It’s not every day that you get to rub shoulders with music legends. We chatted with Gerry Cullen, piano player in what was one of the biggest showbands in the world back in the ’60s and ’70s, when Irish ballrooms were thronged with people doin’ the Hucklebuck!
The Royal Showband played some of the biggest venues in the world, Carnegie Hall and The Royal Albert to name but a few. The band spent five years living in Las Vegas and today, we get a glimpse into their world.
Read the interview
Find out about Gerry’s life on the road with the band, the US President he shared a plane with and where he’d bring Elvis in Waterford if he was alive today. Great conversation was had in Thomas Maher’s pub.
Gerry, tell us how it all began?
Well, we started off really as a very small band. There were three of us from Ferrybank; other members then joined the band. We were just playing small gigs around the place.
We were rehearsing one night and a guy came down called TJ Byrne, who ended up being our manager. He was trying to sell a guitar, which he successfully did, and asked if he could be our manager – he thought we had something. So, he took us over and we started playing around Carlow, Kilkenny, Wexford. We used to go away in a taxi from Waterford with the drums on the top of the taxi, a big double-bass and we all were squashed into this taxi. We’d play from 9 pm at night until 3 am in the morning, non-stop. No break, nothing.
And what age were ye then?
Ah, we were only about 19 or 20. Eventually, we said, “Look, this is ridiculous “. We all had jobs, I worked in the sports shop on the quay and my wages at that time (I was working six days a week) was seven and sixpence. Now make that up. And I was making five pounds in the band… So we said, “Ah here, come on, we’ll go professional, there’s money in it.” And we did. Now we had to get into a lot of debt; we had to get a wagon, instruments – all that sort of stuff. It became a business really and then we went on the road. All of a sudden we got very successful, we drew big crowds in Ireland.
Then we went to England, Scotland, Wales during Lent, because all the ballrooms closed down at Lent in Ireland. Catholic religion said “You can’t dance now, that’s too much” so we had to go to England. We eventually started playing for the Mecca Group, they had a ballroom in every city in England. We got a deal with them and toured England, Scotland and Wales. We won a big award, the Carl-Alan Award, which was a big thing at the time. It went out live on the BBC and Princess Margaret was at the show.
Winners of the Carl-Alan Award
The Royal Showband won the much-coveted prize in 1961.
That was pretty amazing, wasn’t it?
Yeh. The Beatles won that night but they weren’t there, they were in America but their manager took the award. That was a fantastic night. It blew us up completely. Then we went to America on a tour of the Irish clubs in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles and we were very successful. There was an agent from Las Vegas who came to see us and we got a contract for five years. I lived in Las Vegas for five years – six months over there, six months back here.
That must have been mindblowing to get that contract?
Yes, it was. I always remember one trip in America, I can still see it. We had a week free and the guy that brought us over, he was actually from Kerry, Bill Fuller had a home in Nassau in The Bahamas. So we went to stay in The Bahamas for a week in his house but in the meantime, Russia and America decided they’d have a fight. That was the time John F K. told Khrushchev “Take them missiles out of Cuba“
JFK – The Cuban Missile Crisis
Gerry Cullen and the band witnessed the missiles going up while they were on a break in The Bahamas.
We saw the missiles going up and the American Navy going the other way, then we got a phone call from Fuller to say “I think you should go over to Miami because we think there’s goin’ to be a little bit of trouble“, haha. It was World War Three, you know!
We all saw it. And when we got off the plane, we found the house, said we’d go for a drink. I always remember the name of the pub we went to, it was called “The Pink Elephant”. We were looking out the window at the war that was going to start. This guy said that Khrushchev was coming this way, Kennedy was comin’ that way, we’re all going to be blown up! It was funny. We just drank up our beer and said what the hell.
So talkin’ about Kennedy-
One of our first trips to New York, Kennedy was campaigning to be President and he was in New York. Our manager organised for us to meet him and he said yes. New Ross, Waterford, so close and he knew about it. We never turned up…we said: “Ah, to hell with this”. I was the one that took the phone call from one of his aides, a fella called O’ Brien. Funny enough, I saw him on television recently. He said to us “Do you realise that you’ve kept the future President of the United States of America waiting for twenty minutes and you don’t show up?? ” And he just lifted me out of it.
And what did ye think of that, did ye regret it?
Sure we didn’t know who he was, some fella from New Ross or what the hell! There was another president we were on a plane with from San Francisco to New York. I remember seeing him gettin’ on the plane and said to myself “I know him, I saw him on television, he’s an actor.” That was Ronald Reagan. He had that raincoat he always had on him. I remember him stopping and looking at us, I’d say it was the Irish accent. Our guitar player’s future mother-in-law met us in New York and asked if we realised that we were after flying with the future President of the United States. I said to her “Ah go way out of it, sure he’s only a third rate movie star. Wrong again, ha.
Did ye get a photo with him?
No. Sure there was no such thing as phones then, they were all telegrams and wind up phones.
So you lived in Las Vegas?
Yes, we lived then in Las Vegas for five years and had to ship all our families over. Our kids went to school there. They were way behind what they were learning here. You know, we met a lot of stars and the bigger the star, the nicer they were. Elvis came into our show.
Did you get any photos with Elvis?
Yeah, well Brendan Boyer got his photo with him. He was making a movie at that time. He was a wonderful, wonderful fellow. I met him (Elvis) at four o’clock at The Stardust Hotel in the afternoon.
We used to be called “Irish”. I remember I had to go back to the dressing room as I’d forgotten something and one of the barmen shouted to me “Hey Irish, do you see who’s behind you? Who, I said? Elvis, he said.” I thought he was joking. So I looked around and saw. “Oh, he is there”. He had four bodyguards around him. I went over and just before I got to him, there was a little old lady (blue-rinse brigade playin’ the slot machines) and she rushed over in front of me and she said “Mr. Presley, would you please sign that for my grand-daughter?” He gave her a big hug and said: “Honey, for you I’d do anything”. I said “this fella’s alright”. I didn’t know whether to call him Mr. Presley or what. He said, “You’re the guys who are stealing my act!” He said he was coming to our late show to see us.
Elvis invited us up to his penthouse and off we went. We did meet a lot of celebrities, it was good times but it involved travelling – a lot of disruption of family life really.
What was life like on the road?
In Ireland, it was rough. When we started first, there were no motorways. It took you five hours to go to Dublin, through Mullinavat (your place, ha), all little narrow roads along the way; it was crazy. You wake up in a hotel somewhere in Mullingar and you say “Where am I?” You just didn’t know where you were. We were on the road six days a week, which was a lot!
When we went to America then, I think we stayed in Howard Johnsons hotels – they were all built the same.
But ye were having a ball then?
Yes, we did enjoy it. We worked very hard but at the end, it became very monotonous.
There were seven of you in the band. How did you all get on?
We got on famously at the start, it didn’t end up that way though. Three of us were from Ferrybank, Charlie, Michael and myself. We brought in Brendan Bowyer as a trombone player and then he started fronting a little bit. Eddie Sullivan was one of the best trumpet players, he had a distinct sound and you’d know it was him playing, something like Eddie Calvert. He is still my friend today. You should interview him!
What are some of the famous places you’ve performed?
Well, Carnegie Hall was one of them; The Royal Albert Hall we played in and in Liverpool, it was The Liverpool Empire where The Beatles opened for us (I always love to say that, ha!). The funny thing with The Beatles, I heard some of the early material before it was ever recorded. You could see them, hear them thinking “Jesus, this is new – a new sound“, and they had it.
And what did they think of ye?
Ha, I’d say they thought “ah, Irish fellas!”. We were after buying a big Mercedes wagon and I always remember Paul McCartney and John Lennon comin’ out. They were eatin’ their fish and chips. They said “Jesus, the wagon!” All they were interested in was the wagon! They had a little Ford Transit that they were crammed into. I told them then we were going to America the following week. They were amazed at us…they couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on. We were only doing cover versions of other people’s songs. They made their first record and the rest is history…
You’re from Waterford. How does it compare with all the places you’ve been to and lived in?
Well, of course, I was born in Waterford; I have a lot of memories. I remember I had to walk to school over the old bridge and used to walk down the quays and look at ships. I always thought I’d go to sea as a sailor; I was fascinated with these ships. They went from Waterford to Liverpool and used to bring passengers over, but they also brought cattle. Going down the quay, you’d have a hear of cattle to load onto the ship, The Great Western, and when she’d pull away, you could see the cattle walking from one side to the other and the ship going from side to side.
I also remember going to The Cathedral for mass. That was an occasion. To listen to the choir, they always had a great choir. The priest would get up and give a sermon – that doesn’t happen anymore. That type of thing I miss. We never forgot we were from Waterford. No matter where we went, we always wanted to have our name (The Royal Showband) from Waterford. We couldn’t do it in Las Vegas as we were told nobody in America would be interested in Waterford. They put ‘direct from Ireland‘ – that was a bit of a regret. Everywhere we went, we always put the name out.
We got a civic reception from the Mayor and the Council of Waterford in 1962 when we won the Carl-Alan award, I remember that. It was in City Hall, most of our mothers and fathers were alive then and they were very proud. We were very proud to be from Waterford.
What’s your favourite Waterford slang?
I think the blaa is the best of them, haha! Blaas make you happy! I remember as a young man, going up to Ballybricken to a certain baker, they did fantastic blaas.
Your blaa – do you like yours’ crusty or soft?
Oh crusty, with jam!
If a celebrity came to Waterford now, say Elvis, where would you bring him?
Well, I’d probably bring him to Tom Maher’s for a pint of Guinness, because it’s the only real traditional pub that’s left. There’s only one other pub that I know like this and it’s in Athy called Morrisey’s. They are holding that tradition still, like here. Think I’d bring him down to show him the tower (Reginald’s Tower) and tell him Aoife and Strongbow got married here. I’m sure he’d say “Who the hell is Aoife?!”
Name three people dead or alive that you’d like to have dinner with?
Hmm, that’s a hard question! Emma Thompson, because she has a beautiful face, a come-on smile and I won’t go into the rest, ha! Sir David Attenborough too, you’d have a fantastic night talking to him. And the third one would have to be old blue eyes, Frank Sinatra.
Tell us a joke.
A guy went to an optician and said “I think I need glasses” and the optician said, “I think you do, ‘coz you came through the window!”
If you could do it all over again, would there be anything you’d do differently?
Not really, I don’t think so. Eh, I think we would have had a little bit better management.
How do you spend your time now?
When the band finished, I thought I was finished on the road, but then I ended up being a Sales & Marketing Manager for McInerneys. I ended up working six days a week away from home; I was all over the place. I left them and went to Hospital Enterprises as part of Sales again.
And what years was all this?
Early seventies, I think. I’m 82 years now, a lot has happened. I was born in 1938, and World War Two broke out in 1939. I think everybody blamed me, ha… I’m well retired now, but some days I’m in pain with my arthritis but today I’m great.
And now, what does a typical day look like for you?
I like to come into Maher’s for a drink and meet lovely people and customers. I’m in a retirement home now and I don’t have to do anything. I have about 30 women looking after me, it’s great! When you get to my age and end up with 30 women, you can’t complain can you?
What music do you listen to now?
I would listen to Sinatra and bring my childhood back and listen to Vera Lynn, the Forces sweetheart (I should have thought of bringing her to dinner). I have a very relaxed life now out in The Holy Ghost now, it’s like living in a hotel. I have all my meals looked after and lots of women to look after me. Can’t be too bad, can it?
Do you keep in touch with any of the other band members?
I’d meet Eddie Sullivan once or twice a week; he’s been a very good friend to me. It ended up there were about 600 showbands in Ireland. People came to the ballrooms all around Ireland but Eddie, to me, was one of the best trumpet players around.
In the hotels, I shared with Eddie. Once, we stayed in the Longford Arms which they were renovating. I can always see this – Eddie sat up in the bed, we took out cigarettes and we had a smoke. The next minute, the plaster in the wall falls out and a hand comes in. Eddie shook hands with it – you should have heard the screams haha.
Brilliant. And finally, what advice would you give to young people today?
Stay away from drugs. We saw drugs in America and thank god, we never touched them. The music business we were in, it was rife. We fancied a pint rather than doing drugs. At least with a drink, you can fall down. I’m telling young people to stay away from them. It will kill you.
In our day, when the showbands were around, people enjoyed themselves without drinking. Different times.