Enniskillen Celebrates the Showbands
Jenny Cathcart relives the heady days of the showband era at Enniskillen Public Library
The exhibition space at Enniskillen’s public library is currently papered with photographs, newspaper cuttings, record sleeves and other memorabilia from the showband era of the 1950s and 60s. The collection reflects not only the private passion of local man, Philip D’Arcy, but the enthusiasm of an entire generation of Ireland’s showband afficionados.
A former book clerk, whose skills as a collator and archivist are plain to see, D’Arcy grew up in Wellington Place, next door to Cecil Kettyles, keyboard player and founding member of Enniskillen’s first showband, The Skyrockets. Formed in 1958, the group, which gained notoriety as a touring band, once graced the stage of the Royal Albert Hall.
Their luxury tour bus, purchased at a cost of £2,800, was so famous it became a dinky toy, one of which is on display, carefully preserved in its original presentation box. The Skyrockets’ lead singer, Pat McGuigan, father of boxing champion Barry, represented Ireland at the Eurovision Song contest in 1968, where he was photographed with Cliff Richard. Their lead guitarist, Henry McCullough, went on to work with Joe Cocker’s Grease Band and Paul McCartney’s Wings.
During the 1940s and 50s, ballroom dancehalls sprang up all over Ireland, replacing parochial and town halls as choice venues. Foremost among these were The Floral Hall in Belfast, famous for its glitter balls, and the Plaza with its revolving stage. The Astoria, built to accommodate 3,000 people on the seafront at Portrush, opened its doors in 1953, while in Enniskillen dancers flocked to The Silver Sandal with its state of the art, sprung dance floor made from Canadian maple.
Radio Luxembourg’s Sunday afternoon Top Twenty Hit Parade was the most popular show on radio and a barometer for the latest trends in pop music. The jive and the twist were just two of the rock ‘n’ roll dances that were trending in the dancehalls at the time.
The showbands who embraced this new repertoire while preserving the traditional waltz, foxtrot and quickstep, soon eclipsed the more serious, sedate dance bands modelled on the Glenn Miller or Victor Silvester orchestras. The versatile showband musicians were formed in folk, ceili or country bands and played wind or brass instruments as well as guitar and drums.
The Clipper Carlton from Strabane were the first Northern Irish dance band to dispense with their band stands, interact with the crowd and put on a show. Yet it was trumpet player and band leader, Dave Glover, who claimed to have coined the phrase ‘showband’ in relation to his own group, who wore snazzy suits, danced on stage and donned costume props during their cabaret style interlude.
Glover was approached 'between a quickstep and a waltz' by the Astoria ballroom’s millionaire owner to take on a summer residency, but each winter he and his band – which included the pretty, dimple-cheeked Newtownards singer, Muriel Day, aka Mrs Dave Glover – toured the country’s dance halls.
On the dance floors, female dancers took their cue from Lonnie Donegan, ‘putting on the agony and putting on the style’, wearing bright red lipstick, lacquered beehive hairdos, billowing net petticoats, stiletto heals and Evening in Paris perfume. Their dance partners sported slim Teddy boy ties and winkle picker shoes and coiffed their hair with brylcream.
In the South, Larry Cunningham’s Pacific Show Band accompanied Jim Reeves when he played in Ireland. The so-called King of the Showbands, the 6 ft 6 inches tall Brendan ‘Hucklebuck' Bowyer, who fronted the Royal Showband, appeared at the Liverpool Empire Theatre in 1962 supported by The Beatles.
In the North of Ireland, the big four showbands were the Clipper Carlton and The Melody Aces, both from Strabane, Dave Glover from Belfast and Derry~Londonderry’s Gay McIntyre. But they didn’t have it all their own way.
Fred Hanna and the Modernaires from Portadown with sometime guest singer, Gloria Hunniford, played the Floral Hall on a Saturday night. The Plattermen from Omagh recruited guitar ace Arty McGlynn. Van Morrison appeared with the Manhattan Show Band.
America was the most desired destination for the showbands. The Melody Aces toured there in 1959, 1962 and 1963. Brian Coll and the Buckaroos performed at Nashville’s Grand Ole Oprey and guested on Porter Waggoner’s American Country Show on television.
When the Witnesses Show Band performed at the Paradise Island hotel in the Bahamas in 1969, they had the distinction of welcoming Elvis on stage. Introduced by the bandleader and compere, Harry ‘Trixie’ Hamilton, the King of rock ‘n’ roll confirmed he had enjoyed their show and bought them drinks.
Among the UK acts who played The Silver Sandal in Enniskillen were The Merseybeats, The Bachelors and Jamaican born Millie Small, known as Millie, who on June 23, 1964, made hearts go ‘giddy up’ with her ska hit song 'My Boy Lollipop'.
Enniskillen’s second showband, Gene and the Gents featured South African born Gene Chetty, who arrived in Dublin to study law at Trinity College in 1962 but came north to form the group in 1964.
Among the exhibits on display is Brian Gallagher’s book, There’ll Not be a Crowd ‘till the Crowd Gathers, which tells the story of Fermanagh’s Starlight Show Band of which he was a member, and Born to be a Skyrocket by Noreen Kettyles, daughter of Cecil Kettyles. A set of postage stamps issued by the Eire government in 2006 commemorates The Drifters, The Freshmen, The Royal and the Miami Show Bands.
Sadly, The Troubles led to the demise of the showbands and the dance halls. On July 31, 1975, as the Miami Show Band travelled home from a gig at the Castle Ballroom in Banbridge, they were flagged down by UVF militants, who killed three of the group and wounded one member. The Silver Sandal Ballroom in Enniskillen was bombed by the IRA.
Given the current craze for jiving and the popularity of the Enniskillen-based artist, Nathan Carter, whose music echoes the showband era, this exhibition is timely. Carter and his band will perform at the official re-opening on March 21, of one of the most iconic ballrooms of the time – The Ballroom of Romance, the Rainbow at Glenfarne.
The Showband Exhibition runs in the Public Library, Enniskillen until March 14.