Phil Coulter’s Out to Lunch

Legendary singer, songwriter and composer discusses his craft, Eurovision and Elvis at Queen's. Click Play Audio to hear a full podcast recording. 

‘I owe a lot to Queen’s and my time at Queen’s,’ explained Phil Coulter - singer, songwriter, musician, producer . More than forty years after abandoning a degree in music for the lure of London, the Derryman was back at his alma mater as part of the Out To Lunch talks series.

Charming and witty, Coulter’s endless stream of anecdotes from his jam packed career – from the Eurovision success of ‘Puppet on a String’ to penning the most successful single of Elvis’s last five years – delighted the full house in Queen’s Great Hall for his lunchtime conversation with BBC presenter William Crawley.

He never graduated but Queen’s had a huge bearing on Coulter’s later success. It was there in the early 60s that he helped found the Glee Club – putting on performances by everyone from then number one Helen Shapiro to local saw-player, yes he played the saw, Willie Campbell.

Whilst at Queen’s Coulter wrote his first hit, ‘Foolin’ Time’. Originally recorded as a novelty student record to raise Glee Club drinking funds during rag week, the tune was picked up by the Capitol Showband – after Coulter cheekily pressed a copy of the single into lead singer Butch Moore’s hands after spotting him in the Great Southern Hotel, Bundoran.

Within months Coulter had written a string of hits for the Capitol, then when a music producer in London’s legendary Tin Pan Alley offered him a full-time job as a songwriter/arranger his studies were over for good.

‘It was half-way through my final year. I had the option of saying ‘thanks very much but I’ve got to go back and finish my degree’ or I could say to myself ‘this could be a once in a lifetime opportunity’.’

In a career spanning over 40 years, Coulter has become one of the best known songwriters in the business. ‘Your songs are like your children – Some exceed your expectations, some will let you down but there is a place in your heart for all of them,’ he commented on the life of a songwriter.

Coulter, who has written hits for everyone from Richard Harris to Luke Kelly of The Dubliners, said, ‘one of the great things about being a songwriter is that you never know where a song will end up’

Currently topping the Billboard charts in the US with his new musical TV show Celtic Thunder, Coulter is still best known in these parts for this Eurovision tunes. He wrote Dana’s smash hit and Eurovision winner ‘Puppet on a String’ as well as Cliff Richard’s 'Congratulations' – the latter notoriously finished second, pipped at the post but Spain’s ‘La La La’ thanks, it emerged recently, to some hefty backhanders from general Franco.

One song that does stick out for Coulter is his paean to Derry, ‘The Town I Loved So Well’, initially written for Luke Kelly. ‘It’s not the kind of song you could write for the Bay City Rollers,’ he remarked before playing its opening bars on his keyboard.

‘I thought there’s a song there that needed to be written,’ he commented on a tune which has since been recorded in over 40 different languages. ‘And better someone like me who understood the situation.’

Whenever a song has needed writing Coulter has been there – whether the bi-partisan rugby anthem ‘Ireland’s Call’ or the heartfelt reflection on his own son’s Down’s Syndrome ‘Scorn Not His Simplicity’. But he is most proud of ‘My Boy’, a tune written originally for Richard Harris but subsequently performed by the king of rock ‘n’ roll himself.

‘I’ll never forget when I got a call from a friend who was in Las Vegas to see Elvis. He called me up and said, ‘you’ll never guess, he’s playing your song. He’s singing ‘My Boy.’ And that song was Elvis’s biggest hit in the last five years of his life,’ Coulter commented. 

Hit maker to the stars, Coulter has no regrets on turning his back on his music degree. Queen’s obviously holds no grudges either – the university awarded him an honorary doctorate last year.

‘If my old music prof could have seen that he would be rolling in his grave!’ 

Peter Geoghegan

Out to Lunch at Queen's continues on 11 March when professor Catherine Clinton, Professor of US History at Queen's and professor Peter Bowler will be discussing the lives and works of President Abraham Lincoln as well as Charles Darwin. The final afternoon of the series will take place on 25 March with Michael Longley, the recently appointed Professor of Poetry.