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Brendan was the undisputed King of the Irish ballroom

The Royal Showband and Brendan Bowyer were an iconic showband from the late 1950’s and 1960’s with the beatles once playing support to them. Henry Wymbs reports.

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The late Brendan Bowyer pictured at the Galway Bay Hotel. Photo Brian Farrell

The late Brendan Bowyer pictured at the Galway Bay Hotel. Photo Brian Farrell

The late Brendan Bowyer pictured at the Galway Bay Hotel. Photo Brian Farrell

sligochampion

On stage, Brendan Bowyer whipped his female fans into a frenzy by gyrating and shimmying in reckless abandon.

His name alone is enough to rekindle treasured memories of a time long ago when the ‘Royal Showband’ ruled supreme.

The band epitomised glamour and flamboyance and in many ways defined the music of the sixties in Ireland, with ‘The Hucklebuck’ This particular song was the sound track of our lives and one of the greatest dance tunes of the decade.

I was fortunate to see and meet Brendan on many occasions and interviewed him shortly before his death in 2020. He was proud of his association with the song.

“I first heard the Frank Sinatra swing version of it and thought it would suit my style of singing. Despite recording it in just twenty minutes, it spent a total of twelve weeks in the Irish charts, seven of which were at the number one spot. I suppose it’s the song everyone remembers me by.”

Brendan Bowyer was born in Waterford in 1938 – the eldest in a family of four, with three sisters.

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“I had a very happy childhood; my father was from Yorkshire and mum from Waterford. They actually met through music – dad used to teach the piano and violin in the De La Salle College in Waterford.

“He was also a musical conductor, having left England to tour Ireland with his family, ‘Bowyer Operatic Touring Group’. At the age of eight my father guided me towards classical music and I was a boy soprano in the local church choir. Without a doubt music played a big part in my formative years.”

The story of the Royal Showband began in 1956. Michael Coppinger was still at school in Waterford and playing accordion part time in a local ceile band.

He was friendly with Charlie Matthews who played drums, Jim Conlon guitar and Tom Dunphy the bass. They were big fans of skiffle and Lonnie Donnigan was their hero.

They decided to join the Harry Boland dance band, where around this time Brendan was playing trombone and the piano with a local band called ‘The Rhythm Kings’.

At this time Bowyer was particularly influenced by the ‘Clipper Carlton’ showband from Northern Ireland.

“It had to be my summer holidays from school in 1956 that I first heard the ‘Clippers.’ It was at the Atlantic ballroom in Tramore and I was totally stunned by their talent and versatility – they were standing up (all dance bands at this time were sitting whilst playing their instruments).

“For an impressionable sixteen-year-old this was pure magic. I can honestly say this was a defining moment in my life and the experience inspired me to be a professional entertainer.”

In 1957, with the addition of Gerry Cullin who played piano and Ed Sullivan on trumpet, Bowyer decided to join forces with the then Harry Boland Dance Band and rename the group ‘The Royal Showband.’ Bowyer was excited but aware of the reputation of the big bands of the day.

‘We were all relatively young and inexperienced. In the first half of the fifties, it was all about big orchestras like Mick Delahunty from Clonmel, Maurice Mulcahy from Mitchelstown, Johnny Flynn from Galway, Jack Ruane from Ballina and of course the Clippers – we had something to prove and were fortunate when a new manager arrived.”

T.J. Byrne, a musical instruments salesman from Carlow, spotted the band at a gig and after discussions he took over the management. Almost overnight, with Brendan as lead singer, they became the biggest attraction in the country. Bowyer is full of praise for Byrne’s business astuteness.

“He certainly changed a lot of things for the better. He had good contacts and was very well-respected all over Ireland; you see the music scene at the time in Ireland was very proper and pretty staid.

“Suddenly, I was a lead singer in a top showband and from just performing at weekends, the band was now playing nearly every night of the week. It all came about very quickly.”

‘The Royal’ did not use original material, only cover versions, mainly of American singers, but Bowyer was philosophical about the whole thing.

“No one ever complained that the music wasn’t original; no one ever complained that we didn’t sing the songs as well as the folk that wrote them.

“In the UK, Marty Wilde and Billy Fury also did cover versions of American singers. Everyone enjoyed the atmosphere – it was absolutely electric.”

Those were pioneering days in many ways for musicians and singers who were in the process of experimenting with instruments and amplification.

‘We were the first showband to use a bass guitar (it was always the old bull fiddle prior to 1959), and Gerry Cullin the electric piano; it not only boosted our sound, but it was a tremendous relief as before this we were totally dependent on the piano and its condition which at the time was supplied by the ballroom and mostly out of tune.”

The advent of the ‘Royal’ heralded a sea change in Irish entertainment, with their swashbuckling style and strong brass section specialising in the popular music of the day: so much so, the country became ‘showband’ crazy, with Brendan Bowyer a superstar.

“I suppose we provided the two essential ingredients; music for the dancers and a show for the remainder. We put our heart and soul into it; it was a wonderful time and we got well paid for doing something we enjoyed.”

In 1961, Tom Dunphy, who doubled up as vocalist, recorded a bluegrass-tinted traditional tune called ‘Come Down the Mountain Katie Daly’. This tune went on to become the first showband single to enter the Irish charts, and in doing so enhanced the band’s reputation still further.

By now the ‘Royal’ were the most successful band in Ireland and England, with a little-known English group called ‘The Beatles’ supporting them in Liverpool. Bowyer even offered words of encouragement to a certain Paul McCartney.

“It was 1962, and we were playing the Liverpool Empire Ballroom. I remember a local group called ‘The Beatles’ were our warm up band for the night and after the dance I spoke to Paul McCartney in the ballroom car park. He was looking at our Mercedes jeep and eating a bag of chips.

“I advised him to keep at it and they might make it one day, and as the saying goes, the rest is history.”

A string of hits singles followed for Bowyer with ‘The Hucklebuck’. ‘Kiss me Quick’, ‘No More’ and ‘The Holy City’.

The band were the undisputed kings of Irish ballrooms and had come a long way since the embryonic days when, as youngsters, they played with different groups in Waterford.

Towards the end of the sixties, the showband scene was in decline and, although still extremely popular, Bowyer could see the writing on the wall. The whole music scene was changing, and discos were in the ascendancy, nevertheless Bowyer and company were still mixing with the biggest entertainers in the world.

“We had played the American scene on a number of occasions, with ‘The Royal Showband’, being huge in Las Vegas. In 1971, together with Tom Dunphy, we headed for Vegas and after some time formed a band, ‘The Big Eight’ – Paddy Cole from the ‘Capital’ Showband and a well-known female singer ‘Twink’ joined us. We did residency work for about 9 months of the year at Vegas’s top night-spot: and a lot of corporate work in Ireland and elsewhere.”

Bowyer was now resident with his family in Las Vegas, the entertainment capital of the world, when to his surprise Elvis Presley turned up at one of their concerts.

“I had met Elvis on a previous occasion and was a huge fan of his from my days growing up in Waterford. I had all his records and memorabilia and was absolutely thrilled when the ‘King’ himself popped in to see us perform. He jumped up on the stage and did his hip shake and left. A real gentleman.”

But there was another side to the showband story. Fortunes were made and squandered. Drink was a showband accessory and claimed many casualties – with Bowyer among them.

“I had my first drink in my early twenties and from the age of thirty, I lost a whole decade with my family due to the demon drink. You see alcohol was the drug of the sixties in Ireland: it crept up on me and everything got worse when I lost my best friend and mother in 1974, and then Tom Dunphy, who was tragically killed in a traffic accident near Carrick-on-Shannon in 1975. The band was on tour in Ireland, I was with my manager in the Great Northern Hotel in Bundoran when I got the news that Tom had died. It was a terrible time for me and of course alcohol, for a short time. was a great comfort. I became an alcoholic.”

Thankfully, Bowyer managed to give up the drink and for the last twenty years of his life got his family back and managed to get back on the road with his music again. Sadly, most of the original ‘Royal’ showband have passed on. During the glorious showband years, Brendan Bowyer was very much part of the Irish landscape, a moveable icon with a style and singing voice that inspired a generation. ‘The Hucklebuck’ became the anthem of the sixties in Ireland. There are a lot of people who believe that without Bowyer, there would not have been a ‘showband’ story to relate.


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