Hall of Fame - Phil Coulter

The Derry artist that has written for just about everybody

When Phil Coulter made a record, Fooling Time, during his time at Queen’s University, Belfast, his friends probably had little inkling that he was going to become one of the most important men in the whole of Irish music. They could have done, though, for even then he was sending his songs to publishers in London and Dublin and before he finished at uni he had already written two Irish hit songs. 

Coulter had grown up in Derry, although his folks came from Strangford and Belfast. He was at school with some other creative and talented people including poet Seamus Heaney and playwright Brian Friel and no doubt his parents had high hopes for him; probably not in music though. 'My father …. played the fiddle and my mother …. played the piano. Now they weren’t particularly good, but that didn’t matter; they enjoyed every note. And from them I learned that love of just playing and the pure joy of music. And it seemed that if there was any excuse for a party in the neighbourhood, it would be at Coulters.'

But that early taste of success was too much to resist and as soon as he finished at Queen’s, in 1964, he was off to London where the music scene was exploding with life. He got a job with a music publisher in Tin Pan Alley (Denmark Street) and after a few years linked up with Scottish songwriter Bill Martin.

While waiting for some success with the songs, Coulter got gigs as a session pianist in recording studios or for concerts with Van Morrison, Tom Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis and more, even The Rolling Stones. He did not have too long to wait, though - in 1967, one of their songs, 'Puppet On A String', won the Eurovision Song Contest (via Sandie Shaw) and they were seriously in business.

There was a near miss in the same competition the next year when 'Congratulations' was runner-up and two years later they did it again, with Londonderry girl Rosemary Brown, Dana, singing 'All Kinds Of Everything'.

The hits kept coming, with Elvis Presley and The Bay City Rollers among those to benefit from Coulter’s writing and production skills. He could easily have stayed in the heady world of pop and rock but, after working with Billy Connolly (who was emerging from the folk scene) he decided to indulge himself by working in the less obviously commercial area of Irish folk.

He produced three albums for the hugely influential Planxty and more with the Furey Brothers and The Dubliners. He formed an especially close bond with the latter, writing 'The Town I Loved So Well' and 'Scorn Not His Simplicity' for them. The Fureys, too, had success with his songs, notably 'Steal Away' and 'The Old Man'. Success, it seemed, followed his every move.

Not content to rest on his laurels, in 1984 Phil Coulter assembled an orchestra and recorded Classic Tranquillity. Again, he hit gold and the album became, at the time, the biggest seller ever in Ireland – and sold bucket-loads around the world. That inevitably led to further albums and concert tours around the world including four sell-out shows in Carnegie Hall.

These days he tours less but has started yet another career as a television host. He was asked, at short notice, to present a Christmas special in 2002 for RTE and American TV. It went so well that he moved on to You’re A Star (the Irish Eurovision heats) and his own show, Coulter & Company. His guests in the past couple of years have covered a wide cross-section of Irish music including in 2005 Brian Kennedy, Arty McGlynn & Nollaig Casey and Sharon Shannon.

Geoff Harden