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The days of Ulster singer-songwriter David McWilliams

Published 04/07/2015

David McWilliams with his trademark sideburns and acoustic guitar
David McWilliams with his trademark sideburns and acoustic guitar
An intense David McWilliams

Although it was Marc Almond who achieved chart success with The Days Of Pearly Spencer, for many the definitive version of the definitive megaphone-enhanced song will always be the original recording by the Ulster troubadour. On what would have been his 70th birthday Joe Cushnan recalls the genius of a singer-songwriter who never really enjoyed the success he so deserved.

In 1967, I was 13 and keen on acoustic guitars, singer-songwriters and buying records with my meagre pocket money. On Saturday mornings I would get the bus into Belfast and head for Premier records in Smithfield (the original, old, musty buildings) and then over to Harrison's music shop in Castle Street. 

I cannot remember in which shop I bought my first David McWilliams LP, but I took it home, unsleeved it lovingly and very carefully, as you did in those days, and played it to death.

I had heard The Days Of Pearly Spencer track on Radio Caroline through an annoying, crackling radio set. Despite the wireless reception, the drums, the violins, the megaphone-enhanced chorus, the lyrics and the singing blew me away. It was then - and is now - a classic recording.

McWilliams would have turned 70 today, July 4, this year.

He died from a heart attack in 2002 at 56.

He was a true original, a man who loved music but not the music business, and it is sad to reflect that a couple of generations have no idea who he was and what he achieved.

He had more than a good sniff at international fame with 11 albums of interesting and diverse songs including his aforementioned trademark, Pearly Spencer.

It was said more than once that the English had Donovan, the Americans had Dylan and Northern Ireland had McWilliams, and while this may have exaggerated his standing somewhat, no one can deny that he demonstrated frequently the creative ability to sit comfortably in that kind of company.

His main career problem seemed to be his on-off relationship with show business, the chore of touring and the thought of committing unreservedly to a full-time job in music.

David McWilliams was born in Cregagh in 1945. The family moved to Ballymena three years later, and David grew up with a passion for playing football and a keen interest in poetry and music.

The requirement to earn a living meant that he needed a proper job - a fitter at Shorts missile factory - rather than living in hope that he could make ends meet as a troubadour.

His writing and performing continued as a hobby but he had a belief in his own creative ability, so much so that he made a demo tape that eventually reached a man who would give him his big break. Phil Solomon was influential at Radio Caroline, the controversial pirate ship station that captured an enthusiastic young 1960s audience because it was anarchic and played hits alongside new music, an antidote to BBC stuffiness.

Solomon liked the demo and signed McWilliams to the Major Minor label.

As a result of those recording and broadcasting connections, this new Northern Irish singer-songwriter gained admiration and decent record sales across Europe from considerable airplay.

The Days Of Pearly Spencer was a hit in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany (he did not score personal chart success with it in the UK. The honour belonged to Marc Almond's cover version that reached number four in 1992).

McWilliams never made much money from Pearly Spencer even though other singers had covered it. Solomon seemed to prefer a no contract, handshake arrangement, that in hindsight was a career mistake.

In the recording studio the producer was Mike Leander, who tended to lean towards over-orchestration at times, complicating some of the simpler songs. But all three early albums made the UK top 40, respectable showings for an emerging artist.

In 1967 his highest chart position, number 23, was for David McWilliams Volume 2, the album that featured Pearly Spencer and the beautiful Can I Get There By Candlelight? A year later David McWilliams Volume 3 produced the popular Three O'clock Flamingo Street. His album covers show he was a man of his time with sideburns, intense poses, floral shirts and an acoustic guitar never far away.

A few years later he released Lord Offaly with a title track that sits well alongside many a folk song and a perfect example of his relaxed but very effective vocal style. For me, above and beyond much of this output, his haunting composition The Stranger stands out as an accomplished story song with a twist at the end. It is the kind of song that lingers in the memory because not only has a tale been told, but a picture has been painted as well. It is an excellent example of the McWilliams observational style of lyric writing and warm, if slightly understated singing.

However, he could never quite manage the necessary balancing act of enjoying the music while simultaneously tolerating the business side of things.

After a number of years within touching distance of becoming a major artist internationally, he ducked out of the game through disillusionment and boredom, trying his hand at farming and country pursuits and a simpler, more grounded life.

But, as with many creative people, the urge to write and the itch to perform never goes away and, occasionally, he rediscovered his enthusiasm to get back into the studio. As ever, he produced some fine work, but it failed to click with the music buying public.

It is not meant to be unkind, but it is factual that McWilliams was a nearly-man of pop music. In the end, through poor management, a sporadic international fan base and erratic interest from McWilliams in his own career, the fast-moving music business passed him by.

Listening to his albums, there is no doubt that he was a gifted songwriter and an effective singer. Not everything he wrote is appealing or significant but there is enough beautifully crafted music to question why he was not a bigger star, especially in the great singer-songwriter era of the 1970s.

But when all is said and done, there are many artists who would give their right arm for one defining piece of work and David McWilliams achieved that with The Days Of Pearly Spencer.

I would urge anyone with ambitions to be a singer-songwriter to seek out his albums and see just how good he was.

Joe Cushnan is a freelance writer of features, reviews and poetry. His books include Stephen Boyd: From Belfast To Hollywood.

Belfast Telegraph

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