Saturday 19 October 2019

From humble beginnings to showband superstardom

Jason O'Brien

THERE was no show quite like a Joe show.

At the start of his career he played sweaty, smoky dancehalls where there was no toilet and he had to "p*** out of a door at the back of the stage". At his peak he was playing on 'Top of the Pops', doing extended runs in Las Vegas, and was the first Western artist to perform in Moscow at the height of the Cold War. Towards the end of his career he was back in vogue, belting out covers of contemporary songs for younger audiences in top-end venues, resplendent in his white suit.

The richly distinctive voice remained a constant. That, and an ironclad guarantee he would send them home sweating.

Born in Mullingar, Westmeath in 1939, Joe Dolan was the youngest of seven children. Both his parents died when he was young, and five of his siblings emigrated or settled down, leaving Joe at home with his brother Ben. He started working as an apprentice compositor with the local newspaper but, having completed the apprenticeship, he decided to embark on a full-time music career.


The Drifters Showband was formed, with Joe the lead singer and guitarist, and Ben alongside him. "I paid them for one of their first gigs," Pat Quinn, the founder of Quinnsworth, said from Toronto yesterday. "They didn't even want money. I paid them £25 and they put two tyres on the back of their van. The next night they paid for tyres for the front."

That Volkswagen van -- "with six or seven of us piled in the back" according to Joe's manager Seamus Casey -- travelled the length and breadth of the country during the 60s, with the Drifters building on their early chart success with 'The Answer To Everything'.

It was the height of the showband era, and Joe and the Drifters cut a streak through rural Ireland, with tales of young ladies throwing their underwear at him not uncommon. It has been argued that only a lack of media exposure stopped him from becoming a major international success to rival the likes of Tom Jones.

"I played support to Joe on occasion in the Roseland Ballroom in Moate. He was unbelievable to watch on stage at the dances," Tony Allen of Foster and Allen fame said last night.

"He had a great voice, brilliant timing on stage, and a great personality both on and off the stage. He was a natural with people, always was. He started doing cabaret shows in Dublin in the early 1970s, when no-one was doing them. He was an amazing performer."

Joe scored his biggest international hit in 1969 with 'Make Me An Island' which went to number three in Britain and topped the charts in 14 countries across Europe.

A string of hits followed into the '70s and '80s, with the singer performing to fans across Europe, Brazil, South Africa, Argentina and Australia, while continuing to secure top 10s in Ireland.

"If I had gotten into this business for money and if I was concerned about that I would have gotten out years ago," he said in an interview recently.

As it was, his career underwent an unlikely renaissance in the late '90s with the release of a covers album of contemporary hits bringing that voice to a new audience. A re-release of 'You're Such A Good Looking Woman' -- sung with Dustin the Turkey -- topped the charts.

His management team said last night that he was in the middle of one his most successful tours, including a sell-out return to Dublin's Vicar Street, when he took ill earlier this year.

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