENNY about his life and career, and his brush with Covid-19
Joe Mac spent six days in hospital with Covid

Legendary Dixies drummer Joe Mac. Picture: Dan Linehan

A LEGENDARY drummer who has enjoyed an upbeat life in showbusiness for almost 70 years, Joe Mac admits his heart skipped a beat for a moment when he was admitted to hospital with Covid-19.

The 84-year-old came down with the potentially deadly virus in March, and even his trademark cheerfulness was threatened momentarily.

Joe admits he had been “running on adrenaline” up until the point when the triage nurse in the Mercy Hospital asked him for his “next of kin” and “whether he wanted to be resuscitated”.

The music legend made a full recovery and says: “The level of care was superb. The nurses were absolutely wonderful and the food delicious!”

Joe adds: “I got the first symptoms on a Friday, though it wasn’t one of the classic symptoms like headache, etc, and I tested positive the next day”.

By the Monday, he was being taken by ambulance to the Mercy and recalls: “As I was being transported, I remember looking out the window and, using the landmarks to try and pinpoint where we were.”

Now fighting fit again, the quintessential Cork showman is being honoured tonight and will receive the Cork Culture Award from the Lord Mayor of Cork in recognition of his contribution to music over the years.

Joe Mac during his showband days.
Joe Mac during his showband days.

The presentation of the award will be available to view by the public on Cork City Council’s YouTube page on Wednesday, May 26.

Married to Ann for more than 50 years, and with a glorious extended family, Joe Mac is, without a doubt, a bona fide living legend: larger than life, outgoing, charismatic, effortlessly energetic, and the eternal prankster. He is also an incredibly talented musician.

A poster child for the glorious showband days in Cork, when 4,000 punters packed into Irish ballrooms to not only dance for hours to his sensational Dixies showband but to laugh at the madcap antics of their drummer, Joe Mac became synonymous with all that was wonderfully memorable from that era.

At the tender age of 84 years, moreover, he still has the magnetic stage-presence to ignite the passion of a room of 1,000 music lovers and whip them into a dancing frenzy of nostalgic twisty, swinging locomotions.

Born into a family of stonemasons, whose exquisite work can be seen in churches all over the city, Joe resisted the urge to join the McCarthy family business.

“We lived next door to the stone yard in Anglesey Place and everything was permanently covered in dust!” he recalls, by way of explanation. 

“I have one brother Thomas, who has a bigger nose than me”, he chuckles, “and he did go into the business.”

Music had seeped into Joe’s DNA, however, and there was no escaping it. “All my music came from my mother,” he insists. “She sang non-stop around the house. My father was tone deaf, despite the fact that his siblings (Buddy Mac and family) played in a band.”

“In school, no matter what was on offer, from the choir to a tin whistle band, I put my hand up!” he adds.

The constraints of academic life were too rigid for the young Joe and he quickly, and eagerly, swapped the lead pencil for a starched “white apron, a mouthful of tacks, and a magnetic hammer” when he got a job as an apprentice upholsterer in Cash’s (now Brown Thomas).

Linda Kenny and Joe Mac
Linda Kenny and Joe Mac

It was an onerous job, travelling to the big houses around Cork, with made-to-order furniture, repairing curtains, laying carpets and lino.

But, the alluring call of music was still pulsing gently beneath the surface. “I was mad to learn the trumpet. Someone recommended I join the Buttera,” he explains. “I went along one night. They had no vacancies on trumpet so I learned the upright horn instead.”

The real turning moment came one evening at a dance in the College of Commerce. Tommy Mac and his quartet were playing and, after the interval, the drummer failed to return to the stage.

“They announced this over the microphone and asked if anyone could play the drums”, Joe continues. 

In characteristic fashion, he put up his hand, landed up on stage, sat behind a drum kit for the first time, and thought to himself ‘This is for me!’

He was hooked.

His father said he would act as guarantor for Joe to buy a drum kit on condition that he got some lessons in the School of Music.

“I beat the s**it out of those drums!” he recalls with a laugh.

Word got out that he had a drum kit, and one evening, saxophonist Derry Murphy called to his home to ask him to play with his band in Woodhill Tennis Club in Tivoli the following Sunday.

FAMILY MAN: Joe Mac and his family when the children were young. He and wife Ann have been married for more than 50 years
FAMILY MAN: Joe Mac and his family when the children were young. He and wife Ann have been married for more than 50 years

Joe earnestly set off on the bus that Sunday night in 1954, with his bass and snare drums under his oxters and the cymbals in his bag, and played his debut gig for which he got paid the princely fee of £1.

It was a paltry sum compared with his 19 shillings per week pay cheque from Cash’s, but manna-from-heaven to the young Joe, doing what he loved.

From such humble beginnings came a steady stream of gigs, and a gruelling touring schedule that often saw him fall into bed at 6am after a gig in Foynes the night before, only to have to get up again for work two hours later!

By now, Dixieland music was in full swing and when Sean Lucey and Theo Cahill contacted Joe to form a jazz band, he didn’t have to think twice.

With an offer of six Sunday night gigs in the Shandon Boat Club, at £5 a gig between the five of them, The Dixielanders were born. They rehearsed in Joe’s mother’s house, much to her delight.

“My mother always loved jazz and she loved listening to us play!” he remembers.

The gigs flowed in. “We were flying,” Joe adds. Their manager, Peter Prendergast, suggested abbreviating their name to The Dixies “as it looked more striking on a poster,” Joe explained, and by 1959, they were making £80 a gig and considering becoming professional musicians.

“I was mad to go for it,” says Joe, “but Theo worked with the ESB and Sean was a radio engineer, so it was a bigger decision for them.”

“Some nights, I’d dress up in a kilt with a mock beard for Donald Where’s Your Troosers.” Other times, Joe would take off his socks and play the drums with his feet. Drumsticks were constantly sent flying but always retrieved mid-air. Comic barbs shot at anyone heading to the loo! “We put the ‘show’ into showbusiness and the audience loved it!” he adds.

“We learned our trade in the Arc (The Arcadia ballroom)”, Joe says. “We had a residency there playing support for all the big bands, like Ted Heath, Ivy Benson, Acker Bilk. We watched, listened and learned”

Radio Luxumbourg and Radio Caroline taught them the weekly hits from the UK charts. In the eyes of the 4,000 adoring fans who turned up to see them play the following Sunday night, over the course of the evening’s entertainment, The Dixies literally became those stars like the Beatles, or Elvis.

“Brendan was a handsome fella and all the ladies would be focused on him as he moved around the stage,” explains Joe. “But I’d be making faces behind his back, acting the maggot, and all the boys would be watching me!” he adds with a cheeky grin.

Those were the golden days of the showbands in Ireland: dance halls bustling with life 5-6 nights of the week, a thriving industry for musicians, and not a drop of alcohol or a health and safety officer in sight.

The Dixies were flying high too. A No.1 single with Little Arrows, frequent trips to the U.S, including two residencies in Las Vegas in a hotel owned by the American business magnate Howard Hughes, and topping the bill at Carnegie Hall, ensured they were at the top of their game and earning “huge money”.

“On my first day on Broadway, I bumped into Chubby Checker”, Joe says. 

They had performed on the same bill in Belfast’s Kings Hall a few months previously. The Dixies had finished their gig and packed away their gear when it was discovered that Chubby’s PA system was not working. The Dixies kindly unpacked theirs for him to use.

Joe Mac . Picture: Richard Mills.
Joe Mac . Picture: Richard Mills.

Chubby recalled this when he bumped into Joe that day in New York and instantly threw his arms around him. “Fats Domino happened to be passing by at the time and Chubby called him over to meet his ‘friends’ from Ireland. I said to myself in that moment ‘I’m never going home again’,” Joe laughingly adds.

The band split up in 1972. O’Brien and Joe subsequently established a very successful band called Stage 2 with a host of Dublin musicians. “It was very successful, but so different from the Dixies, where people came to see me acting the maggot. In Stage 2, there was no fun aspect, I had to sit still and play the drums,” he admits.

By 1979, discos had started to replace the need for live bands and the showband scene sadly ground to a halt. Money became tight.

“I packed it up, left the drums behind, and became a chauffeur for developer Robin Power, and was very happy to get away from it all,” he admits.

When Robin developed the Queen’s Old Castle arcade, he offered Joe a coffee shop. 

“I hadn’t a clue about business”, he says, “but I had the personality to do anything.”

One shop turned into two and “every cousin that came looking for a job, I gave it to them.”

One day towards the end of 1981, a man came into the coffee shop and said 4,000 people had crammed into a dance hall in Tralee the night before. “I rang Sean Lucey and Theo and suggested we reform the Dixies for a few gigs in the Arc”, he outlines. Reluctant at first, they finally agreed. So, they rented out suits and the amplifier, Joe borrowed a drum kit, and they played St Stephen’s night. There was no going back after that.

“I let the second coffee shop go, and signed the other one over to my daughter and the band headed back on the road.”

The second resurgence of the Dixies saw the late Terry McCarthy join them as their fantastic lead singer and they toured not only around Ireland and the U.S but also multiple trips to Abu Dahbi, Dubai and Bahrain.

“What a different world that was!” exclaims Joe. “white gloved waiters, chandeliers, a magnificent show!”

However, life on the road was now much tougher. In the early days of The Dixies, they had their choice of gigs and stayed overnight in hotels. But, with the decline of the showband era, they had to accept gigs wherever they could get them and often had to endure a 15-hour round trip for a five-hour show.

“As we’d pass houses on our way to a gig, I would spot the lights coming on, and I used to sadly think I could be at home now!”

Joe left the touring life in 1992 and set up the Joe Mac band with Teddy Moynihan and others. It was “more successful and made more money than when I was on the road,” he says.

Playing the role of Herod, with a 40-piece orchestra, in the Olympia Theatre production of Jesus Christ Superstar was a particular highlight for Joe. He alternated the role with Luke Kelly.

Another stand-out memory was going to mass in Las Vegas. “We did a 50-minute show, three times a night,” he explains. “So wouldn’t be finished until 2 or 3am. We could only go to the pub then.” But as The Flame pub remained open 24 hours, that wasn’t an issue.

They emerged into the stark brightness one Sunday morning and decided to go to mass. The sign of peace was a relatively new concept then and, as they stood for the prayers, a policeman who was in the seat in front of them turned around to shake their hands. Chris, Joe’s band mate, reluctantly replied: ‘Sorry, do I know you?”

They laughed for days afterwards.

Joe has played non-stop since that first official gig in 1954. His hugely popular Sunday evening residency in Canty’s pub, with long-term friend Oliver Keane on guitar, is running since 2013.

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