Every picture tells a story: Here’s Johnny’s

When the photo above ran in a recent Throwback Thursday, a call went out to find the duo walking in Cork city in 1967. JO KERRIGAN reveals how Johnny Campbell duly came forward, and he tells her the story of his life in Cork — and how he shared a stage with music legends Rory Gallagher and Chuck Berry!
Every picture tells a story: Here’s Johnny’s

MAN ABOUT TOWN: The photo of Johnny Campbell on Daunt’s Square, Cork city, in 1967, by Richard Mills. Johnny has been tracked down since we ran the image in Throwback Thursday

DOESN’T the Echo reach everywhere?

Remember that picture we ran a few weeks back, showing the Shilling Stores in Daunt’s Square? In that photograph, taken by Richard Mills in 1967, were a young man in a UCC scarf and an attractive girl in a mini skirt.

People saw the picture, enjoyed it, spread the word... and finally we got an email from Johnny Campbell, who was that young man back in Sixties Cork!

He was delighted to see it — especially as he had no idea that Richard had taken it — and we got talking. Whereby a marvellous story unfolded, which revealed his link with Cork’s own Rory Gallagher and several trips to Hamburg as part of Impact, as well as appearing with Chuck Berry in London.

We thought you should hear the story too, so here, with Johnny’s permission, is yet another tale of growing up in our city by the Lee...

“I actually grew up on the Lower Glanmire Road, next to St Patrick’s Church. Neighbourhoods are very specific countries when you are a child.

“We never ventured beyond the railway bridge by Kent Station and certainly would never have hung out with kids from below the station.”

Johnny and his friends played on the old, disused railway line which once ran between Summerhill North and the Lower Road, to where the Scout Hall later stood.

“We always called that ‘The Plot’ and played endless football games there,” recalled Johnny.

The big problem for these energetic and sport-loving kids was a Mr Tony Menton, who ran a boarding kennel for Alsatians on this disused land. “He would release the dogs every so often, and cause panic and a hasty, headlong, abandonment of the match as they bounded towards us!

“We retaliated by dropping missiles on his premises from Clifton Terrace above — everything from water to horse droppings, but never anything dangerous really.”

BAND MATES: Johnny Campbell with Rory Gallagher underneath the stage at the Hamburg club where they played together in the 1960s
BAND MATES: Johnny Campbell with Rory Gallagher underneath the stage at the Hamburg club where they played together in the 1960s

This armed warfare went on for quite some time, says Johnny, before ‘Menta’ approached them from behind St Patrick’s (neutral ground) one day and opened peace talks. He agreed to keep the dogs under firmer control and we agreed to abandon our reprisals.”

As they got older, Johnny’s group gravitated more towards Wellington Road, to pastures new.

“We used to play ‘Up for Nods’ in Belgrave Place gateway, and had a card school across from the Garfield Stores too.

“For more serious football, we headed up to the Camp Field across from Collins’ Barracks. We walked warily around the kids from Clankittane though, which was the area surrounding the Barracks.”

Did school come into this at all? Johnny sighs.

“You might say I had a chequered educational history. Most of the guys around the road were North Mon boys but I started school in St Angela’s Girls school on Patrick’s Hill (Babies and High Infants), and went on to Sullivan’s Quay because my uncle was chairman of the past pupils’ association.

“This was a Christian Brothers establishment and no place for a painfully shy, studious boy like myself and many others.”

Later he attended St Kieran’s College on Pope’s Quay, because his father was involved in some campaign with the owner of the school.

“I can safely say that anything new I learned in my two years there did not happen on the school premises,” says Johnny.

“My old man finally woke up to reality and tried to move me to the North Mon or Scoil Chríost Rí, but having heard all the horror stories from the gang around Wellington Road, and taking my experience at Sullivan’s Quay into account, I refused point blank to go to either.

“And so I ended up in Pres where I prospered, had a great time, and made life-long friends.”

Music was always the most important thing in Johnny Campbell’s life and a friendship forged at St Kieran’s with another music-mad student began to develop.

“I started playing with Rory Gallagher in January, 1966, as the Impact group, and that found us in Hamburg in August of the same year. (This was before Eric Kitteringham’s and Norman Damery’s time).

When we landed at the Big Apple Club in Dehnheide, we were dismayed to find ourselves billed as the Fendermen. Those kinds of things tended to happen when you were dealing with a showband manager.

“The line-up was Rory on his Stratocaster, Oliver Tobin on bass, and myself on drums.

“I changed over to playing bass for the group’s second trip to Hamburg because Oliver had to quit about ten days before the gig and we couldn’t find a replacement.

JOHNNY BE GOOD! Chuck Berry (right) performing with Johnny Campbell (centre) and fellow Corkman Bill O’Brien on the legend’s European tour in London
JOHNNY BE GOOD! Chuck Berry (right) performing with Johnny Campbell (centre) and fellow Corkman Bill O’Brien on the legend’s European tour in London

“I found it hard to get back to drums again after that, because people preferred me playing bass.”

One rare picture has actually survived of Johnny and Rory in their somewhat insalubrious digs underneath the stage at the Hamburg club.

“Yes, it was pretty grim by modern standards, but very much comparable to all accounts of the Beatles’ early days in that city. We were playing the music we loved and were young enough not to care about the living conditions.”

They played five 45 minute sets every night, and sometimes an extra one on Saturdays. Fairly exhausting, one would imagine.

Back in Cork, Mr Campbell felt it was perhaps time to make his father happy, knuckle down, and go to college.

“I had fully intended doing Arts. I was a voracious reader, very interested in history, and had good Irish.

“What actually happened is that I arrived in UCC and met three school friends who persuaded me that commerce was the way to go. Get a great job, make loads of money, have the same craic that we had in Pres. One of them had failed Arts the previous year and on mature reflection, had decided commerce was the way of the future. So I signed up for that instead.

Life in UCC back then was one big party, recalls Johnny fondly. 

“It wasn’t long before I began to have serious reservations about my choice of course, but I had Modern History, Law, and Spanish which I was good at, and the days spent in the Rest more than made up for the pain of Accounting and Maths.

“Occasional tours of Beamish’s brewery were highlights of my first year and there was always some form of entertainment to be had.

“I complicated my academic life by going back to Hamburg in January, ’67, with a new band, and finally got back to Cork around February 5. No flying in those days.”

Students of the Sixties will recall that it was obligatory for all to do timetabled oral Irish classes in their first year, so predictably, Johnny was hauled over the coals by Padraig Tyers, the head honcho in Roinn na Gaeilge for his January absence.

“I managed to cook up some cock and bull story about having a job at Christmas which I had kept on because I needed the money, but it didn’t go down too well. He sentenced me to some extra Irish classes and told me I couldn’t pass my exams if I hadn’t completed those. ‘Having good Irish does not exempt you from attending classes,’ he thundered, as Gaeilge.

“So I dutifully attended, thanking my lucky stars that nobody else on the academic side appeared to have noticed I was missing.”

He remembers a couple of old saws in UCC: you should have revised the course at least once when they cut the grass on the Quad for the first time, and so on.

“When they cut the grass for the second time, and I still hadn’t started revision, a slight bit of panic began to set in.

“But then the Pres boys got together and we sat down with old exam papers and tried to predict what would come up. We were reasonably successful and there is no way I would have passed without that bit of assistance.

“As it was, I had to compensate in Maths. But the big thing about first year exams is that you learn how it works and I managed well enough from then to graduation.”

And the photograph that began all these reminiscences?

“It was taken in July, ’67, after my first year exams,” explains Johnny. “The lady in the photo is Susan, with whom I had just begun stepping out.

“The summer of ’67 was, of course, the Summer of Love, Flower Power, et al, and a time of great music and positivity. We really believed the world could be changed for the better by the power of love and music.

“And what music — A Whiter Shade of Pale, Let’s Spend the Night Together, Penny Lane, Light My Fire, I Was Made to Love Her, and all culminating in Sergeant Pepper. Wonderful! Unforgettable!

“There was music everywhere and at one point during that summer, I played ten consecutive gigs with seven different bands.”

By the end of his second year, Johnny admits, he had come to hate everything about commerce as a subject.

In those days, though, you tended to stick at it, which he did, and graduated in absentia in 1970.

“I walked out of the last exam and never opened a commerce book of any description again.

“I did use the degree to teach Sound Engineering in later life, but I note they have closed that little loophole now. If you are teaching Hebrew, you must have a degree in Hebrew.”

Returning to Germany with another band, Johnny spent most of his life thereafter playing music, including a couple of memorable years in London when he and another Corkman, Bill O’Brien, played with Chuck Berry on his annual European tour.

“I’ve been a recording engineer for a number of years now (The Secret Garden Studio), but always with gigging,” says Johnny.

“Once you get into that way of life, it’s almost impossible to give it up.”

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