Remembering Gerry

A host of musicians indebted to the late Radio Ulster presenter Gerry Anderson perform in Belfast

Before he was anything else, he was a jobbing musician, cutting his musical teeth on the gruelling showband circuit. So it’s fitting that the backdrop to this BBC memorial concert for the late BBC Radio Ulster presenter Gerry Anderson should be a pair of prominent video projections, showing the raconteur extraordinaire and broadcasting legend crouched over a vocal mic onstage, performing.

Anderson never forgot those galley years spent plugging away on his bass guitar for a living. That is undoubtedly why he had such intuitive sympathy for new, unheralded performers, and why he gave so many unknown Northern Irish musicians their first break, playing their music on his weekday radio programme on Radios Foyle and Ulster.

They are queueing up to pay tribute at Blackstaff Studios this evening, all telling the same story: Gerry believed in us when no one else was interested, he played our songs when no one else was listening, he opened doors for us we hadn’t previously known existed.

The Mighty Mojos, for instance, a Ballymena-based blues outfit, who sent a copy of The Devil in Disguise, their first recording, to Anderson, and were astonished when he played it the next morning on the radio. They open the concert with music from the album, and it’s easy to imagine Anderson responding to its raw blues energy and David McClean’s rasping slide guitar sorties.

Anderson played similar music himself in the early 1970s, in the band of Arkansas rebel-rouser Ronnie Hawkins, who previously had the likes of Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm and Rick Danko backing him. Those musicians eventually became The Band, played with Bob Dylan, and went on to make rock history. Big shoes to fill, undoubtedly, but Anderson once filled them.

One theme emerging clearly as the evening progresses is the sheer catholicity of Anderson’s taste in music, encompassing folk, country, jazz, traditional and contemporary, alongside traditional rock ‘n’ roll staples.

Surprisingly, perhaps, there is classical too: Derry-born soprano Margaret Keys speaks movingly of how enthusiastically Anderson embraced her talent when she came back to her native city, having initially launched a career internationally. She sings Morricone’s ‘Nella Fantasia’ with a vibrancy that easily explains his enthusiasm.

It wasn’t blind enthusiasm, however. Time and again, as one performer follows another onto the Blackstaff platform, you note how astutely discriminating Anderson was in picking those he championed from the mountain of tapes and demos that stacked up weekly in his Radio Foyle studio. In short, he picked winners, those with serious talent, and that was why he doggedly rejected all efforts to thank him for giving airplay or patronage.

Anderson did play Best Boy Grip, repeatedly, and regarded the Derry band fronted by singer-songwriter Eoin O’Callaghan as ‘world class’. And who would argue?

They play ‘Barbara’, whose bobbing basslines and tea-chest percussion add pleasing unpredictability to O’Callaghan’s gorgeous vocals and beguiling chord progressions. For ‘Monster in Me’ it is just Best Boy himself and the piano: both song and performance have class and quality written all over them.

So too do The Henry Girls from Malin, County Donegal, an area Anderson claimed special affinity for. In conversation with Gerry Kelly, who hosts the evening with gentle sensitivity, the three sisters recall Anderson giving them their first ever exposure on the radio. ‘It was as if we’d won a Grammy.’

Their close harmonies, so reminiscent of the Carter Family, combine to heady effect on ‘The Farmer’s Song’, with delicious self-accompaniment on fiddle, harp and accordion. The self-penned ‘Farewell’ is intensely poignant, especially, no doubt, for Anderson family members sitting in the audience – it was from the last session that the sisters recorded for his show, and its lyrics could have been written for him.

Kieran Goss, Paul Casey, Bronagh Gallagher and Anthony Toner are among the other artists who step up, sing a song or two and tell a story – Goss referencing Anderson’s talents as a writer, Gallagher recalling fetching buns on work experience at the Derry studio, and Casey mischievously venturing how ‘the stuff off the air’ provided his fondest Anderson memories.

Most touching of all, perhaps, is folk veteran Sean Donnelly, reminiscing about Tall Tales and Short Songs, a quaint project involving Donnelly singing and Anderson talking about the showband era, about which Donnelly himself knew nothing.

Donnelly still seems mystified by why Anderson chose him for what turned out to be a highly successful collaboration. When he sings ‘Sailing off to Yankeeland’ and ‘The Homes of Donegal’, however, there is, for the audience at least, no mystery – the purity and simplicity of delivery are deeply affecting.

About Gerry Anderson the broadcaster much has been, and will continue to be, said and written. This dignified, warmly affectionate evening of tributes shed significant light on Anderson the musician – what he liked, why he liked it, and how his generous help and encouragement changed the lives of individual artists.

It is Best Boy Grip who says it simplest, and best: ‘He was a musician and he knew what was good, and he had great taste.’ He did indeed, and we will sorely miss it.

Listen to the full Remembering Gerry concert on BBC Radio Ulster. The 2014 Foyle Film Festival will be screening the documentary A City Dreaming, co-written and narrated by Gerry Anderson, at the Guildhall, Derry~Londonderry on November 21.