Henry Wymbs goes back in time to recall the early days of the dancehalls which were frequented by thousands of young people every week-end dancing to the latest tunes of the showbands including the Clipper Carlton band who were in very much in tune with the music trends in the UK and Us.
In the late 1940’s and early ‘50’s, the local halls were the only venues available for dancing in Ireland.
This was a world without television, mobile phones and the internet, a world where the horse and cart, turf and the obligatory school walk of five miles or more were common place.
The megastars of the day were all American icons, such as Clark Gable, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra and Frankie Laine.
Unemployment and emigration ravaged the country and families were large and had to be fed. Unless you were well connected the simple choice was the boat across the Irish sea to Holyhead or work on the small farm at home for a meagre income.
This was a restrained time when people had not yet heard of Elvis Presley and were untouched by rock ‘n’ roll. But things were beginning to change and people were becoming restless.
1950 saw a group of young musicians gather together in the small town of Strabane in Northern Ireland, with the idea of forming the greatest band on earth. What was to follow changed the course of music in Ireland forever.
In June 2006, I met up Clipper Carlton musician, Mickey O’Hanlon and their first manager, Victor Craig. Mickey takes up the story.
“In 1950, I was working as both a carpenter and a small-time musician in Northern Ireland. At the time, the Pallodrome ballroom in Strabane was the big venue for dancing, and all the big bands of the day played there. I met up with a few like-minded fellows, Hugo Quinn, Terry Logue, Art O’Hanlon and Hugh Tourish, all of whom could play instruments. We gave it a bit of thought and after a few days the band was formed. We played the ballroom on the Sunday night without any rehearsing and that was the start of it.”
To understand the Clipper Carlton story, you really need to appreciate how Ireland was at that time. Transport was poor, money was scarce, and poverty was much in evidence. Ireland was an emerging economy many years behind other European countries. There was not even electricity in every hall and bands were often forced to run their amplification through large batteries.
During this period, not long after the end of the Second World War, the clergy held enormous power over its people, particularly in rural Ireland.
More importantly they owned and ran many of the dance halls. Over-zealous priests kept a close eye on courting couples and it was the norm for them to patrol the dance floor separating couples who they felt were dancing to close to each other.
The power of the priests and the Catholic church was absolute then.
The popular big bands at the time were Maurice Mulcahy from Mitchelstown, Mick Delahunty from Clonmel, Johnny Quigley from Derry and Brose Walsh from Mayo.
Each band or orchestra consisted of about eight or nine musicians, who all sat on stage for the night and played in front of their music stands dressed in their black suits and dickey bows.
These dances were very formal affairs and, whilst the music played was good, the black attired bands sitting down reading their music scores did not offer much excitement to the non-dancer.
In fairness this was the standard practice for all bands at the time.
The Clipper Carlton changed all that, as Mickey O’Hanlon explained “They were all very good at what they did, but it all sounded so similar.
“The dancers were not interested in which band was playing, the music was all that mattered. We decided to change the image, and get rid of the black suits.
“We would call them “the graveyard deserters”. You see, at this time in Ireland, gents’ outfitters only sold certain colours in men’s clothing – black, dark brown or charcoal grey, all grim colours when you think of it.
“The lads had no choice but to order women’s material and as a result we got out our nice bright blue suits.”
All over the world music was changing. Rock n roll emerged despite conservative opposition. Radio Luxembourg, known as ‘the station of the stars’ was relatively new and played a major part in introducing the younger generation to different trends in popular music.
O’Hanlon was quick to spot the potential.
“We now had the new bright suits and did a practiced dance routine; we got rid of the music stands and we all stood up, performed, and moved to the rhythm of the music.
“This was a new dimension in dance halls and the dancers loved it. The official charts were introduced in the UK in 1952 and we adapted our music to whatever was popular at the time.”
The Clipper Carlton by now had appointed a manager, local post master, Victor Craig, better known in the world of sport, having played cricket and soccer for Ireland at the highest level. As Craig recalled, he had the onerous task of spreading the bands popularity nationally.
“I was working full time in the local post office when I got this call to promote the band. They were known locally, so I decided to expand the playing area throughout the north of Ireland and then into the Republic.
“I listened to their music and knew in my heart they were special. We had Mickey O’Hanlon on drums, Victor Fleming on trombone, Terry Logue on saxophone and clarinet, Hugo Quinn on trumpet, Hugh Tourish on piano, Don Shearer as lead vocalist, Art O’Hagan on bass and his brother Big Fergie acted as the MC and music arranger.”
Craig’s innovative and commercial approach to management brought immediate results.
The Clippers were well planned, well executed and hugely successful. He introduced the concept of the percentage, which saw the band members receive payment in line with the numbers of dancers attending, rather than the flat fee for a dance.
He also brought in the radical and extremely modern idea of promotional material in the line of photographs and posters. All this three years before Colonel Tom Parker came up with the same idea to promote Elvis.
Craig is modest about his ideas and the band’s subsequent success.
“We were the first to do lots of things with regards to music. I purchased a purpose built band-wagon from O’Doherty’s in Strabane and had the Clipper Carlton’s name emblazoned all over it.
“I also arranged to have thousands of autographed pictures of the band and individual ones handed out to dancers at the end of the night.
“This was revolutionary at the time. In today’s modern world these things would just be the run of the mill.”
The Clipper Carlton broke the mould in show business, they were the band who launched an entire industry and were particularly influential in the careers of future Irish stars like Brendan Bowyer and Joe Dolan.
Brendan Bowyer was blown away when he first saw them in Tramore in Waterford in the late fifties.
“I was amazed at the talent on show, they were brilliant entertainers and from then on, I wanted to be in the music business.”
Joe Dolan was similarly enthused: “Yes, the Clippers were the ones who started it all. I remember seeing them in Dublin, where they looked so smart, with their neat haircuts, bright suits and polished shoes, but above all they were fine musicians.”
Mickey O’Hanlon points to a defining moment in the band’s history.
“I suppose the naming of the band was a bit special. A parish priest in a neighbouring village booked us and as a promotional gimmick, he had this idea of running a competition to name the band and the prize money of £2 was a huge incentive.
“A few names cropped up and the Clipper Carlton was born that night. I later found out that the name came from an American air force plane which could land on water as well as land.”
As the months rolled on their reputation continued to grow throughout the country.
They communicated well with their audience and started using impersonation and comedy to add to their appeal, something unheard of by the more sedate and established dance bands.
Craig saw the introduction of the twenty-minute cabaret spot as a turning point in the band’s fortunes.
“We began to sell and project the show, and introduced the cabaret called “Juke box night”, which was a carefully rehearsed comedy spot to divert the attention of the dancers onto the stage.
“The reaction from the dancers was amazing. The dancing came to a halt, and the crowd would surge to the stage to watch and applaud every movement.”
This was a huge cultural shock to the public who at the time had come to expect the usual restrictive three waltzes, three quicksteps and three foxtrots. With their eye-catching stage routine, glamorous image and flamboyant suits, the band appealed to everyone.
Craig felt this was a turning point for future Irish dancers.
“Irish people expected to be entertained by the Clipper Carlton and we never let them down. We got away from the standard repertoire of old-time waltzes and quicksteps.
“The boys did the American and UK chart stuff and people could relate to it, having heard it on Radio Luxembourg.”
The ban on dancing by the church for the seven-weeks of lent was a blessing in disguise for the band as it provided the Clipper Carlton the opportunity to travel overseas.
Craig explains: “Although we were big in Ireland and our popularity had spread over the water, the seven weeks enabled us to travel to England and the United States.
“The music scene on the Irish circuit in England was vibrant and the exiles came in their thousands to see us. Birmingham, London and Manchester had some wonderful clubs. America was similar with big Irish venues in Boston and New York.”
As the old saying goes ‘all good things must come to an end’ and so it was for the original band line up which disbanded in 1964.
The original band reformed again in 1966 to great acclaim and excitement and after a successful four year period of touring finally called it a day in 1970. Different Clipper line ups continued to play shows right up until the eighties and the death of Hugo Quinn in 1987.
For some reason, despite their enormous success, the Clipper Carlton never made records, possibly because they felt their unique sound could not be captured accurately.
When I caught up with Craig and O’Hanlon in 2006, I suggested to them that the time might be right to search the lofts and perhaps seek to unearth any old reels tapes that captured their music as it was at the time.
Thankfully, they both listened and within a couple of months the definitive sound of the Clipper Carlton was heard for the first time on CD.
I achieved fame at last when Craig contacted the press who in turn released a statement giving me credit for persuading him to search the old tape reels of long ago. I also received a nice letter from Bishop Daly thanking me for my help.
Craig outlned: “I found sufficient material to put on a disc, the remaining member of the band liked the idea and the Bishop of Derry, Edward Daly decided all proceeds from the sales would go for charity to fund the Foyle Hospice in Derry for terminally ill people.”
In July 2001 the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese played host to many of the showband veterans at a reception at her official residence in Dublin. In her speech she referred to the era of the Clipper Carlton and said ‘ecstasy did not come in tablet form, it was rather a sweat drenched night dancing to the greatest band of all, “The Clipper Carlton”.
The reception paid tribute and acknowledged the debt owed by thousands of dancers to Victor Craig, Don Shearer and Art O’Hanlon, who were there representing the Clippers. To a loud and long lasting applause, Mary McAleese’s words echoed through the building: “These are the chaps who started it all”. The boys wiped a tear from their eyes.
There are, as yet, no monuments built in tribute to the Clipper Carlton band, but what may not be carved in stone is most definitely carved in the memories of all those that have enjoyed seeing this talented and ground breaking group that almost single handedly ignited the showband explosion of the sixties.