Joe Dolan’s voice has been mixed with an orchestra to create a new album. His brother Ben tells Marjorie Brennan all about it
IT’S not every day that one gets serenaded at the start of an interview. When Ben Dolan hears my name, I get a few bars of ‘Margie’. After more than 50 years in the music business, Ben is still in fine voice and I’m guessing he also has quite a hefty songbook in his head.
“I’ve heard a good few in my time,” he laughs. Ben spent 47 years on the road with his brother Joe, playing saxophone in the legendary singer’s band. Joe was one of Ireland’s most popular performers and his many fans at home and abroad were devastated when he died, aged 68, on St Stephen’s Day in 2007.
Now, Universal Music is releasing Joe Dolan, Orchestrated, a collection of his biggest hits, featuring his original vocals re-recorded with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. The project has the backing of Joe’s brother Ben, who still lives in the Westmeath town of Mullingar where they were brought up. He sees the project as an affirmation of the special place Joe held in the hearts of the Irish people.
“I’m really chuffed, that after nine years people would still think that much of him. I’ve heard a couple of the numbers and I think they’re fantastic. It’s a great tribute to Joe,” he says.
There was always music in the house growing up and Joe, the youngest of seven, showed signs of his talent from an early age, says Ben.
“My mother was musical, she sang in the local church, next to the graveyard where Joe is buried in Walshestown. My sisters sang in the local operas, Gilbert and Sullivan and all that. They’d be practising at home in the house and Joe would be copying them.”
Joe’s distinctive falsetto vocal style gave him an edge when he started performing, says Ben.
“He always had that range, he sang higher than the rest of us, but as time went on, you’d put the radio on and know immediately it was Joe. That’s the real trick to making it big in showbusiness — that people can recognise the sound. Whether it’s Elvis, Tom Jones, Larry Cunningham or Joe Dolan, they all have a distinctive sound.”
Ben, who was five years older, was the one who suggested that they play together. “There were a couple of local bands, I’d be with one and Joe with the other, but at one stage I said to Joe, ‘We should start a band of our own’. I was very keen because I had a job taking the coats and collecting the money at dances in the county buildings, and that gave me a taste for it.”
Joe had a full-time job as a compositor with the Westmeath Examiner but his music soon took priority. “He did his time, his five years, but we had the band going in the meantime, and he got sacked for not turning up. Joe was all for going into music full-time and I said ‘what if this stops?’ and he said, ‘I’ll just sing with another band’. He didn’t worry too much about the future, which was good in one way — I worried too much about the future.
“After a while I felt the fact I was doing the worrying was probably a help to him.”
While Ben also sang with the band as well as playing saxophone, he says it wasn’t long before his vocals took a back seat.
“We started in 1960 and halfway through the first year we started to get a good reception when Joe sang. I thought I was a pretty good singer but I was smart enough to realise that Joe needed to sing two or three songs for every one I sang. At the beginning, we were getting a wedding or a party, but then we were getting dance halls — big crowd, big money; bad crowd, bad money. In a very short time it was down to Joe. He was our trump card.”
Was he envious of the growing attention his younger brother was receiving?
“No, I wasn’t, really. It suited me we that we were successful. I would prod him a bit with advice here and there. We never really agreed on anything but we never really had a row. If it got that far I’d say nothing, I’d wait, and then he’d apologise.”
There is no lack of anecdote or incident in the 47 years they toured together but a standout experience was when they performed in the Soviet Union in 1978, one of the first Western acts to do so.
“We had played a charity do in Dublin and the Russian ambassador happened to be there, though we didn’t know that. A while later, our manager Seamus Casey, who’s still with us, got a phone call. The man said he was the Russian ambassador and Seamus thought it was a joke. He said he had brought some of Joe’s records back to Russia but a lot of people already knew his music.
“We said we’d go, it was set up in a couple of hours, and we went. Joe went down a storm, when he hit a high note they’d all start clapping. We had a fantastic time, we played Leningrad, Moscow and Kishinev [now Chisinau, capital of Moldova]. The only problem was that it was freezing.”
Joe and the band also got a great reception when they toured the US, playing two successful six-week stints in Las Vegas. However, Joe turned down offers of longer residencies in the gambling mecca.
“He was a home bird, and at home we mostly did one-night gigs. Over in Las Vegas it was night after night in the same place. It was a great experience, but it was just that thing Joe had about being in the same spot night after night, while at home you could space out the dates, you weren’t tied to one place.”
The band’s shows became legendary, summed up in the slogan ‘There’s no show like a Joe show’. They reached a new generation of fans in the 1990s with the release of albums such as Joe’s 90s and 21st Century Joe, which featured pop covers. The new album includes a lush rearrangement of ‘The Universal’ by Blur, which Damon Albarn dedicated to Joe at the band’s performance at the Oxegen festival in 2009.
However, Ben believes that their early success was down to the quality of the original songs they recorded, which still stand the test of time.
“In the early days, when Tommy Swarbrigg was in the band, he and his brother Jimmy wrote songs. We’d practise the pop tunes for dancing but Tommy would sit down at the piano and pick out a few chords, and in half an hour Joe would be singing the song Tommy had written. Most of the hits — ‘Make Me An Island’, ‘Good-Looking Woman’, ‘Teresa’ —were originals. You can go any place to a dance and you can nearly guarantee someone will sing a Joe Dolan song.”
While Joe’s family have struggled with his loss, Ben says time has healed the rawness of his grief and reminders of his brother’s legacy are never far away.
“After nine years I’m kind of used to it, but we have a pub here and everyone who comes to town visits. There’s a statue to him, and the Joe Dolan Bridge — he would be really chuffed with that.”
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