Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

Cradle of Belfast blues, the Maritime Hotel, recalled 50 years on

Members of the local R'n'B band scene from the 1960s at the spot of the old Maritime Hotel in Belfast
Members of the local R'n'B band scene from the 1960s at the spot of the old Maritime Hotel in Belfast

It was the Belfast nightclub that launched a global superstar's career and put the city on the musical map.

Fifty years ago this month, a fresh-faced teenager and the rhythm and blues band he fronted stepped onto a stage at the Maritime Hotel in College Square North and a legend was born.

The band was Them and the singer Van Morrison.

They were among a number of outfits springing up in the city in the early to mid-1960s, heavily influenced by the sounds of American blues.

The new R'n'B club at the Maritime was promoted by 'The Three J's', enterprising young promoters who helped make the club Belfast's answer to Liverpool's Cavern. In the run-up to that pivotal night in Northern Ireland's musical history, the Belfast Telegraph carried a series of enigmatic advertisements, asking: 'Who are? What are? Them' as a teaser for fans.

Now, half a century on, some of the bands which once played the blues club in the Maritime, are getting together for a unique night of music at the Oh Yeah Centre on April 17. Musicians from The Just Five, The Mad Lads, Aztecs, The Fugitives, The Interns, Group 66 and The Alleycatz will join Them's original guitarist Billy Harrison to celebrate the Maritime's 50th anniversary and its place in Belfast's rich musical heritage.

Billy was on stage the night Them opened the new R'n'B club at the Maritime in April 1964 and recalled how it sparked a blues explosion in Belfast.

"Until that Friday night, the Maritime had mainly been a jazz club," he said. "When we played the first gig in the Maritime Blues Club, there must have been around 60 people there and half of those were jazz fans, who'd just come along, out of curiosity.

"The Three J's had placed ads in the Belfast Telegraph in the run-up to the gig, asking Who are? What Are? Them.

"It was a great name for a band because we could have fun working publicity around it. We used to get people asking: 'Oh, are you one of Them?'.

"I remember that opening night was a good one. The next week, there were about 150 people. By the third Friday, there was a big queue outside. And that was it. Some of the other bands came along to start playing and the blues scene in Belfast exploded."

Them's love of American blues helped create original music, with songs such as Gloria and Baby, Please Don't Go debuting on stage at the Maritime Club.

Stuart Bailie of the Oh Yeah Centre said they would be delighted if Van the Man turned up.

"No approach has been made as yet, but he is very welcome to come down," he said.

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