It was two years before contraceptives were legalised in conservative Ireland, and Cork-born showband star Gina was singing the lyrics “You’re the greatest lover, you’re such a sexy thing.” And it was going down a storm.
“There were songs banned from the radio for less,” Gina, real name Mary Hurley, says.
“We thought about the lyrics when we recorded it, but for some reason it didn’t matter; obviously, because it was played off the air. Lots of people would have released something similar who didn’t get played.”
'You’re The Greatest Lover', previously recorded by Dutch girl band Luv, was released in Ireland by Gina Dale Haze and the Champions in 1978. It was the hard-working six piece East Cork band’s 11th single, although they had already had hits with numbers like Minnie Minnie Minnie and Do You Wanna Do It, something about You’re The Greatest Lover really caught the public’s imagination.
“There was only one radio station at the time, Radio One,” Hurley says.
“I’ll always remember Gay Byrne playing 'The Greatest Lover' and saying, ‘this is the sound of the summer.’ From there, it just took off.
There was only one TV station too, and I think I did eight TV appearances with that particular song.”
Recorded in London’s famed Red Bus Recording Studios, and arranged and produced by Liam Hurley, the brother of showband king Red Hurley, the top ten chart hit was an upbeat and decidedly continental sound that certainly gave a nod to the ABBA craze that had been sweeping the world since the Swedish pop phenomenon’s 1974 Eurovision win with Waterloo.
Although Gina had a male co-vocalist in the form of Dale Haze, real name Jerdi Mackey, multi-tracked female backing vocals on 'The Greatest Lover' are more than a nod to ABBA’s twin female vocals. Hurley says it was more the overall Europe-facing sound of the band, rather than consicous mimicry, that underpinned their popularity.
“Our music was very continental; all our songs came from Holland, Germany and London,” she says.
The diminutive brunette, originally from Friar’s Walk in Cork city, had joined the band following an audition at 19. Hurley had lost her mother at just 17 and cared for her younger siblings, an experience she believes helped to ground her when the heady days of stardom came calling.
“I started singing with choirs in school and church,” Hurley says. “In 1973, an ad was placed in the Evening Echo and my dad brought it to my attention. I didn’t think I was confident enough to do something like that at the time, but behind my back, he replied to the ad.
“I went for an audition, in Whitegate in East Cork. The day of the audition I chickened out a bit, and my sister had to virtually grab me by the scruff of the neck to get me to go.
"I was really shy, but I was confident when I sang. A month later, I went on tour with the band to London.
"That was the beginning of this wonderful life for me in singing. I couldn’t believe that I was doing something that I enjoyed so much and was getting paid to do it; it was just magic for me at the time. I was in heaven, really.”
Despite her obvious beauty and glamour in the showband posters of the day, Hurley says the idea of her being a sex symbol never sat comfortably with her.
“I was the total opposite,” she says with a laugh. “With the benefit of hindsight, I’d love to go back with the confidence in my dress sense and my appearance and my performance: all of that. When I sang I loved it, but photoshoots frightened the living daylights out of me. I could never be relaxed or be ‘sexy'. I could never get my head around it.” Management from T.H.E, the showband management agency formed by the Nevada Showband’s Tommy Hayden, had proved instrumental in the band’s success.
“We used to go to Dublin to Tommy Hayden’s office,” Hurley says. “At the time, a guy called Tony Byrne was managing us. In that office, all the artists were there: Red Hurley, Johnny Logan, Chips, ourselves. It was amazing. There was also a young guy called Louis Walsh, who was cutting his teeth in the office.” Although showbands had hit something of a slump, by the time Gina Dale Haze and the Champions were out on tour, the dancehalls were in revival. The sheer size of the audiences in small towns all over the country seems phenomenal by the standards of today’s live music scene.
Gina Dale Haze and the Champions played five to six nights per week.
“If there wasn’t two thousand people at a venue, you’d be wondering what you did wrong,” Hurley recalls.
On one occasion, in Mayo, 4,000 people showed up to see them on a Sunday night.
“The halls were a big open space, an entrance, two exit doors, ladies, gents, a stage and that’s it,” Hurley says. “Imagine coming out on a stage on a Sunday night, not at a special festival or anything, and seeing four thousand people who have come to see your band.
“Security was minimal in those days: they were letting them in one door, and they were going out another door to get some fresh air. It wouldn’t happen now, what with fire regulations and everything else.”
Hurley, whose son is a musician, says the big difference for young musicians starting out today is how many forms of competing entertainment there are for young people, whereas then, a band was often the only outlet.
“All the people of Ireland had then was one radio station and one TV station, so in one week we might see the same people three nights and they would have driven 70 miles to come and see us again.
"And there’d be five or six in the car, again something you can’t do now.” Hurley married lead guitarist with The Champions, Pat Walsh, and they live in Ballycotton to this day. By 1992, the couple had two children and Hurley was not coping with trying to combine the band’s gruelling touring requirements with family life.
“The rest of the lads were out gigging and they had a wife at home, but when myself and Pat were going off every night, that was both of us gone,” she says.
“The pressure got on top of me so I called it a day. You don’t have children just to hand them over to babysitters all the time. I thought I was finished with music because I was so exhausted.”
Seventeen years later, the band reformed, immediately selling out three shows in Cork Opera House, The Premier in Thurles, and the INEC in Killarney.
The packed-out raucous dancehalls have been replaced, Hurley says, by something more sedate but equally enjoyable: “I’m very happy doing an acoustic gig to an audience of 300 sitting in a beautiful setting.
"It allows you to have a bit of a story, and chat with the audience, and accoustically I enjoy it a lot.
“People want to hear what they listened to when they were young and when they met their partners, so it is nostalgia.
"At this stage of my life now, there’s a lot of nostalgia. I have no regrets: how can I regret what we achieved and the amazing people we met over the years? It was great. And I’m so happy to still be doing it.”