PHIL COULTER: “When I was growing up in Abercorn Terrace, did I ever think that one day Elvis would sing one of my songs?’
The legendary pianist, songwriter and producer who has worked with everyone from Van Morrison to Planxty chats to JOANNE SAVAGE about growing up in a two-up, two-down terrace house in the Maiden City when people valued community and everyone gathered around the piano
A songwriter, pianist and producer of immense distinction, Phil Coulter has collaborated with some of the biggest names in the industry, from Van Morrison, whom he describes as a “genius but a man of few words”, to the Bay City Rollers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Planxty, the Rolling Stones, James Galway, Cliff Richard and the Dubliners, the latter band having caused him some difficulties when singer Ronnie Drew would insist that “the first pint of the morning is the most important” just as Phil was desperately trying to martial them to rehearse in the studio (they insisted they only rehearsed on stage) and then there was Luke Kelly, a vaunted star of folk music with his “absolutely incredible set of pipes” who taught him much about using his art for emotional catharsis.
Phil, now 79, has had a many-storied, glittering career, having won far too many accolades to list here, and performed all over the world and in the most vaunted places including at the White House, Carnegie Hall and at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.
Elvis Presley even sang one of his songs - My Boy.
But Phil came from humble beginnings, growing up in the 1940s and 50s in a two-up, two-down terrace house in Derry, which he would later make so famous with his seminal ballad, The Town I Loved So Well, which basically everyone on planet earth will know.
”We lived without too many luxuries or comforts,” recalls Phil. “In our whole neighbourhood there was literally just one car and in those days we didn’t have a TV either.
“I was born in 1942 and so the war was still on and I recall running about Abercorn Terrace - there was an air raid shelter near our house and the shadow of it all hung over everything.
“That was the era of ration books when you had to have coupons on going to the shops to get groceries and so on.
“Back then, people had nothing, but they particularly appreciated the value of company and of friends and family. And we were focused on entertaining ourselves. I mean even the most modest house, including our own, had a piano.
“In Derry music was so much part of the fabric of life. There were so many houses where the piano was more important than the three piece suite in the living room. Any excuse for a party or a birthday or whatever, it would happen in our house because we had the piano so I grew up with music being not just something you studied at school or heard at church, it was this living, breathing thing that was a big part of my day to day reality.”
His father, a Catholic member of the RUC, scrimped and saved in order to pay for his son’s piano lessons, but at first the young Coulter baulked at the draconian methods involved,
”The whole approach to teaching the piano back then when didn’t appeal to me because if you didn’t get the scales or notes right then you got the ruler clattered on your knuckles. So at first I hated it and then later on when I went to St Columb’s I became hooked because I would hear little songs in my head and I wanted to tinker them out on those keys and the piano became an extension of myself.
”I became more and more curious, what do you do with your left hand when the right hand is engaged in playing certain notes? When I decided to dedicate myself to understanding how the piano worked, then I was hooked and I am even now as I approach my 80th birthday.”
I ask if age has brought him wisdom and he muses for a while: “I don’t know. I think my wife Geraldine would say that it has shortened my fuse. I think maybe as you get older what you do gain is a real sense of perspective about what really matters in life.
”I have no regrets, because I have been able to make a living from my talents and from doing something that I really enjoy - which has always been making music.
”When you’re following your passion and early dreams it’s amazing.
“When I was sitting in my youth in a terrace house listening to Elvis Presley singing Hound Dog did I ever think in a million years that The King would one day sing something I had written? No. Sometimes I have to pinch myself about that. I still get tingles when some DJ with excellent taste plays Elvis playing My Boy and I remember when I sat down and wrote those lyrics.”
While being able to turn out disposable pop like Shang-A-Lang for the Bay City Rollers, Puppet on a String for Sandie Shaw for Britain’s 1967 Eurovision contest and Congratulations for Sir Cliff the following year, Coulter is also able to write from a place of incredible emotional authenticity, such as when he composed laments for his late brother and sister who drowned within a year of each other at Lough Swilly, his paean to Derry that obviously comes from the deep heart’s core, and Scorn Not His Simplicity, written after following the birth of his late son who had Down’s Syndrome.
How does he manage such a varied lyrical and musical range?
”If you are a professional strongwriter for hire, a real journeyman, you have to be able to turn out songs of all different flavours. If you learn your craft, Writing those kind of teeny bopper songs for one band and then songs that were closer to my heart - I had this parallel track.
“Some of my colleagues felt like my working with Luke Kelly and then the Bay City Rollers betrayed a kind of schizophrenia on my part, but to me they were two different idioms and I wanted to be as adept in one idiom as in the other.”
Of all those he has worked with, I wonder who he admires the most. Phil has to think hard before answering having worked with so many and performed and recorded so much since moving to London in the Swinging Sixties, that he truly has a veritable cornucopia of talent to choose from.
”I learned from each act I worked with. I learned from Van, a complicated man who can conjure anything out of thin air, just out of four chords, and suddenly you have a hit song.
“James Galway is another huge inspiration for me, a master of an instrument who is completely obsessed with his craft. We’ve toured all over and the chemistry between us just always worked.
“Jimmy would be staying with a friend of his in Dublin when we were working together, and when I’d arrive to pick him up in the morning he would honestly be practising on the flute from an upstairs bedroom and I’d hear him in the car. We went to the studio for 9am and by 11am, Galway, while the rest of the orchestra was on a break, would still be on his own in a room rehearsing. He’s really a true virtuoso.”
‘WHEN I WAS YOUNGER PEOPLE WANTED OUT OF DERRY, NOW IT’S A BUSTLING TOURIST DESTINATION’
Few people realise that Phil Coulter’s career actually began during rag week at Queen’s University where he was studying music and french. He and his friend Gerry Armstrong decided to come up with a student record in 1963 to raise a few beans, Foolin’ Time, which later was picked up by the Capitol showband who were then one of the biggest acts in the country: “We immediately thought we were like The Beatles and were strutting our stuff about Queen’s.”
Coulter, who today lives in Bray with his wife Geraldine, and since the start of lockdown when over 70s were told to cocoon is “very glad I have my pill box to remind me what day it is because during lockdown I felt like each day blurred into the next until it felt like being trapped in Groundhog Day. All I could do was walk in the back garden and that was mental. Although I kept busy by performing on Facebook Live just to remind my fans that I am still alive,” he chuckles.
But time and again, his imagination is still relentlessly drawn back to the destination of his formative years, a place he feels shaped his artistic sensibility and where a huge part of his heart and soul will always belong. “You can take the boy out of Derry but you can’t take Derry out of the boy”, he laughs “It’s such an important place to me and I think of myself first and foremost as a Derry boy.
“All the trials and tribulations that the city has gone through, I felt that as much as any other inhabitant there.
“Some years ago I was at the back of the Guildhall where there is now a big car park and I saw this sign saying ‘Tour Bus Parking’ and I couldn’t believe it because when I was growing up people wanted out of Derry, not to actually come and visit it! Tour buses left Derry, but suddenly people wanted to come and I was hearing the voices of French, Italian and Spanish tourists and it was a source of amazement and joy to me.
“Derry has become a travel destination and its Halloween celebrations are second to none. The Derry/Londonderry City of Culture year was a great shot in the arm for the city and I was delighted see that kind of regeneration happening. As part of that I was involved in two concerts held during the programme and I think I was the oldest performer there, and I had actual tears in my eyes. We had a huge marquee at Ebrington and I had those two nights performing with the Ulster Orchestra, and what’s not to love about that?
“Playing all my songs, doing that lap of honour - it was a standout moment for me.”
‘I WAS JUST A ROOKIE KNOCKING ON DOORS DURIING SWINGING SIXTIES IN LONDON’
While perhaps best known for albums such as Classic Tranquillity and Sea of Tranquillity which were beautifully peaceful piano and instrumental interpretations of old Irish ballads and time-honoured folk songs, people often forget that this was a man in the thick of the hoopla of the bustling London metropolis in the Swinging Sixties when he played piano for Van Morrison, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Rolling Stones.
He recalls: “London was the only place to be on the planet in the 1960s. Much to the consternation of my parents, on leaving Queen’s, instead of opting for a respectable career, I told them I was off to London to try my hand at pop music. I had that taste of having a top three record in the Irish charts by then, so to me then I was unemployable and I had to pursue this musical dream.
“But I was this absolute rookie from a terraced house in Derry except that I had my own little band.
“For the first couple of years it was just all about knocking on doors, trying to keep the bank manager at bay.
“The most important lesson I learned during that period was that if you have a dream, if you have a passion that you are 100% dedicated to, then you should never, ever take no for an answer. You gotta stick with it and just because one door closes does not mean that you give up and go home. That was me serving my apprenticeship and when I learned the art of songwriting. “In those early years when I lived in Denmark Street I was there with a bunch of other songwriters. And even though we didn’t have an a*** in our trousers, if one of us got a hit then we were happy for each other because it made us realise that it was possible. We rejoiced in each other’s successes and we were learning the craft. We were in the deep end learning about songwriting and about the importance of having a good work ethic and the value of patience.”
What also drives Coulter is his firm belief in God: “I spent Christmas in England with my daughter at the Anglican Cathedral and I found the service so similar to the Catholic tradition I was raised in. The ritual, the incense, the music, the pipe organ, the choristers, it was glorious, it was uplifting and it strikes me that the polarities that Catholicism and Protestantism are purported to have are not quite so dramatic and it’s frustrating.
“I’m a Derry man, I’m an Irish man, I’m a Northern Irish man, but I think there is a younger generation emerging who are not in the least interested in sectarianism and who aren’t subjected to that kind of toxic hatred.
“I think, and hope, that this new generation will bring real change.”
Phil Coulter will perform at the Grand Opera House, Belfast on February 16 and at the Millennium Forum in Londonderry on February 18. Contact venues for tickets.