First Published June 2021
A GENT AND A GIANT
July 31st will mark the 46th anniversary of one of the darkest nights – in every meaning of that term – in Irish history. The Miami Showband Massacre. Even as a child, when hearing those words mentioned for the first time, without knowing any of the details, without having any context in which to place them, they chilled me to the bone. A showband? But they’re musicians, right? How could musicians become the victims of a massacre? And how could it happen here? In Ireland? It didn’t make any sense to me.
It doesn’t make any sense now either, of course. Even less so now that I do know so many details, now that I realise the horrible, heartbreaking context. Nor did it make any sense on that summer’s night, not long after 2am almost five decades ago. What doesn’t make sense is HOW such an atrocity could be allowed to happen. How some people could actually sit down and plan for something like that to happen. How some people were prepared to live out the remainder of their own lives forever accompanied by the knowledge of what they had been part of. None of that makes sense. Nor will it ever. And it shouldn’t, because for it to do so, you’d need to have an understanding of evil that could only leave the darkest of imprints upon your soul.
However, we can understand WHAT happened on that night because – by the grace of God, surely – there were survivors. While Fran O’ Toole, Brian McCoy, and Tony Geraghty perished in a torrent of unprovoked violence, Des Lea and Tipperary man STEPHEN TRAVERS managed to escape the same fate. Getting to and revealing the truth about what unfolded on the Buskhill Road that night, as he and four of his famed and adored bandmates simply endeavoured to make the journey home from a show at the Castle Ballroom in Banbridge, is something that Stephen has dedicated his life to.
That work, and the events of the night of July 31st 1975 itself, are stories unto themselves, and they more than warrant any time and attention you can give them. A few years back, when Stephen was getting close to embarking on a nationwide promotional tour in relation to some projects in this regard, I had the pleasure of spending some time in conversation with him ahead of the announcement of those dates. However, as can happen from time to time, unforeseen circumstances lead to that tour being rearranged, and as a result, our chat was never published.
But now, in honour of Stephen and the work he has done to make sure the truth about that night is known to all, and indeed, as a tribute to his fellow survivor Des Lea, and to his bandmates who never made it home – Fran O’ Toole, Brian McCoy, and Tony Geraghty – we are finally sharing that chat with our OTRT readers. So it is, ladies and gentlemen, our privilege to present this conversation with Stephen, not just an inspirational musician, but an inspirational human-being, and a gentleman of the highest order.
When we spoke, I began by asking Stephen about how his own interest in music first began to arise and develop?
“Well, I was born in 1951, so my formative years musically would have been the sixties. And they really only began in 1963 with the Beatles, with that whole musical and fashion explosion that happened. So that hit me right between the eyes when I was twelve years of age. There were an awful lot of young guys picking up guitars, and of course the showbands were there, so all of the stars aligned and came together and I decided to give it a go.”
I wondered if there happened to be any one particular moment that hit Stephen right between the eyes and made him think, ‘Right, I know what I want to do with my life from here on…’?
“There was actually. I was in school, and every year that school would put on an operetta. It was the Christian Brothers school in Carrick-on-Suir. They’d put on a show for all the parents. One of the lads in my class, a lad called Jim, his mother was actually a choreographer, and she came up to put us through our paces. I can’t remember what the name of the operetta was. Anyway, her son, Jim, had been learning drums, so she got him to bring along the snare drum. When he started to play it I was fascinated by the fact that a young kid of my own age could do this. And I thought, you know what, I’d like to do it as well because everybody was dancing to his tune as he was playing. I think it was ‘The March of the Toy Soldiers’, or ‘The March of the Tin Soldiers’, something like that. It involved the lads in the play marching around and doing their thing, and I was fascinated by it.”
Stephen mentioned the fact that so many people were picking up guitars back in the sixties. It happened to be the bass guitar that he reached for himself. I wondered if there was a particular reason for his choice?
“Yeah, my schoolmates had formed a little group, they had about two years start on me. I had a guitar at home that I never bothered with, but I went to hear them rehearsing and I was fascinated that they were playing The Shadows and the Beatles, and all that kind of stuff. And they said to me, ya know we need a bass player? I didn’t really know what a bass player was, but I found out pretty quickly! [Laughs]. At that time, a bass guitar would have had four strings, so I thought well this will be easy enough! But that’s not the case! Anyway, I started to play bass, and happily it was MY instrument, ya know. It’s the one that, to this day, I love to learn more and more about all the time, even though now I play a five and a seven-string bass. I just love it. And then, of course, Paul McCartney I consider to be the greatest bass player that ever walked the face of the Earth. He was such a cool character. So it was no problem playing bass in a band! If it was good enough for him, then it was good enough for me.”
Stephen joined the Miami Showband when he was about twenty-four, and they were already massive at that stage. Was becoming a member like landing a dream-job, or as a musician, was it just another job, albeit, a pretty cool one all the same?
“I had served my time in country bands, and what they called big bands, jazz bands. From day one I was very interested in blues and jazz. Of course, the only game in town if you wanted to earn a living was – back in the late sixties – country, when it began to become very big, as it is today. That’s when I went and joined a country band called The Cowboys. One of the lads that had been in the earlier group, Gay Brazel, later went on to become the band leader with Tweed, he was in The Cowboys. And Billy Byrne, my friend. So I learned my chops, learned my trade in bands like The Cowboys and in school, in young beat groups and that. But when you need to earn a living, or buy a new car, or put a deposit on a house, you join a showband. So I set my sights on the one that was going to pay me the most money! I got a call from The Miami Showband in September 1974, to ask me if I’d like to go up and meet them to talk about joining. As it turned out, I didn’t join them. I waited until the end of May 1975, and I took the job then. I quickly realised that these guys were phenomenal musicians. Tony Geraghty on guitar, it was arguable whether he was more influential than Gary Moore when he was playing in his rock days. He had gone and joined a showband because he was getting married, and the usual thing, he wanted to buy a car and a house. Fran O’ Toole, I think everybody knew, was one of the most sensational vocalists as well as being an incredible keyboard player, a great jazz player. So when I joined, it was a bit of a reality check that I was among guys who were every bit as good – if not better! – than myself. This wasn’t just about joining a band to earn a few quid. It was an honour to play with these guys.”
I didn’t want to get into what happened to Stephen and his bandmates in the Miami in July of 1975 without first showing the courtesy and respect of asking if that was something he would be comfortable talking about. I knew it was something he’d been asked to talk about on countless occasions before, and regardless of how much detail any of those conversations might go into, even going back in time to that fateful night to any degree must bring with it memories that none of us will ever be able to comprehend. Displaying the generosity of spirit for which he has always been known, however, Stephen agreed.
What happened on that July night almost fifty years ago now, changed the course of Irish music history. I don’t think there’s anyone who doubts that. I asked Stephen how he thought Irish music would have developed had that tragic night not come to pass…
“Just referring to what you said there at the beginning of your question, that night didn’t just change Irish music history. In fact, it had very little effect, a temporary effect, on Irish music history. But it changed Irish history [itself]. And the reason being was that it was an attempt by a neighbouring, so-called friendly government, to influence Irish politics. They felt that security was lax on the southern side of the border, so they set up a plan – a brilliant plan, even though it was evil – to make it look as if all innocent Irish people should be suspects. And had they succeeded in doing that, the whole world would have shrugged its shoulders and said let the British deal with the Irish whatever way they want to now, because every one of them is a potential terrorist. So had we been successfully framed as terrorists when they attempted – unbeknownst to us – to put a bomb in our van, nobody would have known about the road-block, and we subsequently would have blown up fifteen minutes down the road, and been accused of being terrorists. So thankfully, Des Lee – or Des McAlea, as his real name is – and I survived to tell what happened, [because] that had the potential to turn Ireland into another Gaza. Our young people, instead of having a friendly nod from Immigration in Australia or wherever, as they do now, had we been successfully framed as terrorists, then like the Palestines today our young Irish people would be called aside at every airport, or searched vigorously or whatever. So that was a massive, massive thing to happen. So it’s wrong to think that it was just something that happened to a band, or a small story. And this was pointed out to me when we were doing the screenplay of the movie by a world renowned director. He said, ‘This is not just a story of a local band, and a local terrorist attack. This is an international crime.'”
“Apart from that”, Stephen continued, “from the musical aspect of things, it caused a temporary lock-down, a close-down, as George Jones, the musician and broadcaster in the north said [at the time], ‘You look at a ballroom and expect to see tumbleweed.’ As to the development of Irish music, the showbands had had their day. When I joined the Miami, it was called The Miami, it wasn’t actually called The Miami Showband. They had shortened it, they didn’t want to lose the value of the name. But it was more a pop group than anything else. Along with a number of other bands, the Miami was writing its own material. I think the Miami is probably the link between the old and the new. We’re frozen in history for this. Fran would have gone on to be a singer/songwriter in America, because it was planned to take him out to America. I think he would have perhaps written for lots of other people. Because he wasn’t a kid anymore, he was twenty-eight, and that in the pop business – even then – was getting on a bit. So I think he and Des would have concentrated on their writing. Tony Geraghty and I would have formed a jazz/rock group, I think.”
Stephen had mentioned the screenplay of the movie about his life, upon which pre-production had begun at the time we were speaking. I asked him how that project was progressing, and, on a project like that, how involved does Stephen himself get to be? Or at what point does he have to hand over artistic control of what happens?
“Well, I was very careful with that. We’ve been doing this now for five years. And that in itself, apparently, isn’t too long when it comes to the making of a movie, I believe. Great films like ‘Lincoln’, and other Oscar winners recently, have taken up to ten, eleven years to make. But we had the screenplay done almost three years ago now. When we met with some directors from Hollywood to talk about it, we became aware that it was much more than just a local event, so we went back to the drawing-board. About last September, we finished that screenplay, and now they’re all very, very happy with it. They’re now in that phase that’s pre pre-production really, because the finance is together now and a lot of other things. So we expect to be full hammer-and-tongs at it within the next two or three months. And hopefully it will be filmed. The actual filming of any movie only takes about six weeks, that’s the short part. It’s all the work that goes on before and after it. With regard to artistic license, that was something I was very careful of. I have a great responsibility to the truth, and for the portrayal of the lads. This is one of the reasons that we asked the producers to do everything in their power to keep this an independent movie. What they call an independent movie, rather than handing it over to a studio. Because once you do that, then you don’t have any control over it. Whereas in an independent movie, and because I was part of the screenwriting team, I have an official credit, which means I can remain on-set and can keep an eye on things and make sure they don’t lose the run of themselves and make it into something that we’ll find either objectionable or embarrassing.”
I wondered if Stephen still taught bass guitar, as he did for a while?
“I did, I was a bad teacher! I expected people to know what I knew. Whereas a good teacher doesn’t have to be a great player, but is somebody who’s methodical. Having said that, I had some great students. One in particular stands out, which I just recall now as we mention it. John Walsh, the original bass player with Stockton’s Wing. John would have been a star pupil for me. And also I had some very interesting encounters with Aubrey Oaki from the Hugh Masekela band, called Kalahari, that I met in the UK. He would teach me a lot about Africian music. His guitar player, in fact, is the same guy that you see on the Graceland tour with Paul Simon. I would teach him jigs and reels on the bass, would you believe! This was at a time when he was recording with Peter Gabriel, who left Genesis and did the thing with Kate Bush. So Aubrey would leave the studio and we’d meet up and trade licks and all that. So, apart from teaching, there’s still an awful lot to learn about bass guitar for me. As I say, the great master will be there every time I turn on a Beatles number, when I hear the immaculate playing of Paul McCartney. He’s just a man who knows the right note to put in the right place. I have great heroes as well, people like James Jamerson that did all the Motown music, and Joe Osborn that did all of the early American California stuff by the Carpenters. Just beautiful people, beautiful bass players. I’ll teach, but I learn as well. I learn far more than I teach now.”
Given the journey that Stephen has travelled in his life and music career, I couldn’t possibly have brought our chat to a close without asking him if there was any advice he’d pass on to someone who might be starting out in the music business today. Were there any words of wisdom that had always stood him in good stead?
“Yeah, play with guys that are better than you. It’s difficult if you join a band and you’re all starting off at the same time. Because you’re only going to progress at the same speed as the slowest person in the band. This is one of the great tragedies that the showbands aren’t around anymore because it was the best apprenticeship that you could possibly get. I remember, for instance, when I joined the Mick Delahunty Junior Orchestra. His father was Mick Delahunty Senior, and he was a very famous band leader. But when Mick Junior started the band, he had the cream of his father’s band when he retired and all of these guys were much, much older than me. I learned more from these fellas than you could if you went to university. These guys were street-wise. They knew every twist and turn that it took to be a professional musician. They were fabulous players, world class. Young fellas should beg, borrow, or steal an opportunity to get into a band with seasoned musicians, or guys who know more than them. And learn from them. The other thing would be to play a pure style. Something like country or blues or reggae, something like that that teaches you what a bass guitar actually does. As opposed to learning gratuitous sort of riffs from rock or pop numbers. To learn the basics is very important. And I suppose finally, learn how to read music, that will definitely stand to ya in good stead.”
~ The documentary, Remastered: The Miami Showband Massacre, is available on Netflix.