First Published, October 2014
WHEN THE BEATLES MET BRENDAN!
Sitting across the table from Brendan Bowyer is a little surreal. Not because of the man himself, because quite simply, he could not be nicer. A real gentleman, in every sense of the word. His kind of humility, down-to-earthness, and respectful manner is a trait common to many of the biggest names I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with. Mike Denver, the late George Hamilton IV (more on George next week, R.I.P), Frances Black, Sandy Kelly, to name but four who spring immediately to mind, all household names but class acts, never the kind of people to ‘act the star.’
But Brendan Bowyer! Brendan is in a different league to almost everyone when it comes to the life he’s lived. He’s so easy chat to and so kind with his time and his answers that you’d almost – ALMOST – forget that this man sitting in front of you and laughing heartily as he shares another story, has also stood next to Elvis. And the Beatles! Elvis AND the Beatles, for cryin’ out loud!
And on Sunday night next he’ll stand on the stage of the Bridge House Hotel in Tullamore. In advance of the show I had the opportunity to sit with Brendan for a little while the other week. Surreal? Slightly! Memorable? Most definitely! Roll on Sunday night!
Having played in almost all of the world’s most iconic venues, I asked Brendan was there any one in particular of which he was especially fond? Or, was there any one gig which has always stood out as being especially memorable for him?
“I suppose it would have to be when we had our own show in Carnegie Hall in New York in 1966, Anthony. We were very well supported by the Irish, it was a full house, in fact, because emigration was still strong in the 60s, so it was full to the doors. And of course there was the thrill of playing where so many great acts and artists had played before me. There was an Irish ballroom down around the corner, on West 55th Street, which was run by Bill Fuller in the 60s, and it was no different than being in the Galtymore in Cricklewood, ya know! It was amazing. We were there one Patrick’s night, I think about 1962 or something like that, and there was a big queue going up the street and back around the corner. And I was going up the other side of the street anyway and there was two Americans right behind me and I could hear one saying to the other, ‘There must be a big name in Carnegie Hall tonight!’ But the crowd were going the other way that night, to see us.”
I wondered if Brendan had ever found it in any way uncomfortable being recognised, does he ever find it slightly intrusive, perhaps? Or is it just something that comes with who he is and what he has done and continues to do?
“Ah sometimes, but only sometimes, a little bit. Like if you’re trying to get from A to B. Like when I came into the hotel here today, a lovely gentleman came over to me and said, ‘You’re a long way from Seapoint here!’, (THAT would be YOU, John!) meaning Galway, ya know. People like to let you know they know you, and that’s always grand. But the youngsters today, not many would probably know me from Adam. Whereas in Dublin in the 60s, you couldn’t walk the streets. Well you could, but you’d want to be quick!”
When Brendan came into the music business he, and more like him, had to work hard, relentlessly and consistently to achieve what they did. There was no easy option available, no path of least resistance with the chance of fame (inevitably false) and success (inevitably short-lived) almost offered up on a golden plate. In other words, no x-factor type reality tv shows. I wondered what changes has Brendan himself witnessed within the industry that have really struck him?
“Well to relate to what you’re saying, Anthony, we started in 1957, and I remember Radio Luxembourg. Are you familiar with Radio Luxembourg? Because in Ireland at the time, forget it, maybe on Irish Hospitals Request on a Wednesday you might hear a popular song by Perry Como or something like that. But Elvis, it was in 1956 I think I first heard him, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, and I can remember looking at the radio and thinking ‘What in the name of God is this?!’, it was just a total change of everything! I used to have a tape-recorder ready for the Royal Top 20 on a Sunday night and a little transistor radio too! Now a guy called Larry Kirwan, of the band Black ’47, they filled the Meadowlands (home to NFL sides the New York Giants and the New York Jets) where the Super Bowl was, I think 2 years ago. And they’ve often been called a rebel band, which I think is somewhat incorrect. They do a certain amount of rebel stuff, they’re kind of a rock version of the Wolfe Tones. But Larry is also an author and a poet, and he said to me when I described to him how I was getting stuff off the radio – and remember, people would ask me was I writing songs back then, and I’d go ‘Whaaat? Sure we’d be lucky to even hear a popular song!’ – but Larry has a saying that he often uses, it’s ‘Never make light of the past, it was once all that we were capable of.’ And it was, it’s true.”
“Even the Beatles”, Brendan continued, “when they played support to us in Liverpool, their opening number was Bruce Channel’s ‘Hey Baby’, which I was also doing at the time. And they did it so darn well that I told our band I wasn’t doing it that night! They came over and played in Middle Abbey Street in 1964 and Lennon was interviewed by Michael Hand of the Sunday Press, who was ghosting a column for me in the Press at the time. So Michael says to John Lennon, ‘Well, what did you think of our Royal Showband when you were with them?’, and Lennon took his time before he replied, then he said, ‘It was a bit of a f@%kin’ talent competition!’ And I could see why he might have seen it that way, because I’d go out and do my thing, then Tom (Dunphy) would go and do a country number, Charlie Matthews would sing a standard, Jim Conlon at the time was singing ‘Living Doll’, the Cliff Richard song. So this was all going on and I can imagine the boys, John, Paul, George and Ringo, all watching it from the wings! It must have seemed like a talent competition! We used to do a lot of Percy French numbers as well, and a bit of comedy too. About the mid-60s though, is when I think it changed [the music scene in Ireland], with the arrival of the big country and Irish bands, Big Tom and the Mainliners, Larry and the Mighty Avons. The showband thing had kind of run its course at that stage. People had seen it all. They still did well after, but that was when the end began, if you like.”
As perhaps the greatest entertainer that Irish music has ever known, our own Elvis in many ways, I asked Brendan what’s the most important thing for an entertainer to remember about entertaining his audience?
“Well I always remember that they’ve paid to come and see you. But you’ve also got to make contact with your audience. How do you do it? Well, you try and use a bit of charm as well as singing for them. Contact with your audience is the most important thing, so trying to create that between you. I don’t know if that was something that came naturally to me, or just developed over time, to be honest. A lot of bands today, when they’re on stage, they just seem to be doing their own thing, not too worried about the audience. You need a team working with you, and behind the scenes as well. What really got us through in Vegas was we brought 4 girls who would do the Hucklebuck, right, but we also made sure they were good Irish dancers. So we identified as being Irish! And we’d rock out the reels and the hornpipes, and the girls were great. And it’s funny, and I’ve told this story before because Bill Whelan gets a kick out of it, but when ‘Riverdance’ went to Vegas people said this has all been done before by the Royal Showband! Even though it was only 4 girls! Of course it wasn’t the same thing at all, it’s just funny. But we were commercial; we’d sing Irish songs in between, songs that people would know well, ‘Danny Boy’ and a few more. When we auditioned for Vegas in 1966 we did a few Elvis songs and Tom Jones songs and the guys said to us, ‘That’s all wonderful, but you guys are from Ireland, the real Elvis is just down the street here and Tom Jones and Sinatra, they’re not far away either!’ He said, ‘People can get the real thing so you need to identify as being Irish.’ And he was right, so we did that. And it made all the difference to us in Vegas. And of course Vegas also helped us become entertainers because we did 24 years of residencies in 3 hotels, The Stardust, The Aladin and The Barbary Coast.”
When listening to two tracks in particular from Brendan’s Greatest Hits, I Ran All The Way Home and Kiss Me Quick, the one name that came instantly to mind with both was Buddy Holly. I wondered if Buddy Holly had been any kind of an influence on Brendan, and indeed, who else might have been?
“I loved Buddy Holly, Anthony, I did. Buddy Holly would have been right next to Elvis for me. Here’s another funny story. We had a manager, TJ Byrne from Carlow, who was very much responsible for ‘Kiss Me Quick’ getting the publicity it did. He got it into the national newspapers, which would have been the Herald and the Press at the time and which would have had a huge circulation because television was still in its infancy. But anyway, he said Elvis was going to sue me for ‘Kiss Me Quick’! And my poor mother, she believed it because it was in the paper, and I remember her saying, ‘Elvis, sure hasn’t Elvis enough!’ But the funny thing is that years later when I met Elvis I said, ‘By the way, I recorded one of your songs, ‘Kiss Me Quick’, and there was just a blank stare from him. Sure he didn’t even remember recording it himself, nevermind having any knowledge of me having recorded it, Anthony! But yes, poor Buddy Holly was a great loss, he was so young.”
As our immensely enjoyable chat came to a close, I wondered if, when Brendan’s daughter, Aisling, decided that she wanted to follow her famous dad into showbusinness, was there any one silver bullet-like piece of advice with which he armed her for life on her chosen road?
“I said to her that when you’re on the stage just go to your audience, that’s what’s important, what you feel inside will come out when you connect with your audience. I’ve always said that. And she has, she’s done a great job on stage. She can sing country songs without the accent, you know, and sing them really well. And rock songs, too, particularly Tina Turner type rock. And musical theatre, stuff from ‘Les Miserables’, ‘Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina’ from ‘Evita’, she’s very versatile.”