An unplanned interval at the opera and a night with the Man in Black

Terence Bowman's photo of Johnny Cash in Belfast
Terence Bowman's photo of Johnny Cash in Belfast

A Newcastle reader’s letter last week began “between you and me I passed the ‘big 60’ last Monday but it doesn’t seem to have caused me too much distress.”

I hope that letter-writer Terence Bowman, former editor of the Mourne Observer, forgives me for sharing his secret so readily, but the content of his letter triggered a significant surge of nostalgia!

I’m further past my ‘big 60’ than Terence but I still have very fond memories of the era that his letter recalled.

“I’ve been trying to nail down the date of a Johnny Cash concert that I attended in Belfast with my wife Averil in the 1980s,” Terence’s letter continued.

I never went to a Johnny Cash concert but I remember those days so well, and the musical interludes that brightened the nights when the city-centre was virtually a no-go area because of the troubles.

Co-incidentally, it’s almost exactly 40 years since a stunning production of Verdi’s Rigoletto in Belfast included an interval that its Italian composer never intended!

During the restoration of the Grand Opera House the opening night of Verdi’s iconic masterpiece was in the ABC Cinema on 27 April 1977.

There was an international cast of over a dozen top opera singers, with a large, local chorus, all elaborately costumed in period dress.

The Ulster Orchestra was in full classical attire - bow ties, dark formal suits and gowns - and a magnificent stage set framed the whole performance.

Verdi’s Duke of Mantua and beautiful daughter Gilda were in full swing, in Italian, when opera-executive Leonard Pugh strode purposefully onto the stage, raised his arms to stop the performance, and ordered an immediate evacuation because of a bomb scare.

The ‘night-life’ scene on Great Victoria Street was a memorable juxtaposition.

The theatrically-attired cast, chorus and orchestra, some of the latter sheltering violins, cellos and oboes from the drizzle, congregated apprehensively with the audience.

A foreign opera singers in classic, Italianate costumes stood amongst police and soldiers beside camouflaged trucks echoing with crackling radio signals.

A bow-tied first-nighter broke the tension when he emerged from the ABC ten minutes later, lovingly clutching a glass of gin and tonic!

The all-clear came after about 20 minutes and everyone returned for Verdi’s dramatic finale.

Terence Bowman and wife Averil’s night-out at Johnny Cash’s concert thankfully didn’t include an unplanned interval!

“Pressed for a date,” he wrote “I would have said it was the early to mid-1980s.

Terence thinks it was at either the Grosvenor Hall or the Ulster Hall - with “assorted members of the Cash family performing along with the legendary Man in Black.”

The rest of Roamer’s page today is Terence’s account of the concert, with a complicated conundrum over the date and location!

“He began with the customary ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash’ and a highlight, along with his many hits, was ‘The Forty Shades of Green’…written by Johnny himself following a visit to Ireland in the late 1950s.

“There is a ‘fairly definitive’ albeit unofficial website listing all the appearances that Johnny Cash made around the world from the 1950s onwards The site indicates that Johnny appeared in Belfast a total of five times: on 20 May 1966 at the ABC; on 2 April 1986 at an unnamed location (newspaper reports that I’ve sourced show it was the King’s Hall as part of the major two-day Silk Cut C&W Festival); on 10 November 1988 at the Ulster Hall; on 1 November 1990, also at the Ulster Hall; and on 16 April 1992, again at the King’s Hall - a much acclaimed and still fondly-remembered appearance that he made with some or all of The Highwaymen (Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson).

“I know from newspaper reports that both Ulster Hall concerts included contributions from family members.

“I say that the website is ‘fairly definitive’ because a friend in Newcastle has since produced a ticket-stub and programme for an unlisted appearance that Johnny made at the Grosvenor Hall on 21 March 1979.

“Curiously, I could find no reviews in the Belfast press but my friend is certain that the concert happened.

“The date seemed to be just too long ago to be the one I recall attending at the Grosvenor Hall. That said, I’ve reached the point where I’m thinking it might have been the 1979 concert because of the venue, but equally it might have been the 1990 one. Initially I thought that was surely too recent - but, heavens, 27 years is a long time ago!

“I’m hoping some Roamer-readers might be able to verify if Johnny Cash and his family made any other appearances in Belfast during the 1980s, but particularly at the Grosvenor Hall.

“It may or may not complicate matters if I share a photograph of The Man in Black in action. It was among a number of other pictures of Belfast concerts that I photographed in my younger days. I’ve always believed I took it at the Belfast show that my wife and I attended.

“Maybe someone could match it to others taken at a particular concert or they could estimate Johnny’s likely age and hence the approximate date it was taken.”

Please send a note to Roamer’s mailbox at the News Letter if you can help Terence Bowman with his research, and we thank him for his warm memories of The Man in Black.