When Joe Dolan came to stay with Pete Williams and his family in 1974, the first thing Williams did was move the six-month old baby to another room.
The infant’s name was Rob. Twenty-something years later, he would be one of the world’s biggest pop stars.
“Rob was in a cot in the bedroom where Joe was to sleep. Joe would later say that we got Rob out of the bed. In reality it was just the cot,” says Pete, a veteran song and dance man who became acquainted with Dolan treading the boards of the north of England cabaret circuit, where he worked as singer, comedian and general entertainer.
Joe Dolan and Robbie Williams were kindred spirits, Pete feels. They were and are both natural showmen, who come alive in front of a crowd and in many way are their true selves only when an audience is watching. They had a talent that cannot be learned. It is innate.
“They’ve got that ‘X factor’,” says Pete (67). “Joe had it. Rob has it. You can’t fake that. Either you have it or you haven’t.
Robbie Williams paid moving tribute to Dolan when he sang ‘You’re Such a Good Looking Woman’ at his Aviva Stadium concert last summer. He and Pete duetted during the same evening on an impassioned Sweet
There was nothing tongue-in-cheek about the performance.
Robbie had known Dolan since the future Take That man was a boy — and he respected his work ethic and his determination to push forward with his career regardless of the knock-backs suffered. Perhaps, as the years went on, he even saw Joe as an example to be
followed — this warhorse who refused to lie down.
Pete, for his part, has had an opportunity to honour the late Dolan. The miracles of technology have allowed him “duet” with Dolan on a new collection of classics by the Mullingar icon.
With accompaniment by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, Orchestrated Volume 2 features reworkings of some of Dolan’s most beloved cover versions – including Springsteen’s ‘Brilliant Disguise’, and Pulp’s ‘Disco 2000’. Pete Williams – credited under his stage name of ‘Pete Conway’ — pops up at the end, singing with Dolan on a version of ‘You’re Such A Good Looking Woman’.
“It’s more than nice,” says Williams. “It’s a privilege.”
He had a sense Dolan was popular in Ireland when they met for the first time in Manchester in the 1960s. But the extent of the adoration did not become clear until Dolan took him to a local Irish club.
“Joe was up and coming in Britain at the time. His career there was in its infancy. He’d had two hits: ‘Good Looking Woman’ and ‘Make Me An Island’. He took me to an Irish club in Manchester called The Carousel. We got pinned to the wall as soon as we went in.
"People were coming from everywhere with pieces of paper — because, of course, in those days you didn’t take pictures, you signed autographs.”
He and Joe were in some ways very different. Dolan was gregarious; Pete, though a natural under the spotlights, was more reserved in
“He introduced me to poitín,” recalls Pete. “I hadn’t had it before — and I haven’t had it since. But I certainly remember it.”
Joe Dolan was an Irish phenomenon. There was a sense of nationwide loss when he passed away on St Stephen’s Day in 2007, at age 68.
He is the only Irish artist to have had number ones in every decade from the 1960s to the ’90s.
He had a surprising gift for reinvention, as well, and, on the suggestion of his record label, in the ’90s released two collections of contemporary covers, including artists such as Radiohead and Blur.
This did not go unnoticed — headlining the Oxegen festival in 2009, Blur dedicated ‘The Universal’ to Dolan, who had performed it on the Joe’s 90’s LP.
Robbie Williams became a huge Dolan fan too. Pete points to his son’s appearance on the Late Late Show last year at which he spontaneously sang ‘Good Looking Woman’. He knew the song by heart, having heard it a hundred times growing up.
“I told my son all the stories about Joe. I worked with all the top singers... Matt Monro, Tony Bennett, Jack Jones. I was doing stand-up comedy. I’m a comedian who can sing a bit. I would do three quarters of an hour before they came on.
“There were a lot of nice people in the industry and a lot of awkward buggers too. Joe was in the first
category by a long way. There’s that saying, isn’t there... ‘There’s no show like a Joe show’. That was exactly it. I was very privileged to be part of a Joe show.”
Pete, meanwhile, seems straightforwardly delighted by, and proud of, his son’s success. He enjoyed his own show-business career but does not seem to have been consumed by it. When Robbie invited him on at the Aviva to belt out ‘Sweet Caroline’, for instance, Pete went out an enjoyed himself — and didn’t think any more of it.
“People asked me if I was nervous singing in front of all those people,” he laughs.
“I wasn’t nervous. Why would I be. They didn’t come to see me — they came to see HIM.”
Pete’s adventures on the road with Dolan served as a lesson in the school of hard knocks. When his son
declared his wish to become a performer, his father gave his qualified blessing. Robbie could pursue fame — but only after he stayed in school long enough to pass his exams.
“He was genuinely convinced he was going to be an entertainer when he left school at 16. You and I both know the odds of that happening are very long. But he made it happen anyway.
“I’ve got to the point now where, if Robbie Williams says something is going to happen, he makes it happen.”
Joe Dolan Orchestrated Volume 2 is out now.
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