The Hilton Showband has been on the road for thirty five years. Yes that's right - thirty five years. Surely the longest serving band in the country and amazingly three from that original outfit are still there: Ricky McVeigh, Mickey Doran and Tommy Tohill. And Tommy still swears he's only thirty-seven!
The present Hilton five are: Mickey (guitar), Tommy (bass), Ricky (vocals), Paddy McSherry (keyboards and saxaphone), and Gerry McKevitt on Drums.
Paddy - he's considered a blow in. After all he's only been in the Hilton for twenty one years. And as for 38 year old Gerry, well he's scarcely out of nappies and the boys share the job of minding him.
In those thirty five years there has been some marvellous memories: some sad, some funny, but all interesting.
The Band have had some amazing highs in those three score and five years: like appearing on the first European 'Opportunity Knocks' and various other TV shows such as UTV's "Zoom In" and RTE's "The Showband Show". And recording many songs: the best remembered being : "Anybody Know my Name," with Peader Cowan on lead vocal and Patricia Gratton's "Carlingford Bay."
Another great thrill for the band was their first American tour in 1967 when they played such places as the Tower Ballroom in New York City.
Couples courted to the Hilton sound then wed and now very often their children dance and fall in love to the music of the Newry combo.
Take for example, the story of Joe and Eileen Murray. The Belfast couple met one Tuesday evening in the Orpheus with the Hilton on the stage - this was the famous Big Band Date run by Jim AIken nowadays the most successful promoter in Ireland and the man responsible for bringing Garth Brooks to these shores. A few years later Joe and Eileen married with Tommy Tohill's group playing at their reception. Twenty five years after that the boys played at their silver wedding anniversary and later the Hilton did the honours at the wedding of their son John. And every time the Newry group play in Belfast Joe and Eileen are there to hear them. MIckey Doran quips: "Hopefully we'll be playing at their grandchildren's weddings." And Daniel O'Donnell thinks he has fans!
Another big disciple of the boys is Tommy McCumiskey. Tommy has followed the Hilton for more years than he cares to remember, often getting up and singing with them. And Tommy just doesn't appear when the boys are in the locality but also travels to Belfast and Dublin. He says and I quote:" Their stage show gets better as the years go by; so if its variety you want regardless of age, come along and hear this super showband."
And yet another huge fan was the late Arthur McKeown who played harmonica and was disappointed if he wasn't called to perform a wee number now and then.
On the Road
The Hilton first went on the road in Easter 1962 playing their opening gig in Astoria Ballroom as part of a two band show that also featured boxer Barry McGuigan's father Pat McGeehan and the Big Four.
That original nine piece outfit comprised: Hughie Kimmons (drums) Luke Burke (trumpet) Bobby Campbell (trombone) Dommie Donnelly (saxophone) Jimmy McGivern (Rythm guitar) Mickey Doran (Lead guitar) Tommy Tohill (Bass guitar) and vocalists Eleanor Toner and Ricky McVeigh.
In their time on the road the band met and played with some of the biggest names in show-business: Tom Jones, Bill Haley and the Comets, Jimi Hendrix, the Clancey Brothers, Paul McCartney and Van Morrison among others.
Van the Man
In fact Van Morison and his chart-topping group "Them" often played as support to the Newry outfit with Van the Man actually in debt to the Hilton.
In the sixties before Morrison became famous, he and his group often warmed up the audience for the Newry band in small venues in Newtownards and Belfast. Mickey Doran remembers the last time Van's band played support and also remembers that before going on stage Van asked the Hilton for a loan of their tambourine. This was readily handed over but during the singer's performance of G.L.O.R.I.A., he battered the instrument so much he cracked it down the middle. Saxophonist Dommie Donnelly was elected as spokesperson to get compensation from the singer: ten shillings (Fifty pence) but after a slanging match, DeeDee was told to go away in two words; the second of which was "off".
To this day when Mickey hears one of Van's most famous songs G.L.O.R.I.A. he thinks of that smashed tambourine, ten bob and the two word farewell.
Another link with Van Morrison is Mickey 's famous Fender Stratocaster guitar which he bought in Manny's in New York. The Hilton guitarist played his axe for most of his career with various people trying to buy it of him. Until a little over a year ago no one succeeded, including the late, legendary Rory Gallagher who arrived out of the blue at Mickey's Shandon Park home, imploring in vain for the Newry man to sell it to him.
But Mickey had a change of heart and eighteen months ago relectantly sold the famous "Strat" to Van Morrison's guitarist who used it at the monster open air concer t in Belfast when President Clinton visited these shores.
Mickey Doran Ace Guitarist
Mickey Doran is one of the most famous guitarists in Ireland. This gentle giant has retained his enthusiasm despite being on the road for over forty years. At one time he was voted the number three showband guitarist in the country and deservedly so. He made the seventies hit "Sabre Dance" his own. Anyone seeing Mickey playing that tune will never forget the occasion. He played it on his knees, with the guitar around his back, with his teeth, with a drummer banging on the strings - and all the time never missing a note. In fact in Dublin's National ballroom, one punter came up after the dance and accused Mickey of miming 'Sabre Dance' to a tape recording. Mickey took his guitar from its case and proceeded to play it for him, but the Dubliner still left unconvinced, leaving the hall shaking his head.
Stories on the Road
And speaking of Dublin, Mickey tells this modern day yarn and swears it's true. One aged dance-goer still travels to Barry's Hotel - a venue close to the National ballroom in parnell Square - on his bicycle. When he get to the hall he takes from his overcoat a length of stout rope which he ties to the handlebars of the bike before lowering it down behind some railing well out of sight. Better than a safety lock, eh!
Another time, in the late fifties, before Mickey joined the Hilton, the Clippertones showband that he then played with, was engaged to supply the backing for the then charting Adam Faith.
Before the start of the night, Faith's musical director handed each of the boys the pop singer's sheet music.
The Clippertones all looked at the sequence of quavers and dots in amazement as most of them had never seen music written down before.
The drummer of the band was the first to speak. "I can't read this," he whispered to Doran.
"Don't worry," said the guitarist in a Ballyholland whisper, "Neither can I, nor any of the rest of us."
"No, I don't mean the music," he said, "I can't read the name of the song."
And after a disastrous gig, with the odd wrong note, a furious Adam Faith rounded on the Clippertones snarling, "I'll perspnally see that none of you boys ever play professionally again."
He was slightly wrong. Mickey got an odd gig in the following forty years.
In fact the big man joined the Hilton from the Clippertones, one of the top bands in the north at the end of the fifties and early sixties when the late Malachy O'Neill persuaded him that the professional outfit that he was putting together was heading for the top. Mickey was unsure, as he was serving his time as a dental technician and even more unsure when his late father 'ate the head 'o him' for even contemplating giving up a good job to go with a fly-by-night outfit.
Dispite his misgivings Mickey turned pro with the Hilton and is still flying by night, but is back to his old job of making teeth by day.
~~Permission for reprinting this article kindly provided by Tony Bagnall