Even Elvis Presley would dance when the Royal Showband came to town

Hanging out with Elvis and The Beatles were just part of the fun for Ireland’s biggest showband, writes Ed Power

Even Elvis Presley would dance when the Royal Showband came to town

EDDIE SULLIVAN has an Elvis story. “It was 1968 and the Royal Showband were playing the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas,” says the group’s founding member and trumpeter. “We’d do three shows a night, six nights a week — which was obviously a bit of a grind. One night Elvis walked in and the place went wild. He had to leave within five minutes. There was huge commotion.”

A fortnight later, Presley returned. This time he had brought a retinue of bodyguards. Elvis liked what he saw: seven sweaty young Irishman tearing up the stage, singing as if their very existence depended on it. At one point Elvis actually rushed to the front, and danced along. On the way out, the King left a message. Sullivan and friends were welcome to call on Presley at his suite afterwards.

“Elvis was staying in the penthouse of the International Hotel. We said we were the Irish guys and they ushered us up. Priscilla, his wife, opened the door and 20 minutes later in walked Elvis. It was fabulous. He looked exactly as you’d imagine Elvis would. Completely larger than life. We talked for about half an hour and then he said ‘Guys, I’m really tired — I’m going to bed. There’s the bar — close the door on the way out. It was a good night.”

If not quite taking the encounter in their stride, The Royal were certainly not overawed. After all, this wasn’t the first time the popular showband — best known for the enduring hit ‘The Hucklebuck’ — had rubbed very literally shoulders with music legends. In Liverpool several years previously an up and coming local act had opened for the septet. Afterwards they hung out and traded war stories.

“The Beatles actually looked quite scary,” Sullivan recalls. “They had black leather jackets and long hair. Ringo Star wasn’t in the band at that stage — this was still when Pete Best was drumming with them. I remember we were talking and Brendan Bowyer [the Royal Showband’s frontman] told them they were good and should stick at it.”


The Royal’s own career had its ups and downs. The group formed in 1957, and released their first single ‘Come Down The Mountain Katie Daly’ in 1962. Life as jobbing musicians wasn’t always glamorous. Yet it’s the good times that Sullivan, a retired jeweller based in Waterford, remembers most vividly. They were among major stars of the showband era and ‘The Hucklebuck’ was a phenomena in Ireland (though it did not bring the band their much hoped for breakthrough in the UK). Their glory days are captured in a new concert DVD and a reissued ‘best of’ album, which O’Sullivan was instrumental in bringing to fruition.

“We recorded a TV special for RTÉ in 1963. I discovered a taping of it at home and brought it to Universal. The sound quality is amazing. It’s been transferred to DVD and came out very well.”

The special was directed by Peter Collinson, who would later find fame in motion pictures, overseeing The Italian Job and kitchen sink melodrama Up The Junction (he died at age 44). “It was a six-million pound industry,” recalls O’Sullivan of the showband era. “You’d play somewhere and maybe 200 would turn up. Two months later you’d go back and 900 would be there. People had a bit of money in their back pocket, thanks to [reforming Taoiseach] Sean Lemass. Albert Reynolds built 22 ballrooms in that period — they would build a ballroom in about 10 weeks. I was working as a grocer making five pounds a week.With the Royal Showband I was paid five pounds a night.”

Members of the Royal Showb and publicise their single, The Hucklebuck, in February 1965, at the Bowling Alley, Grand Parade, Cork (back left is lead singer Brendan Bowyer)
Members of the Royal Showb and publicise their single, The Hucklebuck, in February 1965, at the Bowling Alley, Grand Parade, Cork (back left is lead singer Brendan Bowyer)


The scene wasn’t exactly debauched but the bands were all heavy imbibers he remembers. On the road constantly, in their rare moments of down-time they took full advantage.

“We had our moments — our drinking moments. You’d stay in a hotel and maybe it would be a few miles outside the town. You’d start drinking and it could go onto five, six seven in the morning. That was the culture.

“We were young and it was a blur. In fact the whole thing was over almost before you realised it. We had a good 13 years.”

The Royal Showband having fun in the sun in a promotional shot.
The Royal Showband having fun in the sun in a promotional shot.

There was also intense rivalry with other show bands. This was mainly conducted across the pages of the evening newspapers. If one group took out a full page ad, the others felt required to follow suit.

“The columnists would ring us up and say, ‘The Capital Band has a half page — do you want to match it?’” Sullivan chuckles. “We spent a lot of unnecessary money on advertising. If they had a half page, we needed a half page as well. It was great business for the newspapers.”

Nobody got rich. When musicians had money in their pickets, they felt obliged to spend it. “You believed you had an image to keep up,” says Sullivan. “You needed a decent looking car.”


The Royal Showband at Cork airport in 1966
The Royal Showband at Cork airport in 1966

The band broke up in the early ’70s, with the charismatic Bowyer going on to form The Big Eight. Sullivan and several other musicians slogged on as The Royal for several years. But they sensed the gig was up. The spread of nightclubs and the emergence of a new generation of Irish rockers rendering the showbands anachronistic almost overnight.

“Our last gig [with Bowyer] was Las Vegas in 1971,” recalls Sullivan. “Fellas were getting tired. You are at it so long traveling, staying in the same hotels, people begin to get on one another’s nerves. Small things become big things. It’s the way.

“Not long after, the discos came along and did enormous damage to the showbands. It was far cheaper for a club owner to pay one person to spin records rather than hire five or six musicians for the night. Drinking was becoming a big part of it also. When we started out you would see the odd drink but it would be unusual. 10 years later, everybody was out to get blathered, as they say. But I have very warm memories of our time. I loved almost every moment.”

The Best Of The Royal Showband and The Royal Showband Show DVD are out now

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