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Dermot O'Brien and his Clubmen - Title Graphic

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A Short Chat with Dermot O'Brien

The Jivenaires roving reporter recently had the pleasure of engaging in a little email conversation with Dermot O'Brien. Dermot is presently performing across the US, Scotland, England and Ireland from his home base in Rockland County, NY. We begin the convo with a question Mr. O'Brien has probably heard once or twice or more over the course of his career!

J: Were you surprised at the success of "The Merry Ploughboy?"

D O'B: I was very surprised, but not my manager, Jim Hand , who forecast a hit. It was, I suppose, suited enough to my sort of "ceili band" image and background. It was a massive hit for me and really opened my eyes to what one good hit song could do for one's career.

J: You probably set the scene for other such bands like Brendan Shine and perhaps Foster and Allen. Fronting a showband (with an accordion) may have been difficult had you not had a good voice and presentation. Which of your hits did you feel most comfortable with as a recording artist?

D O'B: I played a lot of trombone in the band, even recorded with it. However, I was always asked to "play more accordion". Dublin 1962 and The Galway Shawl are my favourites as regards my recordings. And of course "The Merry Ploughboy".

J: Trombone and accordion are two rather diverse instruments. How did you get your start with each?

D O'B:Accordion first. I did piano from the age of 14 at the Convent of Mercy, Ardee. Always fancied the accordion, God knows why , and used to borrow the only one in town to grapple with. Figured out all the buttons myself and was off and running pretty quickly. I always was interested in Dixieland jazz, we had a trumpet, a clarinet and a banjo in the band so I opted for the trombone. I loved it, and became quite competent on it. Never play it anymore.

J: Your sports career and your entertainment career overlapped - certainly a sports injury or even a rigorous training schedule could negatively effect ones music career, while at the same time the lifestyle of a showband musician could impact ones performance on the playing field. Did you ever experience any conflicts between the two and if so what were they and how did you resolve them?

D O'B:There was a constant conflict, with lots of people advising me to quit football, some chance. I had a bad injury in 1953 and did not play again for the county until 1957. I still had a day job then, the music was part time. Early in 1957 I decided to give the football priority and it was a good decision. The only precaution I took was to tape the index and middle fingers of my right hand together as I felt these were the most important. I got many knuckle injuries and broke my right thumb once and a finger on my left hand. In 1960 when I broke the finger, I decided to quit county football. I was getting older, a bit slower, getting very busy with the band hence more and more late nights.

J: Do you still maintain an interest in sports and are you presently involved in any way with gaelic sports?

D O'B: I have an interest in all sports and am a keen golfer. I have no affiliation with any club but hope this changes when I return to a new residence in Co. Louth very soon.

J: How soon are you anticipating returning to Ireland?

D O'B: Early October to March.

J: Will this be a permanent move for you?

D O'B: No, just the summer months.

J: You've played with and/or fronted a few bands over the years - when and how did you get your start as a professional musician and could you list the bands you've played with?

D O'B: I got my very first gig for money with a ceili band from the Ardee area. The wages were one pound per night. I also did a "spot" with the local dance band at the time (circa 1951!), The Maple Dance Band. They offered me 3 pounds per night, but I preferred the ceili music. What an idiot.

In 1951 I joined The Emerald Ceili Band, out of Slane, Co. Meath. The wages were as before, one pound per night, whether you were playing at a local venue or as far away as Cork. I stayed with them until August 1953, when I was fired. I was injured playing in the All Ireland semi-final agaist Kerry and could not perform with the band that night as I was in hospital. I was fired on the spot. It was a blessing in disguise.

A couple of weeks later I had a visit from a man from Newry called Vincent Lowe. He was the leader of the famous Vincent Lowe Trio and was looking for a new accordionist. He had heard me on Radio Eireann on my first broadcast and offered me the job. Had I been still with The Emerald, I would not have left out of loyalty. Lowe paid me 5 pounds per night and we were working 4 to 5 nights a week. I was earning around 4 pounds per week as a clerical officer with Meath County Council. Quite a rise in the world you might say!

The bands I've played with [are]:

  • The Clann na h-Eireann Ceili Band.
  • The Maple Dance Band-one gig.
  • The Emerald Ceili Band.
  • The Vincent Lowe Trio.
  • St. Malachy's Ceili Band (my own and first band, called after the nun who taught me music in Ardee).
  • Dermot O'Brien and his Clubmen.
  • The Dermot O'Brien Trio

J: Sister Malachy must have been a quite a special lady . What was unique about her and why did you decide to name a band after her?

D O'B: She was a very special lady, indeed. I went to her when I was 14. She took to me right away. She taught me so many things and used to call herself my second mother. I really think she regarded me as the son she never had. She knew I would be going off to work when I left school at 18, so we did two years work every year. I owe her an awful lot. She died in 1952.

J: We also have in the database, "The Dermot O'Brien Band" and "The Dermot O'Brien Showband " (the latter is from a directory of showbands from 1964, I believe) were those slightly different incarnations as the band grew or just variations on the name?

D O'B:The band never went by either of those names.

J: What precipitated the change from Ceili band to showband and how did you choose the name "Clubmen" - is one correct in guessing there's a sports connection there? Also, what was the band's original line-up?

D O'B: I went to the USA with our team (Louth 1957) in 1958. I played "the box" at a few functions and was invited back to the USA by Bill Fuller who owned The Crystal Ballroom and The Ballerina in Dublin and, later, The Old Sheiling. He had ballrooms in New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco and I played for him for 6 months in 1958/59.

On my return in March '59 I was at a loose end for a while and was invited to play with a small band who played every second Sunday at The Lourdes Boy's Club, in Drogheda, which was run by Fr. Kevin Connolly - an old teammate from 1953. It was so successful, Fr. Kevin at my instigation ran the dances every Sunday. They were a huge success and when we got our first professional engagement, we were delighted but had no name. The tail wound up wagging the dog so to speak and Fr. Kevin when consulted said "why not Dermot O'Brien and the Clubmen?" and so it was....

We played a sort of mix of country, hillbilly & accordion dance tunes. The line-up was all acoustic. Alto sax, banjo, string bass, drums, and accordion.

J: So, the picture Brendan O'Loughlin submitted would be from a little later on - as the band appears to have more of a "traditional" (if that word can apply to showbands) showband lineup?

D O'B: Yes. The ORIGINAL band were not full-time pros and only lasted until I went pro in 1962 when the professional band was formed.

J: Going professional was the dream for almost every band. For some, the dream did come true, but for many it didn't. What factors contributed to making the transition successful for you?

D O'B: I had a good band. My GAA connection was a big help. When I went pro in March 1962, my diary was full to the end of September, and it stayed that way. We worked hard and gave value for money and got on well with the public.

J: When showband alumni get together, all sorts of stories get bantered about. One hears about unusual venues, road trips that went horribly wrong, band rivalries, practical jokes, and more. You can probably think of many such stories from your years with the Clubmen, but is there one that stands out in your mind?

D O'B: The one that comes to mind is I was in London airport with my manager Jim Hand (an awful trickster). We were waiting for our luggage at a carousel when Jim says excitedly, "look Dermot, it's Brian Epstein"! It was indeed the Beatles manager. Without hesitation Jim says "come on". He marched right over with me in tow and says "Brian! How's she goin?" with his hand stuck out. Epstein had no option really but to shake hands. "This is Dermot" he says "he's doing huge business in Ireland and here" (England). He then rattled off some of my attendance figures to the shell shocked Brian and finished by asking "Are yiz doin' The Ploughboy?" "We're doin' all YOUR stuff". I'll never forget the look on Epstein's face.

J: It seems you're a person who's always liked to keep busy or to use a cliche - kept many irons in the fire. Is this still true today, and if so, what kinds of projects/ventures are you presently involved in?

D O'B: I'm preparing a Christmas album, my very first such one.

I am in the middle of a TV special being recorded here by an crew from T na G, which is the Gaelic speaking TV station in Ireland. They are filming here in Boynton Bch., Ormond Bch., (where I am gigging on Sat.) and Nashville next week, where I am recording the album.

St. Patrick's weekend I will be in Cleveland, Ohio and then we head for Ireland March 20th where we will be until October.

J: When will the cd be released and when do you anticipate the TV special to air?

D O'B: Christmas CD will be ready this year and the TV special will air also at Christmas.

interview questions © 2003 jivenaires.com /responses ©2003 Dermot O'Brien

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Anyone interested in learning more about Dermot O'Brien's career or purchasing his music is invited to visit his homepage:

Dermot O'Brien, Irish Entertainer

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