Obituary: Des Kelly
Musician and founder of The Capitol Showband, writes Liam Collins
Des Kelly, who has died at 80, was described as "the quiet man of Irish show business". He was the founder of The Capitol Showband, the manager of Planxty and "discovered" songwriter Phil Coulter while he was still a student at Queens University.
While still in secondary school Des, from Turloughmore, Co Galway, along with his brother Johnny and his sister Bernie, formed the Quicksilver Dance Band with a group of local musicians where he doubled on bass guitar and vocals.
Around 1959, after leaving school, he moved to Dublin to study agriculture at University College Dublin and resumed his music career with the Claddagh Quartet, comprised of the well-known piano player Eamonn Monaghan, Paul Sweeney on trumpet and drummer Tommy McNamara.
The Royal, with Brendan Boyer and The Clipper Carlton were already pioneering the growing ballroom circuit when Des Kelly put together The Capitol Showband.
They went on the road part-time in 1960 after recruiting singer Butch Moore. But by 1961 there was so much work that hard decisions had to be made.
"We had a long talk and it was either stop being musicians and get down to serious study, or give up the idea of a university education and turn professional," Des Kelly told New Spotlight magazine years later. When some of the original members decided to "stick to the day job" Paddy Cole was recruited as sax player and along with the Kelly brothers, Jimmy Hogan, Don Long and Paul Sweeney became the slick new line-up, complete with white shoes, white slacks and blue blazers.
They toured the United States during Lent the following year, as none of the local halls, mostly controlled by the Catholic clergy, opened in Ireland.
"Ballrooms were going up almost overnight," recalls Paddy Cole, "we were playing to audiences of 2,000 to 2,500, six or seven nights a week."
In 1963 they became the first showband to appear on RTE television for a special with Maisie McDaniel and they followed that up with a weekly show on Radio Luxembourg. In 1963 they released their first record, Foolin' Time.
"I met Des in Bundoran in 1963," the song's author, Phil Coulter, recalled. "I lost no time in passing on copies of a record I had and a few months later I got a phone call that set me on the path I've been following ever since - it was from Des telling me The Capitol were going to release my song." It went to No. 3 in the Irish charts in February, 1964 and was quickly followed by another Coulter tune I Missed You.
Butch Moore was chosen as Ireland's first representative in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1965. Held in Italy, he came sixth with Walkin' the Streets in the Rain and notched up a third hit in a row. They also played on the influential Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
The Capitol had further hits with Down Came The Rain and Born To Be With You. "Those were great days and we had a great time and Des was a genuinely nice fella and a good businessman," said Paddy Cole this week. "A lot of the others learned from us - and they learned from our mistakes as well," says Cole referring to the 700 showbands by then criss-crossing the country.
Butch Moore left the band to go solo and although The Capitol continued touring and recording Kelly spotted the new 'ballad boom' and capitalised on it with a recording of The Streets of Baltimore followed by his brother Johnny singing Black Velvet Band, it went to No. 1 and stayed in the charts for 23 weeks in 1967.
After suffering from ill-health Des played only intermittently with the band and after two bouts of pneumonia he decided to quit life on the road in 1969 and went into management and promotion.
He became manager of a new folk group Sweeney's Men and he played bass on the trio's first recording. Through his friendship with Andy Irvine he helped put together and manage a new folk band called Planxty.
"He was one of the best human beings I met in my life," said Irvine. "He was generous, wise and thoughtful to others, he was crucial to the success of Sweeney's Men and some years later to that of Planxty. I'll never forget the delight he shared with Planxty after our performances at the Hangar Ballroom in Galway supporting Donovan, a performance that sped us on the road to success." He also managed the Smokey Mountain Ramblers.
In 1984 The Capitol re-formed for a month-long reunion tour with Butch Moore. In later life Des Kelly presented a Monday night show, with an eclectic choice of music and guests, on Galway Bay radio.
Des Kelly, who lived in Barna, outside Galway, died on Saturday, April 1. As his coffin was carried from the church last Tuesday Paddy Cole played The Streets of Baltimore to applause from friends, relations and many colleagues in the music business. Des is survived by his wife Maura and children Linda, Sandra, Ian, Judy, Desie and Ali.