Published 12/02/2012 | 05:00
Brendan Balfe remembers the jazz musician and conductor, and first music director of 'The Late Late Show'
He called everybody 'Dad'. It was the jive language much beloved of American jazz musicians in the Fifties. And Noel Kelehan was a jazzman first.
His real dad was an engine driver but, with a slight prodding from his mother, Noel studied piano and music theory. Thus was laid the groundwork for an illustrious career in music.
He worked for a while in Arnotts department store, while regularly playing in the small jazz clubs around Dublin.
I met him at the first Late Late Show on Teilifis Eireann on July 6, 1962. I was in the audience; he was at the piano. At 27, Noel was the first music director of the show and composer of the first theme tune.
In the mid-Sixties, the Noel Kelehan Big Band held weekly sessions in the Olympic Ballroom. To hear the sound of an 18-piece band playing intricate arrangements was exhilarating, but not, unfortunately, profitable. Most weeks the band outnumbered the audience. Art was subsidised by writing charts for showband records and also producing them. When he suggested that one showband player's guitar was out of tune, the riposte was, "Sure, wasn't it tuned when I bought it?"
Then, Ireland entered the Eurovision Song Contest. Noel conducted the Irish entry on 24 occasions, including five winning entries, making him not only the most prolific conductor in the contest but also the most successful. Many singers have recounted how comforting it was to see Noel's face in front of them as they went on stage. They knew nothing had been left to chance.
The orchestra also had a high regard for him.
At the 1994 Eurovision at The Point, he was the first to conduct Riverdance. I was there for the song rehearsals, and when one visiting conductor appeared before the orchestra he looked mighty impressive -- long sweeping hair, blue dress suit and a flamboyant manner. Regrettably, he couldn't conduct.
He couldn't keep time and he cued in the string section too early.
Nothing was said. Noel placed himself behind the conductor but in view of the band and, with just one finger, set the tempo, cued the band and nodded for the strings entry.
To this day, the conductor thinks he acquitted himself with honour. As always, Noel did it quietly.
I worked with Noel many times. What was striking about him was his respect for the music and the people who made it, regardless of the genre. He was of the view that there was only good music and bad music.
When Noel retired from RTE in 2000, his colleagues organised a surprise party. Hundreds came to say goodbye to this warm, witty, talented man. His friend from the BBC, Ronnie Hazlehurst, came over to conduct. They played him out with Thank You for the Music, a song doubtless now being sung by the Celestial Choir as this most lovable of musicians lays down his baton.
A classy gig, Dad.