Roamer: Remembering the showbands

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Apart from having often noticed a minibus with ‘Gene And The Gents’ emblazoned on its side, Roamer’s first ever awareness of showbiz came in June 1964 when Millie came to town and sang in Enniskillen’s Silver Sandal ballroom dance

hall.

Apart from having often noticed a minibus with ‘Gene And The Gents’ emblazoned on its side, Roamer’s first ever awareness of showbiz came in June 1964 when Millie came to town and sang in Enniskillen’s Silver Sandal ballroom dance

hall.

I didn’t know her surname but many local hearts went ‘giddy up’ when Millie Small sang her hit-song My Boy Lollipop.

Nor was I aware that the Silver Sandal was one of many such establishments in Ireland, north and south, where show bands flourished - and in Millie’s then well-known words - they “set the world on fire.”

An exhibition coming to Londonderry Central Library next Tuesday is enormously evocative of the showband scene.

Billed ‘Remembering the Showbands’ the extraordinary musical retrospective is the culmination of Enniskillen man Philip Darcy’s life-long devotion to a romantic era that still makes many hearts flutter nostalgically.

Philip’s interest in showbands was generated by a musician who lived close to his childhood home in Enniskillen’s Wellington Place.

Cecil Kettyles founded the famous Skyrockets band. “He was resident nearby,” Philip told me “and I got to know the boys through that.”

Mr Darcy observed the musicians’ novel life-style with interest.

“I used to ask the boys where they were going that night,” he explained. “If they were going to Donegal they’d have to leave at 6pm and they wouldn’t be back until the early hours of the morning. I was always interested in where they were going. Those were long journeys in those days.”

He gradually began collecting photos and memorabilia of the band, branching out into other bands, from far and near.

Philip attended dances himself and was given memorabilia from relations and friends who shared his enthusiasm for the scene. His collection soon spiralled into the visual feast that it is today.

‘Remembering The Showbands’ includes photographs of bands and singers such as the Premier Aces, Sally O’Brien, Clipper Carlton and the Melody Aces. There are dance hall hand-outs, books, annuals, records, cassettes and even postage

stamps.

His exhibition has already graced a number of local venues.

“There’s a great fan base here,” he said “I know there will be an age gap but there’s been a great reaction. This is the pinnacle of my long journey collecting.”

The showband that sparked Philips interest - the Skyrockets - formed in 1958, quickly rocketed to fame by touring, and even appeared in the Royal Albert Hall.

Their luxury tour bus, which in those days cost just £2,800, was so well known on the highways and byways of Britain and Ireland that it was modelled as a Dinky Toy. Philip has one, in its original presentation box!

Skyrockets’ lead singer, Pat McGuigan, father of boxing champion Barry, represented Ireland at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1968 where he was photographed with Cliff Richard.

Their lead guitarist, Henry McCullough, went on to play with Joe Cocker’s Grease Band and Paul McCartney’s Wings.

During the 1940s and 1950s ballroom dancehalls like the Silver Sandal were being built all over Ireland.

Previously, parochial halls and large performance spaces in town halls had been used for dances. But bigger venues such as Belfast’s Floral Hall and the Plaza monopolised the scene – the former with its enormous glitter balls and the latter with a new-fangled revolving stage.

Portrush’s Astoria could accommodate 3,000 people when it opened in 1953, and Enniskillen’s Silver Sandal boasted a state of the art ‘sprung’ dance floor made from Canadian maple-wood.

The popular rock n’ roll jive and twist were blended eclectically with the waltz, foxtrot and quickstep - proving the showbands’ (and dancers’!) immense versatility and twanging every last spring in the Silver Sandal’s beleaguered

floorboards!

And the musicians, drawing on a tradition of folk music, country and western and traditional Irish music, utilised every kind of musical instrument.

So visitors perusing the photographs in Philip Darcy’s Londonderry exhibition will see the showband greats brandishing guitars and banjos, sitting at keyboards, playing trumpets and trombones, clarinets and saxophones, accompanied by a passionate rhythm from all shapes, sizes and colours of drums.

Just as evocative are the outfits on the dance floors - the girls’ bright red lipstick, stiletto heels and beehive hairdos, and the men’s tight-trousered Teddy boy suits, ties and iconic winkle picker shoes.

It was big business across the whole of Ireland - big ballroom business. And it is sorely missed.

Philip Darcey’s exhibition ‘Remembering the Showbands’ in Derry Central Library, runs from Tuesday, March 3 for three days until Thursday, March 5.

If readers have any showband memories that they’d like to share on this page please send them to Roamer.