Billy Brown (1943 - 1999):
Billy Brown was one of the most notable figures on the showband circuit in 1960s and 1970s Ireland, a highly talented performer on several instruments; a vocalist, and arranger and writer of songs, as well as being a talented plastic artist.
Born in Larne, County Antrim, he was interested in music even as a young boy, and son of a musical father, who bought a piano which Billy enjoyed playing, becoming very proficiency. He attended Belfast College of Art where he studied stained glass design, but was drawn to the music world, inspired by Jerry Lee Lewis, the Louisiana rock and roll and country music singer-songwriter and pianist. It was later said that he “chased the boogie-woogie lifestyle like a great ball of fire. He joined the Billy McFarland Showband, in which he played saxophone and clarinet, which with his considerable talents he learned very quickly. Soon, he and some friends including members of the John Mitchell Showband, formed their own showband, The Freshmen, based in Ballymena; Brown again played saxophone and clarinet, now keyboards as well. He was also one of their principal arrangers, co-wrote some pieces with other band members, and wrote some of his own. But amongst these talents, which were all recognised and appreciated by his colleagues and fans, nevertheless most people saw his arrangements as his real masterpieces.
The Freshmen played throughout Ireland, where they were especially popular in smaller towns and cities such as Cork, Galway or Waterford; they were especially noted for their soaring vocal harmonies. However they had debuted closer to home, in the Plaza Ballroom in Brown’s hometown of Larne, in August 1962. They cut their first record in 1964, a 45 rpm 7-inch single whose B-side was an original number written by Brown and the group’s guitarist, Damien McIlroy. They would eventually make 21 such records up to 1979. Their first chart hit was “Papa Oom Mow Mow’, which was released in 1967, not long after television appearances on RTE’s “Showband Show” and UTV’s “Pop Scene”. The group also toured in Britain, where they were especially popular at American military bases, even being offered a tour of US bases in North Africa.
Another American connection was with The Beach Boys, the leading rock band from southern California, whom they supported at appearances in Belfast and Dublin in 1967. This was significant: Brown’s talent as an arranger really made The Freshmen famous as he listened to the Beach Boys, broke down the harmonies and reassembled them for the voices in the band, taking the key high part himself. Besides singles, The Freshmen made first 33 rpm 12-inch album, “Movin’ On”, in 1968. This album contained three originals by Billy Brown, Damien McIlroy and Davy McKnight; another was jointly written by the young Phil Coulter. Two more albums followed: in 1970, “Peace On Earth” and “Now And Then” in 1974.
The group staged a ‘Peace Concert’ in Dublin in 1970, a live performance of “Peace On Earth”. Narrator for both was the renowned actor Micheál Mac Liammóir. However, by the time “Now And Then” was released, Brown had temporarily left The Freshmen and formed his own group, The Billy Brown Band, though this group only functioned for a short time. Although he had always written and arranged songs, only one of his originals had appeared on a Freshmen album, several on B-sides. Now, though, Brown was able to flourish more as a songwriter. “Cinderella”, a song inspired by Limerick mezzo-soprano Suzanne Murphy went to No.3 in the Irish charts (1977, with the Freshmen). Other notable songs were “Look What Jerry Lee Did To Me” (1980, a solo hit for Brown and a song regarded as his autobiography, invoking his early hero Jerry Lee Lewis), “My Cup Runneth Over”, “Dear Mums And Dads”, “Off The Wall” and “You Came Through Love With Me”.
He returned to The Freshmen in time for their last album. Latterly, Brown lived at Johnstown, County Kildare, where he took up his artistic interest again, drawing and painting mostly nature subjects, mostly wildlife (he sold some of this work through a gallery in nearby Naas), and enjoying rural activities, hunting and fishing. The Irish Independent described him thus:
He was tall and rangy, handsome and stylish, occasionally affecting a cloak, he was a dashing midnight matinee idol. Truth is, he was something of a snob too, surrounded by working dogs and dressing like a country squire.
He died in Naas Hospital. Tributes to him included one from a former band member, who said that “without his talent and innovative musical skills we would certainly not have achieved as much, either as a showband or in our recordings.” The Irish Independent wrote: “Billy played a major role in having The Freshmen acknowledged as the most innovative and sophisticated of the Irish bands...[he was] one of the most gifted musicians of his generation.”
In his last months, The Freshmen had re-assembled for the last time, in Belfast and Dublin as part of the Showband Show, to give their final-ever concerts.
www.irishshowbands.net (various pages); Irish Independent 10 June 1999
© 2018 Ulster History Circle