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The Irish Showband was a dance band format which was popular in Ireland during the early rock and roll era from mid-1950s to the late 1970s. The showband was based on the internationally popular six or seven piece dance band. The band's basic repertoire included standard dance numbers and cover versions of pop music hits. The music ranged from rock and roll and country and western songs to traditional dixieland jazz. Key to a showband's popular success was the ability to perform songs currently in the record charts. Some country bands also played Irish traditional and Céilidh music.
The line up usually featured a rhythm section of drums, lead and bass guitars, a keyboard instrument, and a brass section of trumpet, saxophone and trombone. The band was fronted by one or two lead singers, who were assisted by other band members on backing vocals. Comedy routines were sometimes featured. The Irish showband, unlike the Big Band, played standing. It created momentum by playing while stepping, dipping and bopping in the manner of Bill Haley & His Comets. Initially, the bands' tours were limited to Irish venues. As the scene progressed, the more successful bands toured Irish clubs located in Britain, the United States and Canada. Some later rock and soul oriented showbands toured German nightclub circuits and US Army base clubs in Europe.
Strabane's Clipper Carlton are credited with popularising the showband. Fronted by Fergie O'Hagan, they were originally a touring big band. They later became popular in Britain and on the U.S. and Canadian Irish club circuit. Brendan Bowyer, Tom Dunphy and the Royal Showband from Waterford toured professionally around 1958, and became a crowd-drawing success. They were managed by the promotor T.J. Byrne and were the first band to have a record enter the Irish charts. Tom Dunphy sang the country hit "Come Down The Mountain, Katie Daley". Later, Brendan Bowyer had a hit with "The Hucklebuck", an American recording from the 1940s. The Freshmen from Ballymena, Antrim, led by Billy Brown and Derek Dean, combined to produce harmonies on their covers of hits by The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. Dickie Rock performed mainly big ballads. Starting out with Dublin's Melochords, he became a star with the Miami Showband, and later represented Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1967. The Witnesses featured Dublin's Colm Wilkinson, later to achieve success in lead roles in The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables.
A second wave of speciality bands emerged in the late sixties and early seventies. The 'second wave' bands were young proponents of a rock, blues and soul style wave celebrated in Roddy Doyle's book The Commitments. These bands included The Dreams, The Real McCoy, The Arrows and The Chessmen. They were most popular in urban areas, while Country and Western bands were generally more popular in the rural areas of the country. Big Tom and the Mainliners and Larry Cunningham and the Mighty Avons were a huge summer marquee carnival dance draws alongside Margo, Philomena Begley and Brendan Shine. Several internationally successful Irish musicians began their careers with showbands, including Van Morrison, Henry McCullough, Mick Hanly and Rory Gallagher.
The Miami Showband killings in 1975 hastened the decline in popularity of the showbands. Cross-border band touring dropped significantly. The advent of the discothèque, the opening of music-lounges (with alcohol licenses) and changing musical tastes also played a large role in its demise.
Ballrooms and dance halls
The city ballrooms were often purpose built and the rural dance halls of town and country were often simple barn like buildings at the edge of the town. Painted and lit in bright colours inside and out, they had fanciful romantic names such as "Fairyland", "Dreamland", and "Wonderland" and "Arcadia". Dance halls in smaller towns and villages would host a dance once or twice a month. The fans often travelled fifty km from the surrounding countryside to see their favourite band. Some city ballrooms were lavish dance palaces from an earlier era. The Mecca in Belfast, Dublin's Town and Country Club (a Corinthian pillared ballroom in the Georgian era), Rotunda Rooms, the Metropole and the TV Club were prominent among the plusher venues.
Most rural dance halls were roughly constructed in cheap materials by local entrepreneurs. Breeze block pebbled Irish Garage architecture prevailed. A chain of venues in the midlands was operated by Albert Reynolds, who would later become Taoiseach ( Prime Minister ) of the Republic. Associated Ballrooms was owned by mining magnate Con Hynes. The Lucey brothers had large ballrooms in Cork. In the North East, the Adelphi ballroom, owned by Dee O'Kane and Jimmy Hamilton in Dundalk, attracted audiences from both sides of the border. Summer dancing was held in wet and windy marquees during parish carnivals up and down the country. Predating Mc Donalds and similar fast food takeouts, dance hall 'Mineral Bars' dispensed ham sandwiches, potato crisps, hot beverages and soft drinks.
Ballrooms and dance halls did not sell alcoholic beverages. Alcohol sales remained the prerogative of the local pub who then began to build extensions onto pubs and operate their own disco or cabaret show.
At its height, the business employed many thousands of musicians, support staff and managers. There were as many as 700 full and part-time bands travelling the country in the mid-1960s. By the mid-1970s the phenomenon had peaked, and was in decline. Many of the surviving bands reduced numbers and revamped into small pop rock or country music ensembles. A combination of upscale discos, new build modern hotel dance and cabaret rooms with full bar extensions brought the ballroom and showband business to a close in the early 1980s.
References and sources
- W J McCormack (ed.) (2001). The Blackwell Companion to Modern Irish Culture. Blackwell's. ISBN 0-631-22817-9.
- Finbar O'Keefe (2002). Goodnight, God Bless and Safe Home - The Golden Showband Era. The O'Brien Press. ISBN 0-86278-777-7.
- Irishshowbands.net - Irish Showbands & Beat-Groups Archive
- Ian Gallagher's Showband Memories
- Jivenaires.com - List & images of well-known showbands
- Irish-showbands.com - Irish Showbands
- (http://www.irishshowbandalbum.com - Over 1000 photos + Showband records you can hear.)