The Showband Era

An overview of the showband era in Northern Ireland

Between 1957 and 1972, more than 500 showbands were active in Ireland, working up to five nights a week, playing in ballrooms, dance halls and marquees, to crowds sometimes in excess of 1500. Names fondly remembered by those of us who have reached our half-century include The Freshmen from Ballymena, The Clipper Carlton from Strabane, Dave Glover’s Showband based in Newtownabbey, The Melody Aces from Newtownstewart, and Gay McIntyre’s Showband and the Johnny Quigley Allstars, both from Derry. However, for every top band, there were a dozen others who were working just as hard, travelling just as far, for less money and recognition.

In almost every small town and some villages in the 1960s local clubs ran their own Carnival of Dancing. One of the largest was the CODA in Belfast’s Falls Road. A six-pole tent was hired, a dance-floor installed, and some of the best showbands in the country would be booked to play in the marquee for up to three weeks.

The standard of musicianship in Northern Irish bands was invariably high. They dressed well, included the latest chart hits in their programmes, and appeared slick and well rehearsed. Two of the busiest promoters, Jim Aiken and Bill Carvill, organised gigs in Northern Ireland featuring southern bands, and Northern Irish bands were invariably well respected by their cross border counterparts.

The Venues
Though a few barns masqueraded as ballrooms, dance venues throughout Northern Ireland were generally well appointed, with excellent maple dance-floors, ladies’ and gents’ facilities, and a mineral bar. Alcohol was not served in the ballrooms.

Notable Belfast venues included The Boom Boom Rooms in Arthur Square, The Orpheus in York Street, Romano’s in Queen Street, The Orchid in King Street, The Astor in College Court, The Gala in Victoria Street, The Fiesta in Hamilton Street, The Plaza in Chichester Street and Maxim’s in Fountain Street.

Other popular venues outside Belfast were The Floral Hall (Newtownabbey), The Flamingo (Ballymena), The Savoy (Portadown), Caproni’s (Bangor), The Locarno (Portaferry), The Embassy (Derry), The Strand (Portstewart), The Pallidrome (Strabane), The Arcadia (Portrush) and The Star (Omagh).

The Bands
Strabane’s Clipper Carlton are generally accepted as the outfit that first put the ‘show’ into Irish showbands. Formed in the late 1940s, at a time when dance-bands sat down, wore tuxedos, and played from sheet music on music stands, it wasn’t long before this exciting band decided to don lightweight tailor-made suits and visibly enjoy the music they played from memory. Within months they were packing thousands of dancers into halls throughout Ireland. Clipper Carlton remained at the pinnacle of Irish show business for close to 15 years, in the process encouraging hundreds of young musicians to form showbands of their own.

The Dave Glover Showband first appeared at the opening of The Arcadia Ballroom in Portrush, 1953. Their popularity increased dramatically, and they left the Arcadia in the early 1960s to concentrate on nightly appearances throughout Ireland. The Dave Glover Showband made more than 100 television appearances and over 400 radio broadcasts in their career.

The Melody Aces from Newtownstewart played mostly strict ballroom tempo music, mixed with a little country, dixieland and rock ‘n’ roll. Fronted by country singer Shay Hutchinson, they started as the resident band at The Star Ballroom, Omagh.

Gay McIntyre started his showband in Derry in the late 1950s. Included in the line-up were his brother Joe, trombonist Johnny Anderson, drummer Tommy McMenamin, and trumpeter and arranger Roy Adinall. Gay McIntyre’s Showband travelled throughout Ireland, and were regarded by dancers and musicians alike as being one of Ireland’s top five dance-bands.

More than most bands, The Freshmen from Ballymena epitomised the divide between urban and rural Ireland, drawing their biggest crowds in cities like Belfast, Derry, Cork, Galway and Waterford. Fronted by Billy Brown and Derek Dean, they wrote and performed their own original material, and were noted for their brilliant vocal harmonies.

The Platters, later The Plattermen, from Omagh were renowned for their brass arrangements and their exciting versions of American soul numbers, although they also covered current chart hits and country songs. Brian Coll and bassist Rob Strong were featured vocalists.

Johnny Quigley’s Allstars from Derry were sometimes a big band with thumping brass arrangements, and sometimes a pop band, moving easily from rock ‘n’ roll to waltzes, chart hits to Latin-American and dixieland. This was accompanied by a change from ordinary band-suits, into yellow blazers and brown slacks during the interval.

The Skyrockets began as the Cecil Kettyles Orchestra in Enniskillen in the 1950s. Like many top showbands at the time, their programme consisted mainly of punchy brass arrangements of chart hits, soul, Motown, Beatles, rock ‘n’ roll and big ballads. Vocalist Pat McGeegan from Clones represented Ireland in the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest in the Royal Albert Hall, London, with ‘Chance Of A Lifetime’. He was placed fourth.

Gene and The Gents, also based in Enniskillen, were formed by members of The Skyrockets and fronted by South African singer, Gene Chetty. Their guitarist, Henry McCullough, later became a member of Paul McCartney’s band Wings.

Derrick and The Sounds from Omagh were a young, vibrant pop band. Their singles proved extremely popular on national radio, and still stand the test of time today. The Sounds made television appearances in Ireland and Britain, and also toured Canada and Germany.

The Witnesses were formed by six past members of Dave Glover’s Showband. Probably because they did not include old time waltzes or country music in their programme, preferring to play jazz, big band music, rock ‘n’ roll and chart hits, The Witnesses made a bigger impact outside of Northern Ireland than at home. They may, however, be particularly memorable for their comedy hit, ‘Donald Where’s Your Trousers?’ featuring Harry Mitchell.

Other successful Northern Ireland showbands include The Banshees, Broadway, College Boys, Jimmy Compton, Encores, Exiles, Federals, Grenadiers, Gypsies, Harlequins, Manhattan, Martells, Matadors, Melotones, Monarchs, Presidents, Regency, Senators, Silhouettes and Strands, all in Belfast, The Barristers (later The Bankers), Derry City Showband, Emperors, Esquire Allstars, Kingston, Magnificent Seven, Tahiti and Woodchoppers, in Derry, The Cossacks, Fontana, Newmen, Green Angels, Hurricanes and Walter Lewis, in Ballymena, The Oceans  and Fred Hanna’s Laganmen in Newtownabbey, The Hilton and Epic in Newry, Hughie Trainor’s Globetrotters and The Zodiacs in Armagh, The Delta Allstars in Coleraine, Jimmy Johnstone in Lisburn, The Polka Dots and Santa Fe in Omagh, The Majestic in Keady, The Satellites in Dunmurry, The Gaylords in Ballinderry, The Sterling in Lurgan, The Young Earls in Portadown and The Grafton in Cookstown.

© Francis Kennedy 2004