The summer Gentleman Jim Reeves just had to go to Ulster
Fifty years ago country legend Jim Reeves played a string of dates here. He loved the fans, but hated the pianos, reveals Joe Cushnan
In the summer of 1963, Jim Reeves, the smooth-as-velvet Texan balladeer, embarked on a short tour of Ireland, including some dates in Northern Ireland. He was riding high in the singles and albums charts and was one of the most popular singers in any genre.
Ten years earlier, he had enjoyed his first US hits Mexican Joe and Bimbo, and in 1960 had a smash worldwide success with He'll Have To Go.
Since then, his fan base had grown rapidly, notably in Ireland where there was an almost insatiable appetite for country music, especially of the sentimental kind. My late brother Paul was a big fan. He used to sing a slightly naughty version of He'll Have To Go, but I remember him most fondly at parties singing Blue Side Of Lonesome, a sad, cry-in-your-beer classic.
The tour took Jim Reeves to various venues in counties Cork, Mayo, Galway, Sligo and Donegal, as well as Londonderry, Belfast, Portstewart, Ballymena and Omagh.
His bookings were mainly in draughty breeze-block ballrooms on the showband circuit, with basic backstage facilities. Contractually, it was a hectic schedule that frustrated Reeves and caused severe friction at times with the promoters.
Stories persist that sometimes arguments almost came to blows. It has been suggested that the tour organisers hoodwinked Reeves into playing two venues on some nights, sometimes in halls 60 miles apart.
The first show was billed to start at 10.30pm and the second at 12.30am. Each performance lasted just under an hour. On a couple of occasions, he refused to perform or curtailed his act because he was either exhausted with the travelling or annoyed with sub-standard staging arrangements, poor acoustics or dodgy amplifiers. One of his few requests was for a piano at each hall and in some cases the pianos were out of tune, on their last legs or, as one story goes, hastily borrowed from a nearby house for the night.
The first phase of the Irish tour was not a happy time. But moving north, Reeves enjoyed better accommodation, venues and attention more suited to the huge Nashville star that he was. In a magazine interview he said: "The audiences here are the best I have ever come across but the pianos are the worst."
Jim Reeves performed at St Columb's Hall, Derry, on June 7 and 8, 1963, a venue managed by a young curate who eventually became Bishop Dr Edward Daly.
Dr Daly told me: "Both nights were sell-outs and Jim was relieved that he was finally playing in a proper theatre with decent dressing rooms. His style of singing suited theatres more than dance halls. He preferred to stand fairly still at the microphone and simply sing. We were used to hosting big stars like Ruby Murray, Donald Peers and Roy Orbison. But even now, 50 years on, not a month goes by without someone asking me about Jim Reeves on those memorable nights."
Bishop Daly recalled that Reeves was paid £350 for the two shows. "Jim played for about an hour each night giving very good, relaxed performances," he explained. "I have nothing but positive reactions to the Derry leg of his tour and to the man himself." (For the record, Dr Daly's favourite Reeves song is Welcome To My World.)
Around the same time, Reeves played two shows at the Ulster Hall, again sell-outs and, to his relief, gigs without any of the problems he had encountered on earlier dates. In a book by Larry Jordan, Jim Reeves: His Untold Story, a Carrickfergus fan talks warmly of being invited to meet Reeves in his dressing room for all of three minutes, more than enough time to stand in awe, chat, get an autograph and be treated to a few impromptu bars of a song. There is more than enough evidence that Reeves was professional and polite in the main, but not a sufferer of inefficiency and poor planning.
Regardless of the frustrations and the occasional tantrum, however, Reeves gave polished performances most of the time and satisfied the demands and expectations of the majority of audiences.
His cool country style influenced a number of the Irish showband crooners of the day, particularly Larry Cunningham who leaned heavily on the Reeves catalogue, carving a very successful career in his own right. The rich Reeves voice was distinctive from other Nashville singers in that it was devoid of any hint of hillbilly twang or good-ole-boy nuance. His popularity continues to the present day, nearly 50 years after his tragic death.
Just over a year after the Irish tour, on July 31, 1964, Jim Reeves and his manager Dean Manuel were flying from Batesville, Arkansas, to Nashville when their single-engine plane encountered a violent thunderstorm over Brentwood, Tennessee.
The plane crashed and after a two-day search the bodies of the two men were found in the wreckage. Reeves was 40 and Manuel 30. It was a devastating time for family, friends and fans all over the world.
Yet, even years after his death, the music of Jim Reeves is still in great demand mainly because his singing style and choice of songs are timeless. In 1966, at the height of Beatlemania and a new wave of young pop bands and performers, his single Distant Drums was number one in the UK. As the years have moved on from the tragedy of 1964, Jim Reeves can still be heard on easy listening and country radio stations all over the world.
So, what is the enduring appeal of Jim Reeves half a century after his tragic death? Radio Ulster's easy listening supremo John Bennett said: "When the first few bars of He'll Have To Go boomed out from a jukebox in Lisburn in 1960 I was hooked on the soft baritone voice of Gentleman Jim. Later, I compared it to his earlier country hits and couldn't believe it was the same singer. Chet Atkins was the genius who dropped the register a couple of notches to accommodate Jim's natural range. The addition of vibraphone, big bass line and girl backing group became the template for a string of similar recordings – different songs with similar treatment – country music with the edges buffed and rounded until the sound just seemed to wrap itself round your ears like a velvet ear muff."
On balance, Jim Reeves had some unhappy experiences on his Irish tour but his time in Northern Ireland seems to have passed off without incident. He was welcomed warmly and treated well. If you haven't listened to him in a while or if you listen for the first time, take the John Bennett challenge and see if you get a velvet ear muff moment. I think you'll love him because he's that good.