Thursday 22 February 2018

Obituary: Earl 'Darby' Gill, trumpeter

A giant of Irish showbiz, he was admired for his musicianship and sense of humour, recalls Shay Healy

Greatest of the great: Earl Gill was first-choice trumpeter
Greatest of the great: Earl Gill was first-choice trumpeter

Earl 'Darby' Gill, who died this month aged 81, got his nickname from the movie Darby O'Gill and The Little People. But Darby was a giant in Irish showbiz rather than a little person and during his time, he played and arranged copious amounts of music, generated bucketfuls of goodwill and landslides of laughter.

Before the showband juggernaut began steamrolling its way over everything in its musical path, there were dance bands, such as Chris Lamb and His Band, The Maurice Mulcahy Orchestra and The Earl Gill Dance Band which included Big Jim Farley, Sean Dunphy and the legendary Sonny Knowles, who spent 10 years in The Earl Gill Dance Band

"Darby was the greatest of the great," remembered Sonny. "He was the number one trumpeter. If there was 10 trumpets required, Darby was first choice. The great thing about Darby was he could have a row with you, murder if you like, but he never held your job over your head."

As well as being a player, Earl was a clever arranger and a quality bandleader. Riverdance composer, Bill Whelan, worked with Darby in studios and under Darby's baton as a member of the band in touring shows like HMS Pinafore around Ireland.

"Earl was a musicians' musician, I never met him that he didn't have a smile, which gave him an engaging personality. He was a very fine trumpet player and he was a very good leader of musicians. Somehow he managed to galvanise people because they trusted his musicianship and he had this capacity to turn something ordinary into a great performance. And beneath all that was a sense of humour which communicated enormously to musicians."

Earl's Band were the resident band in the Shelbourne Hotel, in the early Sixties, but when the showband craze erupted, from where Darby was sitting, it looked like that's where the money was, so he formed The Hoedowners, with Sean Dunphy and Amy Hayden as the lead singers. From the middle Sixties to the early Seventies, they had a string of 14 chart hits.

The last hit was a strange one. In the early Seventies, the writing was on the wall for the showband craze and showbands had become thin on the ground. Big Tom and country 'n' Irish was all the rage. But during the boom years there had been several novelty bands that stood out. There was Tarzan and The Monkeys ... (yes they did wear monkey suits), The Casino Showband changed their name to become The Indians, wore feathered headresses and whooped and hollered their way around the dancehall circuit to great effect.

Being cognisant of the novelty band phenomenon, when Darby and the band found a hit song called The Poor Poor Farmer, they repackaged themselves as The Farmers. Darby adopted the name Tim Pat and he dressed himself like Batty Brennan from The Riordans, big knarly tweed overcoat, a battered caubeen on his head and wellington boots. It was ridiculous, but amusing and their song improbably reached No 3 in the Irish charts.

Last week, Ronan Collins informed us that the catchphrase "Keep her goin' Patsy" is attributed to Darby. He kept it going through his retirement years in Spain with his wife, the choreographer, Mavis Ascott, who put the famous Riverdance "line"together.

Whenever old musos meet and the stories start flying, invariably a story about Darby, who died on May 4, will show up in the mix. He would have liked that.

Sunday Independent

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