Francis Kennedy mourns the passing of a bona fide musical genius
In June 1999, aged just 56, Billy Brown passed away after a long battle with illness. A brief mention in one national paper the following day noted his passing. It didn’t remind its readers that Billy Brown was one of the heroes of the Irish music business; one of our greatest singer/songwriters; an exceptional musical arranger; and the bandleader of one of the top showbands in Ireland during the 60s.
Born in Larne in 1943, his father was a fine musician. Having completed his formal education, he enrolled at Belfast College of Art where he began to study stained glass design. Just as he was beginning to understand his chosen subject, a school scandal resulted in the class being closed down.
‘We were told that we could study ladies dressmaking or interior decorating so I opted for the lesser of two evils,’ said Brown. ‘I could see some use for interior decorating but clothes have never interested me. I just wear them to cover myself.’
As a young boy, Brown loved football. He also loved music but knew that if he asked his parents for a piano, it would mean an end to football on the street as he would have to stay in and practice. But his father did ask him if he would like one and he spent a hard-earned £200 on a new piano for his son.
‘I have a feeling that my father really wanted the piano and used me as an excuse to buy it!’ said Billy. He was still allowed to play football but it wasn’t long until he was skipping games so that he could spend more and more time practising his new instrument.
In the early 1960s, Billy was playing part-time with the Billy McFarland Showband when he and some friends decided to form what was to become Ireland’s best-loved pop band of that decade, The Freshmen.
The Ballymena-based band sought perfection in everything they did. Their stage outfits, their presentation, their performances and their music were a cut above everybody else. Their soaring harmonies were the best of any Irish band before or since. And Billy Brown was the director, arranger, producer and puppeteer.
Appearances on RTE’s Showband Show and UTV’s Pop Scene, further raised the band’s profile and following minor success with their second single, an original written by vocalist Derek Dean, (‘I Stand Alone’/ ‘Gone Away’), they finally broke into the charts with the memorable ‘Papa Oom Mow Mow’.
Another single followed, ‘The Little Old Lady From Pasadena (Go Granny Go)’, which had been a hit for surfers Jan & Dean in the US. Because of their vocal strength, the ‘surfing-sound’ of Jan & Dean and The Beach Boys suited The Freshmen to a tee. They began to be known for their note-perfect renditions of Beach Boys songs more than anything else, and this in fact became a hindrance, overshadowing their excellent original numbers.
They played support to The Beach Boys at their Dublin and Belfast concerts in 1967 and released a groundbreaking album Movin’ On in 1968. This collection included three originals from the pens of Brown and band members Damien McElroy and Davy McKnight as well as a song by Danny Ellis and another by Phil Coulter and Bill Martin.
The name Billy Brown was spoken with respect and reverence, not only by the thousands of Freshmen fans but by his contemporaries in the music business. Billy Brown was a musicians’ musician and The Freshmen arguably the best showband of them all. They brought music standards of their era to a higher level and paved the way for today’s successful Irish musical exports.
Always innovative, The Freshmen staged a ‘Peace Concert’ in Dublin in 1970, a live performance of their second LP Peace On Earth on the CBS label. Narrator on both projects was the renowned actor Micheál MacLiammóir. Early in the ‘70s, however, cracks began to show in what up to now had been an incredibly cohesive unit, and Brown decided to leave and form his own band. He was replaced by Ivan Laybourne from The Newmen.
Billy always had a great interest in wildlife and wild birds in particular. In latter years he was actively involved with the Irish Wildbird Conservancy and often gave informative talks, sometimes on radio. His slight stammer never hindered him on these occasions. Not long before his death, Billy teamed up with his old colleagues for a one-off performance when The Freshmen reunited for a concert at The Waterfront in Belfast. It was a very special moment when the old, familiar soaring vocal harmonies filled the air again, bringing back vivid memories of the long-gone, packed ballrooms of the 60s.