Swarbriggs - on the road again
By Olga Aughey
The Swarbriggs are famous as the boys who brought Mullingar to the Eurovision Song Contest, not once but twice. This week the Westmeath Examiner talked to one half of the Swarbrigg brothers, Tommy - co-founder of The Times Showband, music promoter, and one-time trumpet player with Joe Dolan and The Drifters, at his home in Lynn, Mullingar, where he talks about going on the road again after nearly 30 years.
Tommy's musical life began in Cootehill, County Cavan, where he grew up. "My father was a very accomplished musician, he was a semi-professional because he was working as well," says Tommy. "He'd get home from work and he'd be transposing his stuff while he was having his tea and I was greatly impressed by this. "I joined a skiffle group when I was fourteen and we became a showband, we called ourselves the Jordanaires. We got a gig playing support in a hall five miles outside of town to the Larry Cunningham and the Mighty Avons, and this was our big break," explains Tommy.
Life with the Dolans
"We got lovely blue suits and red ties and sure we thought we were the bee's knees. Out of that Seamus Casey who managed Joe Dolan and The Drifters rang the owner of the hall to see if he knew any good trumpet players, and from there they got in touch with me," he said.
"Ben and Joe Dolan, along with Seamus Casey all arrived up to my house in Cootehill and auditioned me and I got a job with The Drifters. The Drifters were far more advanced than me but I started learning straight away. I had moved into digs with Josie Reid in Ginnell Terrace when I arrived, and she looked after me like a mother," he remembers.
"Joe to his eternal credit recorded some of my earliest songs, and believe me they were awful! But my writing got better and he put some of my songs on albums. Almost overnight Joe become a sensation. He was doing extremely well when I joined him but he made a record, 'The Answer to Everything', and it went straight into the top three. Tommy and The Drifters toured Britain, the States, and of course all over Ireland, but at this stage he was more interested in the singer songwriting end.
"Jimmy, my brother, who was living in England at the time, was into poetry. He started sending me poems and I put music to those." At this point the two brothers got together and started writing seriously and decided to form a band. "I made the decision to move on from The Drifters, so The Times were born," says Tommy.
The Swarbriggs had great success with The Times Showband, and of course Joe Dolan went on to achieve international success: "He deserved it, he had a fantastic voice and he was a wonderful fella, I don't think I ever saw him in bad form a day in his life. He was always chirpy and cheerful and upbeat. It was a real sorrowful day when he died. It brought back such memories. In those days everybody went to the ballroom. We would pack the place out.
Footloose and fancy-free
The Times Showband, always striving to put on a good show, had sensational musicians down throughout the years. However they never quite made the international market. "We were trying to break internationally, we always had contracts with the big multinational record companies, but we just never broke internationally," says Tommy. "We did the Eurovision twice, 1975 and 1977, we had other big hits with non-eurovision songs - 'Looking through the Eyes of a Beautiful Girl' went to number one, 'If Ma could see me now' was another huge hit.
We won the Irish Entertainment Industry Award, Song of the Year, Entertainers of the Year, Album of Year, so we had a lot of successes. After the second attempt at the Eurovision, The Swarbriggs made two more albums, but they began to realise they weren't going to make it internationally.
"We wanted to break internationally as songwriters and performers, but come 1980 it was beginning to peter out. I was becoming disillusioned, I was burnt out," admits Tommy.
"I remember in the summer we'd do thirteen nights in a row with one night off. You'd be trying to write, record, maybe going back and forth to London during the week, so I sat back and looked at it and I thought it's not going to change."
By then Tommy was 35-years-old and feeling he had given it his best shot. He turned his back on music altogether and The Times Showband called it a day. Tommy then drifted into the night club business, and as an off-shoot of that, he started running the odd live gig. He brought the likes of Christy Moore, Mary Black and Planxty to Mullingar. The concert business was beginning to take off, and so Tommy got into concert promotion, "I was responsible for Smokie getting back together, I've had The American Drifters, Leo Sayer, Meatloaf, Neil Sedaka, Jack L."
Back on the road
In January, Tommy and his brother Jimmy will go on the road again with a new show called 'Reeling in the Showband Years'. Ronan Collins will host the show that includes Paddy Cole, Sean O'Dowd, The Conquerors Showband and Lorraine MacDonald to name but a few.
"It's a big showband show. "We're just going to be doing the big hits that we're known for. A little bit of nostalgia, good fun and I'm really looking forward to it," says Tommy. "Music will never die because people love music. People's greatest memories are associated with music, you'll always have performers who catch the imagination and inspire people."