Bands: Billy McFarland Band
• Freshmen •
Brown and O'Brien • Billy Brown Band • Freshmen
Billy Brown, an extremely talented piano and sax player, had
been playing since he was twelve. By the time he got to college, he
had his first professional gig with the Billy McFarland Band
out of Belfast. Another member of the McFarland band, bass
player Torry McGahey and Billy became fast friends and eventually
decided it was time to strike out on their own. Together they formed
The Freshmen in early 1962. They recruited the best of
musicians, each one a singer in their own right. The original lineup
included: Barney McKeon (vocals), Maurice Henry (sax), Torry (bass),
Damien McIlroy (guitar), Sean Mahon (trombone), Davy McKnight (drums)
and Billy (sax and piano).
The band's new sound took Northern Ireland by
storm. They were starting out just at the same time as The Beatles
and The Beach Boys and they were poised to ride the crest of the
"pop" wave in Ireland. Before long, the band attracted the interest
of a new manager, Peter Dempsey (band member Maurice Henry had
previously handled the band's bookings). Peter ran dances in
Andersontown and through this, met Johnny Flynn and made a host of
connections in the South...uncharted territory for the Freshmen.
1963, they were beginning to make inroads in the South when Barney
decided to leave. The search was on for a replacement and the band
recruited Limerick singer, Tommy Drennan. With Tommy out front, the
band continued to prosper, garnering rave reviews from the press and
the punters. Within a year though, Tommy had grown homesick and
returned to Limerick, leaving the band in bit of a bind. Billy
filled in for a time, but eventually they found their ideal front
man in Derek McMenamin, a handsome, tall singer whose good looks,
charm, and talent rivaled any of the other leading front men of the
With Derek in place, the band cut its first
record in London during a tour of England in February, 1964, She's The One You Love. Released in
summer, the single faded quickly, making little impact. For a time
in early 1964, Derek left the band to complete his college education
where he was studying to become a teacher. By summer, he had taken
his finals and was back with the band. At the end of 1964, the band
announced that Derek was changing his last name to Dean and the band
also changed its name to Derek and the Freshmen.
In 1965, the band recorded and released more
singles. The first, I Stand Alone, failed to make an
impression. However, their recording of Yenka was a top ten
hit in November 1965. Over the next two years, the band's reputation
and status went from strength to strength. They became the top
Northern Band to play the South and at one point were ranked as the
number four showband behind only the Royal, Miami and the Cadets. In
August 1966, the band announced that it was changing its name once
again and would be known as Derek Dean, Billy and the Freshmen,
an obvious nod to Billy's growing influence in the band.
In 1967, the Freshmen were part of the showband
elite in Ireland. Their record, Papa-Oo-Mow-Mow reached
number seven in the Irish charts and stayed in the charts for eight
weeks well into 1968. They started a string of top ten hits and the
band was doing extremely well as the money came pouring in. They
released Go Granny Go, Number 12 in August 1968, Just to
See You Smile, Number 9 in March 1969, and Halfway to Where,
Number 10 in April 1970.
was the year the band released their second album, Peace On Earth.
The album was heralded as an artistic masterpiece and is still
regarded by many as the greatest Irish pop album ever made. The same
year, they performed their "Peace Concert" at the RDS in Dublin
which featured noted actor Micheal MacLiammoir as narrator (the role
he also played on the album). Amid all
the success though, trouble was brewing. The band had become too
identified with the Beach Boys sound and as the Beach Boys fortunes'
faded, so too did the Freshmen's.
In February, 1971, it was reported in Spotlight that Billy
had been sacked by the band. The article said that Billy had been
ill for some time and started missing dates. Billy himself said he
had been feeling ill and that his doctor thought it was either his
appendix or gallstones, but that he was going into hospital within
the week. In the meantime, the band voted to sack the all star
singer songwriter and looked for a replacement, which they
found in Ivan Laybourne.
It was reported the following week that Billy
had signed a long term contract with Dan McGrattan, manager of the
Chessmen. When Billy returned to health, he formed his own group, The Billy Brown Superband. He recruited
one of the finest lineup of
musicians perhaps ever to play the ballroom circuit. Billy was
joined by Johnny Brown (bass), Dessie Reynolds (drums-Jim Farley
Band), Keith Donald
(sax-Real McCoy), Pascal Haverty (sax-Chessmen), Tiger Taylor (guitar-Eire
Said Billy of the band's future at the time,
"this band will be promoted as the ultimate in musical perfection
whose music will appeal to every section of the community." Lofty
goals that would be difficult to achieve.
In a June 19, 1971 interview in Spotlight,
Billy was very optimistic about the Superband's future. He revealed
that the band was "working out arrangements for a Ben Hur sort of
epic thing that we'd like to do with a children's choir." These were
extremely ambitious ideas given the then current state of the Irish
ballroom scene. In the end, although the musicianship was excellent, the band lacked
originality and that
"certain" spark, lasting less than a year.
An article in the October 14, 1971 issue of
Spotlight reported had sacked his band and was looking to form a
new band. Other reports suggested that Billy was not happy with the Superband was
looking for a front man. However, in the end he disbanded the
Superband and started building a new band. Johnny Brown, who had
been with Billy, moved to the Real McCoy and Keith Donald, who had
left to join Billy's band, returned to the McCoy. Dessie Reynold's
reportedly joined Johnny McEvoy's band.
An article in Spotlight a couple of weeks later
described the new band as "Brown and Company" and Billy was
rehearsing with Tiger Taylor (guitar), Jimmy Greeley (drums and
future RTE DJ) anf Billy Boyd (bass). At the same time, Mike
O'Brien had left the Real McCoy to start a new outfit. Mike had
started rehearsing his own new band which was initially reported to
be called "Ratso's Band" and then "Fargo."
According to the article, Eddie Creighton and Gerry Anderson had
agreed to join the new band. On October 21 (see below) a pair of
articles appeared in Spotlight outlining the plans of both Billy and
Mike and at this stage, neither was admitting to the merging of the
As they were both managed by Dan McGrattan,
Billy and Mike were stable mates and knew each other well.
Eventually, the two bands decided to merge. The first gig for "Brown
and O'Brien" was Magilligan on Friday, November 5, 1971.
The new band kept two guitarists - Tiger Taylor
(the only member to stay with Billy) and Eddie Creighton (from the
Chessmen). The result
was the Brown and O'Brien Band which featured Billy Brown
(keyboards/sax/vocals), Mike O'Brien (Real McCoy - vocals), Tiger Taylor
(Billy Brown Band - guitar), Eddie Creighton (Chessmen - guitar), Gerry Anderson (Chessmen
- bass), Paddy Freeny (drums), and Ray Elliot (keyboards/sax). After a short time
on the Irish scene the band headed for the greener pastures of
Canada. Paddy Freeny was replaced by Pat Nash (Granny's
Intentions and Woods Band) in July 1972 when Paddy went to rejoin
the group, Alyce.
However, in 1973, Billy came home to the Freshmen once
again, this time to stay (Mike O'Brien also came home and reformed
the Real McCoy with a new lineup).
Unfortunately, the Freshmen never again
reached the heights they had enjoyed in the late sixties and early
seventies as one of Ireland's most creative bands. Throughout the mid to late seventies, the
Freshmen continued to play, ending up as a six piece and trying to
make a living in a scene that was slowly dying and well past its
prime. Around 1978, Torry McGahey left the band, breaking the final
remaining link to the original Freshmen lineup. Although Billy Brown
had been an original member, he had left the band for several years.
Although we are not sure, we think the band called it quits around
By 1980, the Freshmen, one of the greatest
components of pop music in Ireland, were finally no more. After
almost twenty years the band who had smoothly made the transition
from pure 60's showband to 70's pop group successfully (while
staying true to their legacy of producing quality music) called it
In the years after the showband era ended, the
late Billy Brown would continue to record, write and produce
excellent music. His legend as one of Ireland's most gifted
musicians continued to grow, and in fact, in June, 1999 he was
performing as part of the "Do You Come Here Often" concert series by
promoter David Hull. Sadly, on June 6, 1999, at the age of 56 (other
reports say he was 58) Billy suffered a heart attack at his home in
Johnstown, Co. Kildare and sadly passed away. His sudden death
shocked the Irish entertainment scene leaving it without
one of the guiding lights that illuminated the landscape of the
showband era through the 1960's and 70's.