The musicality of the Cork accent has a captivating charm which is to the advantage of harmonising swing trio The Stargazers, writes Ellie O’Byrne.
FROM Jamie Dornan reading lines of Fifty Shades of Grey in it to Tommy Tiernan envisaging the national embarrassment should Ireland ever have a president with it, Cork’s distinctive lilting accent has been the butt of plenty of jokes.
But its innate musicality has a captivating charm all its own, and it pairs well with compositions that may seem, culturally speaking, a million miles away from the rebel county. Harmonising swing trio The Stargazers have been performing jazz numbers from songwriters like Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin with a decidedly Corkonian folksy twist since the mid-1980.
“It’s an identifiable sound that we have,” says Johnny ‘Fang’ Murphy, Stargazers frontman. “But it wasn’t a conscious decision to sing in any particular accent. We never talked about it, and I never really thought about it. I just opened my mouth and sang them the way they came out.”
Murphy has collaborated with a pantheon of Cork troubadours over the years, like Jimmy Crowley, with whom he played in folk outfit Stoker’s Lodge in the 1970s, popularising songs like ‘Salonica’ and ‘The Boys of Fairhill’, and that most fervent adherent to the Corkonian sing-song, Johnny Spillane, with whom he first formed The Stargazers, “for a bit of a laugh”.
“They were doing a revue up in UCC, and we just got together for a laugh and we played an old jazz standard called ‘After You’ve Gone’,” he says. “We threw on tuxedos for the laugh too. It went well so we played in a pub called The Donkey’s Ears, and it took off from there, really.”
Now, 24 years later, with a string of singles under their belt, The Stargazers are releasing a third album, My Echo, My Shadow and Me, named for a line from ‘We Three’, a song first popularised by The Inkspots.
“I couldn’t have imagined lasting this long,” Murphy says. “We took breaks and did other things, but people kept asking and it never really went away. We do our own original material as well as covers, but we straddle that area between folk and jazz, and developed our own sound over the years. That’s why we’ve lasted, I think.”
Lasted they have, and enjoyed some extraordinary moments along the way, which Murphy recounts with his characteristic laid-back ease. Is it true that they played a private gig for Fred Astaire’s daughter, Ada, on the roof of Kensington Gardens? “Yes. She would have come to our gigs in Schull in The Courtyard because she had a holiday home there. She flew us over to London and put us up in a fancy hotel and everything. We had a great time.”
The band has had several incarnations, always with Murphy and guitarist Chris Ahern at its core: Spillane, who played bass, left to pursue his own noteworthy career, replaced firstly by Johnnie Campbell and now by Ursula O’Sullivan.
“She’s an amazing musician,” Murphy says of a woman who originally came in as a piano player, before switching to bass. “We’ve stuck to that three-part harmony, acoustic music that we started out with all those years ago, but it’s lovely to have the female voice.”
They released a single from the album last year, the wonderfully irreverent Tom Lehrer classic, ‘The Vatican Rag’. “It’s cheeky alright, but it’s a bit of fun,” Murphy says. “The album itself was recorded over a couple of sessions last year; we decided to record a couple of tracks by a friend of ours called David O’Driscoll. We were so happy with them that we put them all on an album.”
The trio have had a quiet couple of years while they focused on recording. Now they’re back gigging, and play the Everyman in Cork, De Barra’s in Clonakilty, and The White Horse, Kinsale. “We’ll definitely be throwing on the tuxes,” promises Murphy.
The launch of My Echo, My Shadow and Me takes place at a concert at the the Everyman Cork on Sunday with special guest, soprano Majella Cullagh
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