Saturday 21 January 2017

Our Eurovision music maestro

Published 12/02/2012 | 06:00

Johnny Logan may have won it twice, Dana may have forged a political career from it, but Noel Kelehan held Ireland's most impressive Eurovision record.

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The Dublin-born conductor took the podium in cities all over Europe to conduct the Eurovision orchestra a remarkable 29 times, 24 of them for Ireland, including five Irish winning entries.

His death earlier this week has brought to a close a musical life and career that was far from ordinary.

For more than 60 years, music took him from a supportive family background in working-class Dublin to international fame as the most prolific conductor in the history of the Eurovision Song Contest.

Noel Kelehan was born on St Stephen's Day in 1935 in north-west Dublin. His mother played the piano and when he was seven she brought him for lessons.

He took to the instrument immediately and eventually attended the Municipal School of Music in Chatham Street in Dublin.

A brilliant scholar too, he graduated with honours from school at the age of 17 and went to work in an uncle's clothing store, a job he absolutely loathed, all the while earning extra pocket money playing dance music and jazz in hotel lounges around the city.

He had always known his first love was music, and when he made his Radio Éireann live radio debut at the age of 19, he impressed to the extent that he immediately got regular freelance work.

Live radio work led to television work, and when Gay Byrne presented the first ever Late Late Show in the summer of 1962, the Noel Kelehan Trio were there and went on to become the resident studio band.

Some years ago Kelehan remarked: "When TV started in Ireland in 1961 it was a goldmine for me. Of everything I did in those years, nothing was given more exposure than the Late Late Show."

He was also involved as musical director on Mike Murphy's hit RTÉ 2 show, The Live Mike, which was first broadcast in November 1979 and ran for three seasons.

"You couldn't have met a nicer man," Mike Murphy recalled this week.

"Never angry, never flustered and always prepared, he was funny and very talented, and everyone, especially the musicians, loved him. I was whingeing one day in studio that I couldn't dance, a statement Noel certainly didn't contest. 'Here', he said to me, 'even an idiot should be able to do this', executing a funny little shuffle. I practised it and the public loved it. It became my signature on the show."

In 1963 a brief foray to play in a dance band at a New York Irish bar didn't work out. Kelehan said that professionally he would have liked to have stayed in New York, but married to his wife Mary and with two young children, it wasn't a practical proposition. So he returned to Dublin.

By now he was in big demand as a composer and arranger. These were the heady showband days and Kelehan became heavily involved in commercial recording sessions with most of the big names, including Sean Dunphy, Brendan Bowyer, Pat Lynch and Butch Moore.

In 1973 his days as a jobbing musician came to an end when RTÉ offered him a contact as a radio producer and staff conductor.

Noel Kelehan's musical remit within RTE was broad, including conducting popular music, light orchestral music and jazz, as well as composing signature tunes for dozens of TV shows.

The station recognised his talent as a composer by commissioning a number of major works, including his 'Suite for Chamber Orchestra' and 'Three Pieces for Percussion Ensemble and Symphony Orchestra' which received its first performance at the Dublin Festival of Twentieth Century Music played by the National Symphony Orchestra.

He made a number of recordings, including a big band album called The Golden Heritage of Irish Music, and an excellent jazz album, Ozone, which is now a collector's item. He also wrote the string arrangements for U2's fourth album, The Unforgettable Fire.

Noel Kelehan will always be associated with the words "and the conductor is . . ." as he took the podium in cities all over Europe to conduct the Eurovision orchestra, including five Irish winning songs starting with 'What's Another Year' in 1980 and followed by 'Hold Me Now' (1987), 'Why Me?' (1992), 'In Your Eyes' (1993) and 'The Voice' (1996).

A row over expenses had sadly prevented him from conducting when Dana's 'All Kinds of Everything' gave Ireland its first victory in the contest in 1970.

He was also denied an unprecedented hat-trick in 1994 when Charlie McGettigan and Paul Harrington's 'Rock 'n' Roll Kids' didn't require an orchestral accompaniment. However, Noel did conduct the Polish entry that year, 'To Ni Ja!', which came second.

In 2000, when he reached 65, Noel Kelehan retired from RTÉ. He continued to work at arranging and conducting for some years, until illness overcame him.

He will be warmly remembered as one of Ireland's most affable and able musical ambassadors.

Noel Kelehan (1935-2012) is survived by his wife Mary, daughter Carol and sons Simon and Brian

Myles McWeeney

Indo Review

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