Smokey Mountain Ramblers (1968-1975)
Photo Gallery -
Band Lineups -
- Audio samples -
Where Are They Now?
The story of the Smokey Mountain Ramblers started when Jerzy Kryzanowski
(better known in Ireland as George Kaye) came to Ireland to busk, having spent
time around the folk clubs of England. Instead, he found himself
doing the pub scene and formed the Mitchell County Ramblers with
Clive Collins. It was late 1967 and George had decided it might be time
to go home when he was approached by
Galway's Des Kelly of the famous Capitol Showband. Des saw the trend of
country music coming to the showband scene before anyone else had a
chance to react. George went home for a holiday at Christmas and
returned to join a new type of band. Naming
them the Smokey Mountain Ramblers, Des wanted something totally
different, not like Big Tom or Larry Cunningham (both of whom were
more "country n' Irish").
The original lineup of the band
included: George Kaye on fiddle, Dave Kearney (RIP) on guitar and Martin
Johnson (RIP) on bass (both formerly of The Movement), Paul
Kenny (RIP-drums), and John Cook (guitar and dobro). The band hit the road in early 1968 and soon released their
first single, "Ballad of Amelia Earhart." Although the band
garnered a lot of attention, their strong bluegrass influence did
not catch on with dancers who were used to hearing the "country and
Irish" music of Big Tom and Larry Cunningham. Early on,
John Cook, who worked with Aer Lingus in his day job, found life on
the road too demanding and decided to leave and was replaced by
Lennie Power on guitar.
As the band's single, Amelia Earhart was winding down, Des
decided the band
needed a vocal front man and to fill out the band's sound to more
of a traditional showband lineup. In the October 19th, 1968 issue of
Spotlight, a small article announced Pat Ely was joining the
band as its new lead singer. Pat had previously been with the Savoy
Swing 7. In fact, Pat, Tommy Higgins (keyboards) and Bernie Fallon
(drums) had all been with the Savoy Swing Seven, who had recently
dropped the Savoy off the name and had become simply the Swing Seven
who were being managed by Eamonn Hughes. Paul Kenny (RIP-drums) went
to the Cotton Mills Boys. Things were not going well for the Swing 7
when Des Kelly contacted the boys looking for musicians to round out
Pat's addition to the band paid off with immediate success
when his first single, The Little Folk, made it to number 13
in the Irish charts. In April, the band appeared alongside American
star Hank Locklin at the Danny Pearse Tribute Concert in Dublin. The
country boom was in full swing and the Smokeys were one of the first
bands to climb to the top of the new genre.
In November, 1969, the band had a
scare when George Kaye collapsed on stage in Donegal. He was off the
road and hospitalized for several weeks in Dublin, but thankfully
was not seriously ill. During 1970, the band continued to
consolidate its position as one of the top five country bands in
Ireland, appearing on the cover of Spotlight magazine. The
band also released its first album, The Smokeys, the same
August, 1970, the Smokeys were hit by its first serious lineup
change when founding member George Kaye decided to return to England and
left the band after about 2 1/2 years on the road. In an article in Spotlight, co-manager Johnny
Kelly reported that he would be replaced with a sax player, giving
the band more versatility in their music. However a few weeks later,
Johnny's brother Des Kelly responded to the crisis by announcing the
Smokeys would be featuring two sax players in the future and would
be featuring Cajun music in their updated programme. Joe McIntyre (Swingtime
Aces and Johnny Flynn Band) and Tony Cannon replaced
George and the band was now an eight piece.
As an aside, when George Kaye left
the band and went to England, he formed a group there called White
Lightning in the Nottingham area. In May, 1971, George returned
to Ireland and brought several group members with him including his
brother Thaddeus Krzyzanowski (RIP - guitar), and Terry Foster (banjo).
They formed a band called Real Country
by adding to their ranks Bernie Fallon, (who left the Smokeys
and was replaced by Alfie Merrigan),
Joe Murray (lead vocals and keyboards from the Firehouse), Vinnie Baker
(guitar also from the Firehouse) and Shea Cribben (bass from the
Showband who broke up a few months earlier).
An article in
dated October 7, 1971 reported that Eileen Reid, former lead singer
with the Cadets was joining the band, which was going to drop the
name Real Country and become the George Kaye Band featuring Eileen
Reid. In the end, Eileen formed a band called The 2nd Sound and
George opted not to play with the new outfit, instead forming a
four piece bluegrass band which played acoustic music. The band
(pictured below) was George Kaye and the Bluegrass Roadshow. The
band featured George (fiddle), Thad (RIP - guitar), Bernie Fallon (RIP
bass) and Terry Foster (banjo).
Vinny Baker writes to
tell us the band didn't last for more than two years, they released
one single and eventually included Jimmy Day and Eileen Reid in its
ranks for about a year. By then, George had left to rejoin Pat Ely
in the Rocky Tops. Thaddeus and Terry returned to England, but
sadly Thaddeus was killed in an airplane crash a few years later.
Vinny left in 1971 and Joe Murray joined the Smokeys before ending
up with Margo's Country Folk.
Meanwhile back at the Smokey's
ranch, the months after George's departure would result in massive
changes to the band's lineup. The Capitol,
one of the top 60's showbands on the circuit were on their last
legs. They had been struggling for a couple of years and as the
summer season ended, the time came for them to fold. In an article in the November 4, 1971 issue of
Spotlight, Des Kelly
announced that three members of the Capitol would be joining the
Smokeys: Bram McCarthy (RIP - trumpet), Tony O'Leary (vocals), and Mike
Dalton (bass). They would be joining Pat Ely, Joe McIntyre (sax),
Dave Kearney (RIP - guitar) and Alfie Merrigan (drums).
Departing would be Tommy Higgins, Martin Johnson (RIP), and Tony Cannon. The revamped lineup of the band was pictured on Pascal Mooney's
"London Calling" page in the November 18, 1971 issue of Spotlight.
The band included newcomers Jimmy Murray (guitar), Tony O'Leary
(vocals), Bram McCarthy (RIP - trumpet), Alfie Merrigan (drums) and Mike
Dalton (bass). Dave Kearney left the band at this
time as well.
Tony O'Leary had first come to
national prominence when he sang in the 1970 National Song Contest which was
won by Dana singing Ireland's first Eurovision winner, All Kinds of
Everything. From there he had joined the Capitol as they wound down
and then was picked to front the Smokeys. (After the break up of the
Smokeys, he would go on to front the Gallowglass Ceili Band.)
The Rocky Tops
the original members of the Smokeys scattered throughout Ireland,
Mighty Avons' manager Charlie McBrien saw an opportunity and
contacted Tommy Higgins to see if they could reunite the original
band that had enjoyed so much success just a couple of years
earlier. As Pat Ely was the only member remaining in the "new" Smokeys,
and Tony O'Leary had joined (who could handle lead vocals as he had
done with the Capitol), it seemed like a great idea and Pat
agreed to reunite with his old band mates.
The February 19, 1972 issue of
Spotlight announced that the original Smokey Mountain
Ramblers lineup had reformed, but under
the new name of the Rocky Tops. In one of the era's most
unique stories, the band (which had been chopped and changed over
the years) decided it was time to get back together, but as the
Smokey's name was already in use, they decided to start a "new" band.
Even though an article in the March 4th issue of Spotlight reported
that the original lineup was back together with the exception of one
member - Tony Cannon from Donegal on sax - this was incorrect as the
original lineup had included drummer Paul Kenny who had left to join
the Cotton Mill Boys and had been replaced by Bernie Fallon.
Additionally, Lennie Power had decided not to join the new band. The Rocky
Tops played their first date on St. Patrick's Day, 1972.
The departure of Pat Ely left the
Smokeys with Tony O'Leary as their lead singer and a band that was more
Capitols than Smokeys. In the Spotlight issue of July 6,
1972, an article about the Smokeys reported their new lineup. The
lead singer of the band was Tony O'Leary, who would eventually go on
to front the Gallowglass. Also in the band at that time were Jimmy
Murray (guitar), Joe Murray (keyboards), Bram McCarthy (RIP - trumpet), Alfie Merrigan (drums), Joe McIntyre (sax),
and Mike Dalton (bass). There is some question here about Joe
Murray's role as Vinny Baker told us Joe was with Real Country, but
Spotlight reported he was with the Smokeys. After
leaving the Smokeys in late 1971, by March of 1973 Lennie Power
(RIP) was with the folk group Thatch, which also included
future Miami guitarist, Des Flaherty.
Finally, a record attributed to
the Smokeys featuring Anne, was released in 1975, although we are
not sure of the lineup at that time. We will try to find out more.
Despite having the original
Smokey's lineup, the Rocky Tops never reached the level
of success they had previously enjoyed in the late 60's. In early
1974, Pat Ely was enticed away by the Tony Loughman (RIP) of the Top Rank
Organisation to front a new band, the Storytellers. Frank O'Neill, who had previously
been with Enniskillen's Skyrockets, was drafted in on lead
vocals with the Rocky Tops and he brought in a guitarist he had played with previously as
Dave Kearney (RIP) went with Pat to join the Storytellers.
the Rocky Tops though, the writing was on the wall. By the
end of the year, the Rocky Tops were no more, lasting just
about two years. However, for the next thirty years, Pat Ely would
continued to perform under the Rocky Tops banner using various lineups
gigs around the country and in England. This often included
ex-Cottons guitarist, Francie Lenehan, who would also play with the
Smokeys 2012 reunion lineup (see below).
Although short lived in comparison
to other bands of the era, the Smokeys were one of the first
hugely successful country bands to break on the showband circuit.
Eventually bands like the Cotton Mill Boys, Ray Lynam's Hillbillies
and Bill Ryan's Buckshot would carry the country mantel (non Country n'
Irish) through the 70's and into the early 80's, but the Smokeys
were one of the first.
Burning brightly for a few years,
they often played 7 nights a weeks, which, according to Tommy
Higgins, was one of the major reasons for their eventual downfall.
"Even though we were all young men in our 20's, there was no way we
could keep up the pace night after night and in the end, it took its
toll on the band. In the end, we played 49 nights in a row and were
facing a run of 40 more consecutive nights and at that point,
something had to give" explained Tommy recently.
My thanks to Tommy Higgins for his
help in completing this story.
Smokeys 40th Reunion
Tour - October 2012
Over 40 years after their
successful run on the ballroom circuit, 2012 saw the Smokeys
reunite for a tour of the Irish dance circuit. Featuring original
members Pat Ely, George Kaye and Tommy Higgins, the band played a
series of dates augmented by former country showband musicians. The
new lineup included (left to right): Francie Lenehan (guitar - Cotton Mill Boys,
others), Tom Jamieson (drums), Pat Ely (vocals), George Kaye (fiddle
and vocals), Liam Gilmartin (acoustic guitar and vocals - Jargon, Ray Lynam Band),
Tommy Higgins (keyboards) and Gerry Gallagher (bass and vocals - Magic Band
and Kim Newport Band).
click on thumbnails for full image