Tuesday 11 December 2018

Farewell Big Tom, the canny King of Country'n'Irish

Country roads: Big Tom in action with his band during his heyday in the mid-1970s
Country roads: Big Tom in action with his band during his heyday in the mid-1970s

At the height of the showband boom, Jim Tobin of The Firehouse cheerfully admitted: "My voice comes out very flat on tape, but singing's a lot better than shovelling gravel for a living."

Tobin was a stablemate of the late Big Tom McBride under the wing of Senator Donie Cassidy.

Like Tobin and other top names, Big Tom drifted into the music game after trying hard labour.

McBride had stints as a farm hand, laying cables, picking tomatoes and erecting haysheds. It took him just three minutes crooning 'Gentle Mother' on TV in 1966 to melt the hearts of Middle Ireland, and he found stardom tapping a vein of nostalgia for a land of pretty Omagh girls, sorrowful mothers, candles in windows and welcomes on mats.

According to Senator Paschal Mooney, McBride's natural reticence fuelled "the myth that he was a bit of a thick".

Far from it. In the 1970s, one source estimated McBride's earnings at £150,000 a year when the average wage was £15 a week. He didn't flash the cash though. His only concession to bling were the wrought iron gates to his Castleblayney home mimicking Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion.

Never part of the Dublin scene, he'd be tucked up tight as other stars were holding drag races along the Rathmines Road in their customised VW Beetles while the city slept.

The highest rollers would fly to London just to take in one of the many movies banned in Ireland.

The advent of the ballrooms created a network of big venues allowing promoters to lure stars like Chubby Checker, Jim Reeves and Little Richard to Ireland. Sometimes these icons played to half-empty halls because a showband was gigging up the road. When the Beach Boys played Dublin's Adelphi in 1967, their support act, The Freshmen, blew them away playing Beach Boys covers.

When Pope John XXIII died in 1963, the ballrooms shut as a mark of respect, and the showband year ran to the Catholic Church calender. The ballrooms closed for Lent, when touring switched to Britain. Ireland's homesick navvys and nurses clasped Big Tom to their collective bosom. The once young jivers of the ballrooms had grown leg weary of the twist, and the tepid waltz tempo of Country'n'Irish was just what the foot doctor ordered.

By the mid-1970s the showband scene had diversified, with Big Tom the undisputed King of Country'n'Irish.

The domestic hybrid remains immensely popular. As chronicled in RTÉ's Stetsons & Stilettos, it exists today as a thriving subculture that cares little for dominant cultural trends. Legend has it that in the 1970s, the Sound of Music club in Glenamaddy, Co Galway had a booking policy which slotted all visiting acts into one of just three categories: Country'n'Western, Pop and Mad Pop.

With rare exceptions like Rory Gallagher and Van Morrisson, those who'd paid their dues in the ballrooms steered well clear of Mad Pop. Those who didn't take the country road to the old log cabin went instead for the types of pop recognisable today as cabaret and Eurovision.

Veteran Paddy Cole summed up the transition from the bopping dance halls to what became known as the chicken-in-a-basket cabaret circuit. "Showbiz is not about getting a standing ovation in The Capitol, when they would have cheered even if we'd played 'Ba Ba Black Sheep'," he reasoned. "Showbiz is about trying to entertain people while they're eating. This was a new challenge."

Twink was the singer with Cole's new departure, the Superstars. Looking back on the cabaret wing's friendly rivalry with the Eurovision branch, she said: "We were liked because we filled a void. We weren't quite as avant-garde as the sort of Chips-like band who were the best there was."

Lest we forget, Chips, fronted by future Eurovision winner Linda Martin, did plinky covers of The Bay City Rollers, Linda Ronstadt and Elton John.

Showband life for women was tough during the ballroom era, with grimy toilets for changing rooms in a world tailored for men. Facilities improved with the move to cabaret venues, but the punters didn't. Men would write to Twink saying: "Would you come down if I sent you the train fare?"

Her friend Maxi, another future Eurovision entrant, got one letter saying: "I'm a great fan of yours for many years, though not of your singing. I read that you like tall, skinny men. I'm a tall, skinny man."

After one TV appearance, Maxi's girl trio Sheeba received a letter saying: "I've got a big farm. I'd like to marry the one in the middle. Are you interested?"

The showbands haven't gone away, you know. They live on in every Nathan Carter TV special, and in every plucky but doomed delegation Montrose sends to far flung Eurovision jamborees on our licence fee.

Damian Corless

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