First Published, October 2014
A LEGEND AND A GENTLEMAN
There are some names in music that always seem to have had a special aura about them. No sooner are they spoken than a sense of respectful admiration, and sometimes even awe, is quickly evident in both speaker and listener alike. On other artists there may be differences or disagreements, but with a small few, such is their standing and so great their achievements, a consensus of recognition is promptly agreed. On a worldwide stage, such artists would be Frank Sinatra, John Lennon, and Don McLean, to name but three. Closer to home, there was the late Joe Dolan and Ronnie Drew, for example. And of course, there remains a man by whose continued presence, not only in the world but on the stage, we are still blessed (and may it remain so for a long time to come!)…Mr. Brendan Bowyer.
In more ways than one, Brendan has much in common with artists the calibre of Frank Sinatra, John Lennon and Don McLean. One such way, of course, is his already legendary status, like Frank, John and Don, attained while still alive and well and entertaining his fans across the world. Another such way is that as with each of the aforementioned, Brendan is married forever to one song in particular. With Sinatra, most people tend to think first of the epic My Way, with Lennon it’s the call to conscience of Imagine, and with McLean, it’s probably more often than not the anthemic American Pie. Mention the name of Brendan Bowyer anywhere and sometime very shortly after, if not in the very same breath or sentence, The Hucklebuck is referenced.
I had the true pleasure and honour of sitting down for a chat with Brendan recently, ahead of his upcoming show in the Bridge House Hotel here in Tullamore on the 19th of this month. I began by asking Brendan how it feels to be so closely associated with one song in particular. Is it something that ever gets a little frustrating, perhaps?
“Absolutely not. I mean, it would be great to be recognised for something like ‘My Way.’ But Gay Byrne once said to me, ‘You know, you’re one of a select few who are known by a song like that, and you should be grateful for it.’ And I told him the same thing as I’m going to tell you now, Anthony, I said it would be nice if it was a legendary song like ‘My Way’! But ‘The Hucklebuck’ is a great party song and it’s great to get the ball rolling. I use it as my opening number and it’s almost like a signature tune now. We recorded it in Abbey Road, you know. And when we started recording in Ireland, there was no place where you could include drums and amplified guitars. Bridie Gallagher, she would have used accordions and violins and string sections alright. But I don’t think the Eamon Andrews studios were even there then. So we got a break to get into Abbey Road with Wally Ridley and George Martin. In those days, Anthony, you’d release a vinyl single, and ‘I Ran All The Way Home’ was meant to be the A-Side and we spent 2 and a half hours clapping and doing the do-waddy-waddies and all that! But then we were told we still had 20 minutes left [of the session], could we wrap something up? Well we’d been doing ‘The Hucklebuck’ on stage so we just did it, bang! One take, live, that was it. And I think it was the spontaneity of it that made it the party hit that it was. It’s a song that’s never died off. I even remember hearing it in a nightclub in London in the 70s, Tramp it was, our version of it, too. So Wally said after we finished it, ‘There’s your A-Side’, and we said no, no, sure it’s only a three-chord song. But Wally replied, ‘A song doesn’t have to be difficult to be great!’ And I think he was right, Anthony.”
A few years back, 2001 to be exact, Brendan recorded a beautiful tribute album to Irish singers and songwriters, Follow On, and among the tracks featured were What’s Another Year (performed by Johnny Logan, composed by Shay Healy), and Past The Point Of Rescue (Mick Hanly). It’s been a little while since that album, but I wondered if, in the years between, there were any other Irish songs in particular which had caught Brendan’s ear and which he might like to record someday?
“Well ‘What’s Another Year’, that was a great song, wasn’t it. It’s iconically Johnny Logan. I remember people wanted me to release it as a single but I said absolutely not! I like Nathan Carter’s song, ‘Wagon Wheel’, and I saw Darius Rucker do it on the Country Music Awards and he had the place rocking and I said, jeez, now there’s something! I hadn’t seen Nathan do it yet at that stage. But Darius, whom I remember well from Hootie And The Blowfish, he did it great live. He’s a great country singer, really brilliant. And I don’t think there’s been a black country singer since Charley Pride, of such note, anyway. I did a version of it on stage in Waterford last week and it went down well. I don’t do too many current numbers because people don’t expect them from me. I’ve tried putting them in but it doesn’t work. There’s very rarely anybody under 40 at my shows, for one thing! But I do numbers that could belong to any era, like I think Robbie Williams ‘Angels’, for example, is a brilliant song. Or something from Springsteen like ‘Dancing In The Dark’. But fans want to hear ‘The Hucklebuck’ and other songs from The Royal Showband like ‘Love Thee Dearest’, originally a John McCormack song and ‘Boolavogue’ and ‘The Croppy Boy’. They both became associated with me too. We used to pass them off as waltzes. Not that they were rebel songs only, of course, they’re both very, very good songs.”
Nowadays it’s the norm for stars of screen, stage or the sporting arena to be involved in numerous sponsorship and promotional deals with companies and products of every nature imaginable. But Brendan must surely be one of – if not the first – major Irish star to have done so when he endorsed Coca Cola…
“Yeah, ‘Things Go Better With Coca Cola’, I remember it! We used to have the posters around the house! And the funny thing is, well, maybe more ironic than funny, I suppose, is that at the time I was probably too fond of drink of a different kind! But I remember in Athlone, of all places, in the Prince Of Wales Hotel, didn’t I have a big pint of stout in front of me. And a little kid came up to me and turned to his mother and went, ‘Hey Mam, Brendan is not drinking Coke!’ So there was a funny side to that. I often wondered, though, why Irish firms didn’t use Irish artists for the same purpose in those days, you know. Especially the showbands, because no matter what anybody thinks of it, it dominated the era. And when tours like myself, or more like Tommy Swarbrigg and Reeling In The Years go on, God, you can hardly get in the door to places still.”
I wondered what draws Brendan into a song? Is it an instinct for what a good song is? Is it something that has to connect with him on a personal level? Or is it thinking about what kind of song will work well with an audience?
“Well the story of a song, if there is one, is hugely important. Take ‘Boolavogue’, for instance. I sang it when I was 10 years old in The Savoy in Limerick with my father on the Hampton organ. It was a Saint Patrick’s Day special with dancing and everything and all the kids there. But the words of that song are particularly stirring and patriotic. Now ‘Wagon Wheel’ and ‘The Hucklebuck’, although they don’t sound alike in any way, they have that party number feel to them in common. And that gets me too. ‘The Hucklebuck’ just got me originally because I thought it would be good for dancing, and that’s what we were doing. I didn’t think it would become the hit that it did.”
I hated to be the one millionth person to ask Brendan about Elvis… but at the same time, how could I not?! And Brendan, as ever, was gracious enough to complete understand. Elvis, after all, is possibly STILL the biggest name in music on the planet. Even so many years after leaving this earthly stage. And yet, it could well be argued that at the absolute height of his fame, Elvis Presley himself was a fan of Brendan and going to see him perform in Vegas! Not only that, but Elvis was actually inspired to record a particular song, You Gave Me A Mountain, after hearing Brendan sing it! I asked Brendan how does all of that feel when he has a little time to sit back and think about it?
“I didn’t think he was going to do anything about it, Anthony. We had done the Marty Robbins version, but we put brass on it and dramatised it in a big way, it was a lovely country version of it. And actually, Jimmy Buckley does a lovely country version of it too. But anyway, Elvis was asking me about the song and quizing me on it. So soon enough ‘Aloha From Hawai’ was being shown all over the world. Now today that’s nothing because we can chat easily to family or friends in Australia, but at the time it was a big deal and there were millions watching it, I think. And the thing he started off singing ‘You Gave Me A Mountain’! And they went on to release that stage version as a single in the States and it went to number 1. I’m not sure if they released it in the UK. But nearly anything they released by Elvis in the UK went to number 1, no matter what it was.”
I asked Brendan if he thought there was anyone in the entertainment world today who might one day come close to matching Elvis in standing?
“Well Michael Jackson came close. But the whole industry has grown as well. So it could happen that somebody does someday.”