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1950's - In The Beginning

The basis for the showbands comes from the "orchestras" that traveled the length and breadth of Ireland during the whole of the 20th century, and before. In the years between the end of World War II (know as 'The Emergency" in neutral Ireland) and the late 1950's, names like Maurice Mulcahy, Johnny McMahon, Tony Chambers and Brose Walsh led 10 to 18 piece orchestras in which musicians sat behind music stands and respectfully played a wide selection of music from big band standards to Irish folk and even Ceili music...very dignified!

To some degree, this form of wholesome entertainment satisfied Ireland's dancing public. There was something for everyone. Formal attire was mandatory and most orchestras wore Dickie bows and tuxedos. A few adventurous bands even tried colored blazers. The key for the orchestras, to some extent, was to be "all things to all people" and to their credit they generally did that very well.

Many of these orchestras were actually the resident bands in the larger ballrooms around the country. Most of the bands were semi- professional as many of their members worked day jobs in addition to their nightly gig. In fact, in later years the move to "turn pro" was often the most difficult for musicians who had cherished their ability to play music without the rigorous grind of being on the road.

Due to the nature of their gigs, the bands read music and not only played the top hits of the day, but also backed a variety of guest artists, further requiring their flexibility when it came to musical styles.

Overall, for many people, the orchestras represented the "cream of the crop" of Irish musicians. A reflection of the times in Ireland, simple and inoffensive, they provided good, wholesome entertainment to an extremely conservative audience. With the dawning of the showbands, this musicianship became an even bigger issue.

Writing in the Irish Pictorial (which became the Irish Times) a reporter who called himself Dancealot wrote the following about the "new" showbands in 1957. "It seems to have been my unhappy lot recently in the course of duty to suffer from several Showbands, who if they intended making a SHOW of themselves could not have been more successful. I'm not opposed to showbands generally...but lately I've been unlucky. I heard three or four bands in a row and could find nothing good to say about any of them! The bands in question reached an all time low musically, the sounds they made being appalling." He finished the scathing review with the following: "Which goes to show that you can get a percussionist  who can belt the skins and cymbals hard and loud enough to provide a jive beat, gather together indifferent musicians who fancy themselves as singers who can busk on musical instruments and you're in the Showband business!"

At the same time (and for many years previously), the Roman Catholic Church and its clergy reigned supreme over the people and politics of Ireland. Eamon De Valera, who was seen by many to be Ireland's guiding light from the time of the Easter Rising right up through his death believed devoutly that the Catholic Church and the family were central to Irish identity. This relationship between church and State would result in laws which prohibited dancing on Saturday nights and nights before a Church Holy day, as well as during Lent (with an exception, of course, for St. Patrick's Day).  

The instrumentation for the orchestras was fairly standard, two or more saxophones, two or more trumpets, a couple of trombones, a piano, accordion, drums and a double bass and possibly a fiddle player. Bigger bands would also feature male and female vocalists. In general, no guitars were to be seen, and they would become, in time, the nemesis of the orchestra and would help hasten their downfall. One of the main drawbacks for the orchestras (which would also influence the eventual coming of the showband era) was a distinct lack of technology in the form of amplification. Most halls were very small during this period and a single microphone would be provided for the bandleader, MC (Master of Ceremonies) or vocalists to be heard. All piano and brass and woodwinds had to carry their own sounds down the hall.  

In Northern Ireland (mainly Belfast and Derry), big bands and orchestras flourished, as did the dancing scene before the "troubles" in the 1970's. Belfast boasted many of the finest musicians on the island and bands like Dave Glover's Band and the Clipper Carlton did very well, often venturing down to Dublin where they suitably impressed the locals to the South. Derry had Johnny Quigley, among others.

Two of these bands, in fact, were to have a significant impact on the Irish entertainment industry as the 1950's came to a close. Sometime in the mid fifties, some of the orchestras started featuring "mini-shows," in the middle of the evening's dancing. These shows usually took the form of comedy skits in which members of the orchestra dressed up and mimicked the stars of the day. At first introduced as a novelty, they soon became a staple, during which dancers would stop and watch the band for a half hour or more. One of the reasons for these breaks was the incredibly long hours bands had to play. It was not at all uncommon for dancing to start at 9:00 p.m. and last until 2 a.m. "Long Dances" could last up to six hours.

At the same time, punters were growing weary of the same old thing. Rock and roll had been born in the United States and quickly spread to Britain. Bands like Bill Haley and the Comets were jumping around on stage and lead singers wildly gyrated to the delight of young fans. Legend has it that the Clipper Carlton Orchestra (billed throughout the 1950's as Hugh Toorish and the Clipper Carlton Orchestra) weree the first band credited with kicking away their music stands in the mid 50's and incorporating their regular feature "Jukebox Saturday Night" into their act. Given what was happening in the UK and USA, it is not surprising that this became the "next step" for dance bands.

Although the late Dave Glover claimed to be the first used the term "Showband" in the band's name, the origin of the term is still somewhat disputed. In fact, during the mid to late 1950's bands were often referred to as Orchestras, Dance Bands, Band Shows, and Show Bands. These names seem to be used interchangeably at times. Over the course of several months the same band might appear advertised under each of these monikers. In fact, during this period, several bands used the term, Band Show, to describe their outfit. We have seen advertisements in old newspapers where other bands were being described as Show Band while Dave Glover was still being listed as an Orchestra. It is possible the truth will never be known.

The first actual use of the term showband we can find is in January, 1956. The Royal Theatre in Dublin started a variety show between films after the close of their annual pantomime, Mother Goose. Initially the variety show was advertised as "Royal Topliners" with Jimmy Campbell and the Theatre Royal Orchestra. Within two weeks, it had been renamed the "Royal Bandshow" and the following night the name was finally changed to the "Royal Showband." The term was used to describe a show vs. the band which was still the Theatre Royal Orchestra. 


The first instance we have found of the term "showband" being applied to an actual band was in May, 1956 in an advert for the Red Sunbeam Showband. By the end of the year the term "showband" would begin to get used around the country. (Click on images for full size)

One way or another, across the country, on both sides of the border, a new form of entertainment was being created. Many bands put away their sheet music and donned colorful suits, dancing and jiving their way through the night's programme. In the south, the Royal Showband, along with the Dixielanders, and others began to take their place at the top of the national scene. But the coming of the showbands did not happen overnight. It would take several years before the Showbands would make their presence felt in a major way, especially across rural Ireland.

For a time, as with all change, the move away from Orchestras towards Showbands was a hotly debated notion. Traditionalists scoffed at the lack of musicianship and quality exhibited by the showbands and their singers, while the showbands mocked the formality and lack of excitement generated by the orchestras. Not unique to Ireland, this was a revolution being felt around the world as Frank Sinatra made way for Elvis and Glen Miller for Bill Haley and the Comets.

In the end, what really mattered was the will of the people (punters) who paid the admission to hear their favourite bands, no matter they called themselves.    

One way or another, the showbands had arrived.....  Click here to continue     

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In Loving Memory of Grant Gallagher: Sept. 21, 1990 - Nov. 18, 2006