John Arnold: As Dickie bows out, it’s truly the end of a showband era

Dickie Rock has retired from singing aged 84. John Arnold looks back at his career, as great memories linger
John Arnold: As Dickie bows out, it’s truly the end of a showband era

ROCK STAR: Dickie Rock on stage in his heyday

FIFTY years ago, when I was attending St Colmans’ College Fermoy, a little known (at the time) singer/songwriter named Don McClean wrote and released the song American Pie.

Nearly nine minutes in length, it was a big hit in America the following year and in the intervening half century, American Pie has been one of most ‘played’ songs ever recorded.

It’s a mysterious and melodic song with many obscure and strange lyrics. One line written by McClean is oft repeated in this classic song, ‘the day the music died’. It’s a reference to Tuesday, February 3, 1959, when a plane crash in Iowa claimed the lives of three rock’n’roll pioneers and their pilot. Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, JP Richardson (The Big Bopper) and the pilot Roger Peterson all died when their small plane crashed in poor weather.

McClean was born in 1945 and grew up as rock’n’roll was really gripping America and gaining traction across the world. He wrote American Pie when he was 26 and in a reflective mood. He probably reckoned the 1959 tragedy changed the direction of the music world and he was also a bit fed up with the way the ‘great American dream’ had soured.

Rock’n’roll still continues today but I suppose 1959 was a watershed moment in its history. In years to come, I wonder will 2021 be seen as ‘benchmark’ year in the history of Irish music?

Back in 1959, the Irish showbandtarget="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> scene that flourished until the 1980s was in it’s infancy. A young Dubliner, Dickie Rock, was setting out on a career, the length of which he could never have imagined in his wildest dreams. Last week came the sad news that Dickie has retired from singing at the age of 84.

I know it’s not as devastating as the deaths of Joe Dolan in 2007, or our own Dixie Brendan O'Brien the following year, or Brendan Bowyer last year, but I think it’s the end of an era, truly.

Some would say that after the 1960s the ‘Showband Era’ was over, but in truth the following decade was still the time when the maxim ‘send ’em home sweatin’ was the ethos of the big bands.

When I’d talk to teenagers and those in their 20s nowadays about the club or disco scene as it presently exists - well, before Covid came - they’d relate tales of ‘massive’ crowds at such and such a venue. On enquiring, ‘a massive crowd’ in their terms might be 500 or maybe 600!

They wouldn’t believe when I said I often saw that many in the queue for the toilet long ago in the Top Hat in Fermoy. Anyone who went to dances during the Showband era thought nothing of crowds of 2,000 to 3,000 in the Arcadia, Majorca, the Majestic, Top Hat or Redbarn.

Those days are truly gone and just the memories linger, and with Dickie’s voice now silent, the Showband Era fades even father into our history.

I get a shiver up the spine thinking of those heady days and nights. 

It’s not the fun and craic, devilment and laughter that gives me the colly- wobbles but recalling those super singers and the range of their voices. The way Brendan could do the Hucklebuck or enthrall a packed, hushed hall with Boolavogue or The Ballad of James Connolly - magic. Larry Cunningham’s Lovely Leitrim and Sean Dunphy with his Eurovision hit If I Could Choose - Dickie had a great Euro hit also with Come Back To Stay.

The girls were crazy for Cork’s own Brendan O'Brien firing his Little Arrows and his smouldering version of Together Again - ah, the Dixies and Stage 2 were super.

Cork’s own also was Pat Lynch -imagine, it’s also half a century ago since Pat had a huge hit with When We Were Young. Another great singer who was always Walking The Streets In The Rain was Butch Moore, he had a powerful voice and a wonderful stage presence.

They say practice makes perfect, that’s true in many facets of life but certainly not in regards to me and ballroom dancing, or my inability to master that artform. They say about a bad dancer ‘he has two left feet’ -that phrase was coined about me!

In my late teenage years, I hadn’t come to the use of reason in regards my inability to tango, foxtrot, jive or waltz. I suppose a mixture of freckles and raging hormones convinced me that I was a class dancer rather than ‘a class of a dancer’.

One night, in the Majestic in Mallow, and I trying to impress a girl with my terpsichorean skills, I whispered in her ear ‘I have dancing in my blood you know’ - looking down at her black and blue shins, she retorted: ‘Begor, if you have you must have very bad circulation!’

So now, after over 60 years on stage, ‘spit on me Dickie’ has retired – I suppose it’s fitting that he kept right on ’til the end of the road. He had plenty bookings, even well into next year, but his hearing problem has changed all that.

Dickie and his lovely wife Judy will spend more time sunning themselves in Spain from now on. All I can say is, ‘Dickie, thanks for the memories’.

I was still in National School when he had a hit with From The Candy-store On The Corner - few songs will ever be associated with one singer as that one. An old song, but still as relevant today as in the early 1960s. Young love, full of promise and hope and plans - the oldest yet newest theme for lovers of all ages.

If we’ll forever remember Brendan Bowyer for The Hucklebuck and I Ran All The Way Home as ‘action songs’, then Simple Simon Says will be the trademark of Dickie’s legacy. I can recall maybe 2,000 dancers heaving in the Top Hat as he belted out: “I’d like to play a game, that is so much fun, and it’s so very hard to do, the name of the game is Simple Simon Says, and I’d like for you to play it too.

Put your hands in the air,

Simple Simon Says,

shake them all about,

Simple Simon Says,

do it when Simon says,

Simple Simon Says,

and you will never be out

I can tell you, after ‘exercising’ to that with Dickie for five minutes, you’d have mind for the Chicken Supper!

Ah yes, those showband days were just great and though Joe, Brendan, Butch, Larry, Dickie and so many others were business rivals as they criss-crossed the country for decades, they were all part of a magnificent generation of entertainers. We were so lucky to have seen and heard them and danced to them.

To the likes of Dickie Rock, Art Supple, DJ Curtin, Red Hurley, Paddy Cole Eileen Reid and Hugo Duncan, who are all thankfully with us still, we owe a great debt of gratitude for so much sheer pleasure and enjoyment given to so many for decades. There’s Always Me, Every Step Of The Way, Just For Old Times Sake and The Candy Store will forever evoke great memories of Dickie Rock - one of the very best.

A great voice and a great showman, one of Ireland’s ‘super star’ entertainers. Enjoy a well deserved retirement, Dickie. I suppose we can’t say that last week was the ‘week the Showbands died’ but things will never be the same again.

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