Belfast Rhythm ‘n’ Blues Birthplace

Ulster History Circle unveils a blue plaque at the former site of legendary Maritime Hotel

An Ulster History Circle plaque commemorating the beginning of Rhythm ‘n’ Blues in Belfast is to be unveiled in the city on April 17, at the former site of the Maritime Hotel in College Square North.

In the early 1960s, Belfast nightlife largely consisted of a number of licensed cabaret clubs with genteel pianists and singers and an array of sedate ballrooms where smart-suited showbands pounded out cover versions of the latest top ten hits.

But that all was to change in April 1964, in the aftermath of the popular music earthquake, triggered by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, with a Spartan seamen’s hostel in College Square North, Belfast. Formerly a Royal Irish Constabulary police station, the Maritime transformed into Club Rado and a new rhythm ‘n’ blues movement was inaugurated in the city.

Wesley McCann, Ulster History Circle Chairman said, ‘The Ulster History Circle is delighted to erect this plaque celebrating one of the most important locations for the performance of popular music in Belfast. The plaque will awaken memories of many evenings spent listening to some of the most innovative bands of the time.'

With the Monarchs showband splitting up, Van Morrison formed a new group with friends called Them. Sporting long hair and unkempt casual clothing, Them were in the vanguard of this new musical phenomenon and within weeks of the Maritime opening, long queues of fashionably dressed teenagers formed outside to ensure they got into the 200 capacity hall to enjoy the throbbing music.

In no time, the Maritime had earned a reputation on a par with the famous Cavern Club in Liverpool, where the Mersey sound was incubated, for highlighting a new generation of exotic musicians who were inspired by the traditional American rhythm ‘n’ blues tunes but who gave the music their own twist laying the foundations for what would years later evolve as Celtic rock. Others of the Maritime alumni are still active musically playing the blues around various venues in Belfast.

Among the regular Maritime favourites during its brief heyday from 1964 until it became a casualty of the civil disorder some five years later were Rory Gallagher and the Taste, Just Five (featuring Sam Mahood), the Lovin’ Kind, the Mad Lads, The Alleykatz, the Interns, the Aztecs, the Deltones, Five by Five, the Method, the Few and the Fugitives.

Unquestionably the Maritime is still celebrated and renowned for nurturing the world-class talents of Van Morrison. There, his early iconic songs such as Gloria and Mystic Eyes were given their first airings, often at improvised length with their punchy style whipping the dancing crowd to a buzzing frenzy.

It was during one of these performances that the Decca Records scout decided to sign the band up paving the way for Them to score several top ten hits, including 'Baby Please Don’t Go' and 'Here comes the Night', before Morrison departed to launch his own outstanding international career as a best-selling album artist and concert performer.

Among the earliest songs in Morrison’s now vast repertoire are two directly linked to the formative days at the Maritime; 'Joe Harper, Saturday morning', refers to the Maritime caretaker who frequently let the band use the hall for rehearsals when they could not get a room above Dougie Knight’s record and bicycle shop on Great Victoria Street, where many bands of all musical persuasions practised. The flavour of the Maritime phenomenon is perhaps most evocatively captured in the song 'The Story of Them'.

The Ulster History Circle blue plaque unveiling ceremony will be held on April 17 at 2.30pm at College Square North, Belfast.