Entertainment Music

Thursday 18 July 2019

Big Tom MacBride: The giant of jive

Big Tom McBride was a reluctant star who became a champion of Country and Irish music, writes Liam Collins

Big Tom at his home in Oram, Castleblayney, Co Monaghan. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick. Inset below, Big Tom in his chart-topping heyday
Big Tom at his home in Oram, Castleblayney, Co Monaghan. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick. Inset below, Big Tom in his chart-topping heyday
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

From the sophisticated radio and television studios where his music was rarely played to the by-ways around Oram where he was laid to rest last Friday, Big Tom exited stage left with a final chorus of Gentle Mother echoing behind him.

The man with the smoke-creased face attracted the biggest audience in years to his final gig. They swamped the tiny 200-seater St Patrick's Church in the hamlet 5km from Castleblayney, Co Monaghan, in memory of a man who practically invented the musical genre known as 'Country and Irish' music.

Well-travelled men and women with lived-in looks and stories to tell, from Crookedwood to Cricklewood, gathered to say farewell to the man who came to typify this peculiar hybrid of American country music and sentimental Irish ballads, which tapped into some deeply sentimental part of the Irish psyche with the release of Gentle Mother in early 1967.

It was a brand of dance music that held huge appeal in rural Ireland and among the emigrant Irish communities in Britain.

A big, unassuming and shy man, he went through the rest of his life slightly baffled at becoming that elusive being 'a star' and largely stayed out of the limelight as much as it was possible to do, but enjoyed the trappings of wealth that came with it.

He never got The Late Late Show tribute awarded to The Dubliners but then again, he probably wouldn't have wanted it. Instead he got a televised wake at the opening of the Country Music special last Friday night. Daniel O'Donnell, Nathan Carter, Paddy Cole and Susan McCann sang his praises and Brian D'Arcy cast the mantle of genius of another big misunderstood Monaghan man, Patrick Kavanagh, over his coffin.

You get a sense he would have been pleased about the outpouring, not so much of grief, but of those old, not often played any more, tunes and the stories that abounded of his witty country ways.

Big Tom never really strayed far from his roots in Castleblayney during those 81 years and when not on tour with his band The Mainliners ,was to be found working the land of the family farm or, for a few years, overseeing his pub in the town, The Old Log Cabin. "When I leave the stage, I leave Big Tom behind," he told music writer Eddie Rowley some years ago, "I'll go home and off out to the fields, or fishing."

Thomas McBride was born on September 18, 1936, into a family of six (of whom four survived) on a small farm in Oram, Monaghan. His father Samuel was a Protestant and his mother Mary Ellen, a Catholic. Tom McBride played football with his local team in Oram and, because of his size, he was given the name of 'Big Tom' by his team's manager John McCormack in honour of the Cavan footballer and TD 'Big Tom' O'Reilly.

He wasn't much for "the book learning" as he said himself and while still a schoolboy, picked potatoes with another 'Blayney man who went on to find fame and fortune in the music business, Paddy Cole. It was a town steeped in music, with most of the musicians getting 'a start' with the Maurice Lynch Orchestra (later Showband), one of the most famous dance bands in Ireland in the 1950s and early 1960s.

After escaping from school, McBride went to England and, like many emigrants, worked in Wall's ice cream factory in Acton, London. Seeking a more "outdoor life", he moved to Jersey and worked laying pipes and picking fruit. It was there that he heard a country and western band called The Mainliners, which stuck in his mind and he would later borrow to such good effect.

In 1959, he returned to the family farm following the death of his older brother Willie John from meningitis but began to take an interest in the burgeoning music scene in the town. While still a teenager, he had learned the guitar and he was proficient on the saxophone. He played in a band called Blue Seven before joining the Fincairn Ceili Band which eventually, in keeping with changing tastes, morphed into The Mighty Mainliners showband.

The original line-up was Seamus and Henry McMahon, John Bettie, Cyril McKevitt, Ronnie Duffy and Ginger Morgan, the lead singer who performed 'pop' songs while Big Tom took over vocals on country numbers. While working in London, he had met two brothers from Ireland who taught him the words of Gentle Mother, a traditional ballad with lyrics that went:

Shall I ne'er see a more gentle mother

In the fields where the wild flowers grow

I am sorry for the loss I can't recover

Neath yon willow lies my gentle mother's love

McBride had realised the potency of such melancholy lyrics and the fortunes of The Mainliners (they had dropped the 'Mighty' fairly quickly) changed dramatically after a guest appearance on the Telefis Eireann programme The Showband Show in 1966. It was a toss-up as to who would sing, but in the end it was Big Tom and his rendition of Gentle Mother.

Suddenly Big Tom and The Mainliners were in huge demand in a string of ballrooms which had sprung up all over the Irish midlands, built by Jim and Albert Reynolds, and at 'carnival dances' which were held in marquees erected in remote villages to raise funds, usually under the auspices of the parish priest.

Released as a single in January 1967, Gentle Mother reached number seven in the Irish charts and established Big Tom and the band on the dancehall circuit. Later that year, Old Log Cabin for Sale went to number four. They had number one hits with Broken Marriage Vows; I Love You Still and Old Love Letters in 1972, 1973 and 1974 respectively. "I never really believed in myself going on stage," he told one interviewer. "I always wondered why people were coming to see us and I always had the butterflies. But when you see people enjoying themselves, it's easy after that."

Big Tom, along with Larry Cunningham and Philomena Begley, were the undisputed champions of 'Country and Irish' music, often derided among more sophisticated musicians and punters at home. During Lent, they played in places like the vast Galtymore in Cricklewood and the Gresham ballroom. Big Tom later said he "hated" those early tours where the ballrooms were often rowdy and marred by drink-fuelled rows among hardened Irish labourers.

He left The Mainliners in 1975 and formed Big Tom and The Travellers, despite his aversion to travelling beyond Ireland and England because of a fear of flying. He was eventually persuaded to go to America in 1980 and, just as air travel was becoming commonplace, travelled to New York on the QE2 liner on his way to Nashville. It was reported gleefully by word of mouth that as well as attracting Irish emigrants who knew Big Tom and The Mainliners' music from recordings, the name of the band attracted a strung-out audience who thought The Mainliners were a hard-core drug outfit and found the whole 'Country and Irish' act surreal.

Susan McCann said he gave her one piece of advice, record music that the postman can sing, or whistle.

He had become so famous that she launched her career with a song Big Tom is Still the King and around the same time, the late Derek Davis did a sketch on the much-watched television programme Hall's Pictorial Weekly as 'Mean Tom' in which he appeared in a bath singing sentimental parodies of Big Tom standards.

But the Castleblayney man was having the last laugh, with his wife Rose managing the cash pile generated by constant touring.

His biggest hit of the 1980s came with Four Country Roads, written by Johnny McCauley, who had a dance band in London and wrote a string of slushy songs name-checking Irish counties like Wicklow, Leitrim, Donegal and other emigrant blackspots. The song went to number five in the Irish charts in May 1981 and became a standard on the 'Country and Irish' repertoire.

Having rejoined The Mainliners in 1989 he was now one of the best-known figures in Irish music. He had built a home at Drumacrib outside Castleblayney with a pair of custom-built gates adorned with guitars, which left no one in any doubt who lived there and became a place of pilgrimage for fans. (Two men from South Armagh were even charged with trying to steal them.) He also had a full-size snooker table in the games room in the house.

In 2004 Tom McBride appeared on the wrong kind of charts, the tax defaulters list as the holder of a bogus non-resident bank account, making a settlement of €100,000 with the Revenue Commissioners, €75,000 of which was penalties.

Although he had spent much of his life performing, Big Tom was quite a shy person. He didn't like doing television shows or interviews and even refused to go on television with friends like Brendan Shine, preferring to stick to the stage of the dancehalls.

He spent his spare time on the family farm and collected old tractors which reminded him of his childhood.

An enthusiastic and lifelong smoker, he suffered a second and serious heart attack in 2006, but recovered well enough to go back on the road, performing at the closing night of the famous Galtymore ballroom two years later.

With old age, many founding members of The Mainliners had retired and were replaced by other musicians for the periodic tours and performances including a tour in 2016 to celebrate 50 years since the first performance of Gentle Mother.

Tom McBride, who died on April 17, was pre-deceased by his beloved wife Rose, who died just months before him in January. He is survived by his sons Tom Jnr and Dermot and his daughters Aisling and Siobhan and his sister Madge.

Sunday Independent

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