Obituary: Val Doonican
Popular singer and television performer known for his easy charm and cheery rendition of folk songs
VAL DOONICAN, the singer who died on Wednesday aged 88, rose to fame in the early 1960s when he appeared in Sunday Night at the London Palladium; his relaxed manner and easy charm made him extremely popular with family audiences, who appreciated his whimsical renditions of folk songs such as Paddy McGinty's Goat, O'Rafferty's Motor Car and Delaney's Donkey.
Doonican distinguished himself from other performers at that time by sporting a range of knitwear more usually seen in Lapland, and by performing many of his songs while sitting in a rocking chair.
His tranquillity appeared as authentic offstage as on. On one occasion, he was found in a cinema watching The Jolson Story when he was booked for a dress rehearsal of his own stage show. "I'd always been a big fan of Al Jolson," he recalled. "My own show completely slipped my mind."
Unlike many of his contemporaries with singing ambitions, Doonican made his radio debut as a cowboy in Riders of the Range. Doonican, then a member of the Four Ramblers, played one of a number of bunk-house boys who were heard crooning cowboy songs in the gaps between the action. At the same time, he was supplementing his income by writing musical accompaniments for Tex Ritter. Ritter, who was narrating a documentary on the cowboy at the time, spent many hours with Doonican, whom he referred to as "Cal", discussing music for traditional cowboy songs.
Michael Valentine Doonican was born in Waterford, the youngest of eight children in a close-knit Catholic family. Val, a keen radio fan, made his musical debut at the age of six as a "Jamjargonette" playing musical jamjars in a school concert. His plans for further education were dashed when he was 15 and his father died of cancer. "There was no question of me staying on at school after that," he recalled.
Val began work immediately at the local fish-box factory. "They handed me a hammer," he said, "and I had to knock boxes together with one inch nails."
After several months, the box factory lost its charm and Doonican began to search for better-paid employment. He and a friend, Bruce Clarke, spent 30 shillings making a record at a mobile recording unit which had travelled down from Dublin. Encouraged with the result, they auditioned for Beginners Please, a variety show on Radio Eireann, and were given a spot on the programme. After their success on Beginners Please, Doonican and Bruce Clarke were offered their first professional booking. Doonican, who did not own an instrument, hitchhiked to Dublin to buy a second-hand Gibson guitar costing £20. "I thought you could build the QEII for £20," he said later. "I had to borrow the money and pay it back at £2 a week."
Doonican and Clarke were offered a variety spot at the local cinema. At that time, a tax was imposed on cinemas which could only be avoided if the theatre was registered as a cine-variety venue. "We thought it was great," Doonican recalled, "until we discovered that the variety part of the act had to be as long as the cinema part. We were on stage for one-and-a-half-hour stretches three times a day."
Doonican and his partner spent the thinly attended lunchtime screenings as a rehearsal for their later performances. "It was hard going," he remembered.
"We used to have two old men and a woman and her baby come in out of the rain. I used to do a couple of songs on my own and then Bruce took over - that way we could both relax for half an hour."
After a season at the Courtown Harbour cinema in Co Wexford, Doonican and Clarke were offered positions as a drummer and pianist with a dance band.
They accepted immediately, although Doonican had previously only played the kettle drum at his local scout troup. He stayed on with the band in spite of his dislike of the drum kit because he was occasionally allowed to play a solo guitar spot.
He recalled that in the late 1940s, the guitar was still considered a novelty and was viewed in the same light as a balalaika or zither. After six months with the band, Bruce Clarke formed his own group the Bruce Clarke Trio which performed regularly.
In 1951, Val Doonican moved to London and made his radio debut as a member of the Four Ramblers on Riders of the Range.
When not performing as cowboys, the group toured Britain, appearing at various variety venues. By 1953, they were working regularly in cabaret, performing at American air bases. Doonican recalled that the biggest hazards they encountered were beer-can missiles thrown at the stage by bored GIs. "They shook the cans until they were ready to explode," he remembered, "then sent them spinning across the floor spraying beer like a fountain. We spent most of our wages on dry cleaning bills."
Doonican spent the next eight years touring with the Four Ramblers, but in 1959, was offered a part in a concert party being staged by Anthony Newley.
Newley's plan was that everyone involved should give a solo performance of something not in their stage act. He featured singers dancing and musicians doing magic tricks. Doonican played the guitar, sang Irish folk songs and told stories about Ireland. Anthony Newley suggested that Doonican should try to produce an act of his own based solely on his Irish songs and stories.
In 1959, Val Doonican auditioned as a solo performer with BBC radio and was offered a spot on Dreamy Afternoon which led to his own show, Your Date with Val. Doonicans's mix of songs and stories proved popular, and the following year, he was touring the country with his own show.
"We used to do Irish nights at local air bases," he said, "they'd be so keen to show it was Irish that they dyed the beer green. But when we went to an all-black air base they billed me as Val Doonican, 'Ireland's greatest soul singer'. I died a death when I started in on Paddy McGinty's Goat."
Five of Doonican's albums entered the British album Top 10 chart during the 1960s; one, with the self-deprecating title of Val Doonican Rocks, But Gently, replaced Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in the top spot at the start of 1968 and was the singer's first and only No 1 LP. He had numerous hit singles during this period, among them Walk Tall, The Special Years, What Would I Be? (which reached No 2) and If the Whole World Stopped Loving.
In 1964, Val Doonican was offered a spot on ITV's Sunday Night at the London Palladium and was acclaimed as an "overnight star". Within a year, he was appearing on BBC television in The Val Doonican Music Show and was voted BBC Personality of the Year (an award he won three times altogether).
Through the 1970s and 1980s Doonican continued to appear on television. The format remained consistent: a mixture of lighthearted chat, celebrity guests - including Hollywood luminaries such as Howard Keel and Bing Crosby - and songs, often drawn from the Irish comic folk tradition, such as O'Rafferty's Motor Car ("With a gallon of stout in the petrol tank it does 90 miles an hour... It used to be black as me father's hat, now it's 40 shades of green").
Doonican did not always wear patterned leisure sweaters; latterly he was often seen in a light-coloured jacket and tie.
In 1971, he starred in his own show for the BBC at the London Palladium and later transferred to ITV for a fee of £1 million. For a time, he also had a show on the ABC network in the US.
He remained a television star for more than 20 years, but by the late-1980s, musical variety were proving too expensive to produce. His BBC show ended in 1986, but he appeared as a regular guest on programmes such as Wogan.
Although his television appearances were now infrequent, by the early-1990s, Doonican was making more live appearances than at any time in his career.
In 1990, he toured for over three months in Australia and Ireland and performed more than 47 concerts in England. Later that year, he released a compact disc, album and video, Songs from my Sketchbook. The record and CD barely made the Top 40, but Doonican's video overtook both Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue to reach the No 2 position.
In retirement, Val Doonican painted seriously and played golf, dividing his time between Buckinghamshire and Spain.
He is survived by his wife of more than 50 years, Lynn (nee Rae), and their two daughters.