By George! The irrepressible Mr Jones on his plans for reunion gig with Van Morrison
Clubsound singer and former radio star George Jones is showing no signs of slowing down ... he tells Stephanie Bell a one-off gig with former bandmate Van Morrison is on the cards, but that’s after he makes his acting debut in a musical this month followed by an ambitious showband performance
Boyhood friends George Jones and Van Morrison are talking about getting their first-ever band from their teenage days back together for one last reunion gig.
The chums, who grew up together in east Belfast and attended the same school, have agreed a reunion if they can fit it into their busy schedules.
Van, who hails from Hyndford Street, off the Beersbridge Road, returned to his old stomping ground recently, celebrating his 70th birthday in a series of concerts in leafy Cyprus Avenue which he immortalised in song.
Members of the Monarchs, who played together as teenagers 52 years ago, still meet up in Belfast for coffee every month.
The Monarchs had a one-off hit record in Germany in 1963, the same time as the Beatles.
George, who is treading the boards in the hit Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun in his acting debut later this month, revealed how he has kept in close contact with his old east Belfast school friend Morrison.
And as he talked about his own stellar career as a showband star and much loved local radio presenter, George revealed how his childhood pals and fellow musicians, including Morrison, have enjoyed a monthly get together for the past two years where the idea for the reunion was formed.
"We all meet for lunch once or twice a month, Van, Billy Allen, Roy Kane and myself and we bandied about the idea that wouldn't it be great to get the Monarchs back together for one more gig for posterity," he says.
"We have been discussing it over the last year and I don't see why not, it is a definite possibility. Van was very much in favour, but it is a question of our schedules to see if it can be done.
"It would be a dream to play a gig together after all of these years for posterity. We lost one of the guys, Wesley Black our piano player, who was killed during the Troubles - he was a big loss, we would have loved to have him with us. The five surviving members of the group are up for it."
George may not enjoy the international fame his friend Morrison went on to achieve, but he too is a legend right here in Northern Ireland. His career - which shows no signs of abating, and at 70, he is busier than ever - has made him one of our favourite household names.
Married to Hilary, he lives in Greyabbey, with daughter Natalie and her two children living next door. Meanwhile, son Jason and his family are in Holland.
George is currently working hard to perfect his role as Col William F Cody (better known as Buffalo Bill) in Annie Get Your Gun, which opens at Theatre at the Mill on September 28.
He is also writing his autobiography and planning a series of concerts with his popular showband nostalgia show. Chatting about his latest theatre role brought out a wealth of stories from his childhood days when he and the legendary Van "starved" as teenagers in pursuit of fame as musicians. "Van and I grew up in east Belfast and both went to the same primary school, although different secondary schools," he says.
"We all left school early as we loved music and that was the beginning of an incredible journey for all of us.
"We formed the Monarchs and headed to Scotland first but decided that London was the place to be if you wanted to make it.
"We had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for, though, as we had never been out of Belfast before.
"We drove round car parks in the West End for two to three weeks sleeping in the bus with no money and nothing to eat."
Eventually starving and penniless, George rang his father - the only one in the street with a phone at the time - to ask for money to pay their boat fares home.
However, just as the boys had given up, what George describes as a fluke and possibly "the hand of fate" intervened.
George recalls: "It was 1962 and we were just walking the streets in London when by pure chance we bumped into Don Charles who we had played backing for in Scotland. He took us to a Wimpy Bar and fed us and then got our suits cleaned and took us to a park and got our photos taken and went to his agent with them. "We auditioned for a residency in Germany and two weeks later, we were there. We were expecting to be on the boat home and instead, here we were in Germany. That is where we learned our trade playing from 8pm to 4am, seven nights a week."
The Monarchs were at the outset a showband, a term that in Northern Ireland refers to an ensemble that can play many kinds of popular music styles.
Morrison was already into rock, blues, and R&B, but showbands were about the only option for gaining professional experience, so he paid his dues with the Monarchs, playing saxophone and singing.
Many British bands were being sent to Germany for residencies in the early Sixties.
In 1963, the band got the opportunity to record a German single for CBS, Boozoo Hully Gully/Twingy Baby, with George singing the lead and Morrison playing sax on the record.
The single made the German charts, yet the Monarchs broke up in late 1963 when Morrison joined Them.
Meanwhile, George was soon making a name for himself at home.
He first picked up a guitar 59 years ago, aged 11, when his older sister went into debt to buy him one on tick.
He carved out a successful career in showbands forming the legendary Clubsound - the longest running cabaret band in Ireland.
Since then, George has also been a much-loved radio presenter for 35 years, working on BBC Radio Ulster, U105 and Downtown Radio, winning a Sony Award in 1991 for Best Regional Radio Presenter for his Radio Ulster Show Just Jones.
Since giving up his presenter role on Downtown Radio he has been busier than ever, touring with Clubsound and rehearsing for Annie Get Your Gun and writing his autobiography.
"I've been 59 years playing the guitar, 45 years with Clubsound and 35 years on radio so if you add it all up I am 140," he laughs.
"I've had a wonderful life and it is all through music.
"To be well known in my own country and achieve something in my own city gives me a remarkable sense of achievement.
"I've been writing my autobiography for a long time - I missed the publishing date by a year and a half.
"I keep putting it on hold. Every year there is something new and part of me wants to see where it all goes before I put on my slippers for good - part of me also wonders if it will be interesting enough. That puts me off and stops me for a while and yet I do have some great stories."
He credits that guitar bought by his sister who he says "also loved music, but was too shy to perform" with allowing him to enjoy such a varied and successful career.
"You'll never get anywhere playing that old ukulele" is the unusual title for his book and he explains why: "It is based on something my dad said. He was a big lorry driver and had no interest in music. After my sister bought me my first guitar, I played a few songs for family and friends and my dad said 'you'll never get anywhere playing that oul' ukulele'.
"That guitar got me around the world and back again. I was a wee fella from east Belfast with no qualifications. If I hadn't been given that guitar, goodness knows what I'd be doing."
George agreed to take part in Annie Get Your Gun after being approached by his friend, West End singer and director, Peter Corry.
"I worked with Peter Corry on the musical On Eagles Wing and we always talked about working together again. Peter called me and said did I fancy playing Buffalo Bill and I had no hesitation saying 'yes'. We have known each other for years, but to actually work under his direction on a fully-fledged Hollywood musical is certainly a first for me."
As show rehearsals continue, he is full of admiration for his young fellow cast members.
"I am working with a wonderful talented bunch of actor/musicians. It is a tremendously vibrant show, the music is brilliant and there is lots of comedy. It's going to be a new challenge for me. It is fascinating for me, as an older entertainer, to see how much energy these young people have. They are playing their instruments to a really professional level, playing parts and learning dance moves.
"The musical director Matthew Reeve is an absolute genius. All of the actors have adapted to the Western voices and Peter is bringing out the inbuilt humour of the show.
"I play the part of Buffalo Bill who acts as the compere. He is a larger than life character, an old cowboy and owner of the Wild West Show that Annie joins. Doing a Western accent isn't a problem after doing the likes of homegrown cowboys, such as Andy McFadden and the Ballymoor Grousebeaters, with Clubsound over the years.
"Annie Get Your Gun is a huge favourite with everybody with many great songs, such as Anything You Can Do, There's No Business Like Show Business, I've Got the Sun in the Morning."
George revealed that he couldn't say no, as one of his all-time idols, Howard Keel, played Frank Butler in the 1950 Hollywood movie of the musical.
He actually met Howard Keel when helping to organise the Johnny Mathis Golf Classic with lots of big stars lining up to play at Royal Belfast and latterly the Hilton Golf Centre in Templepatrick.
He says: "I played golf with Howard Keel and he was a wonderful man. That's one of the reasons I'm so pleased to be associated with a show that he put his stamp on. He was an absolute icon of the era of classic musicals."
George, who will be 71 in November, has no intentions of slowing down.
Much to the disappointment of his many fans and employer at Downtown Radio, he gave up his 35-year career on the airwaves a few years ago which he says has given him more time at home during the day with his wife, Hilary and family.
He explains: "I could see radio changing over the years and production values were different. I grew up with radio where presenters entertained people and became friends with them, and I think that is sadly slipping away. Maybe I'm getting old, but it is more about the music now than the craic.
"You have to keep looking forward. Doing the musical is a new step forward for me and it helps to keep you young."
For his latest project this Christmas, George will again be touring local theatres with his record breaking show The Rock and Roll Years and Dance Hall Days.
The show will celebrate the heyday of the showbands - and its sensational success when first launched 19 years ago took everyone involved by surprise.
Not only did it sell out for eight consecutive nights in the Waterfront Hall, but was filmed by the BBC and became the biggest individually watched programme of the year.
This year's show marks the 60th anniversary of Rock Around the Clock, bringing together entertainers from the showband era playing the music of the Fifties and Sixties.
Clubsound will perform the songs from artists of that era including Bill Haley, Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly.
George says: "When we first launched the show it was successful beyond our wildest dreams. We were actually going to call it a day after 15 years but fans wouldn't let us, they went berserk so this will be our 19th year now."
This indefatigable entertainer and musician is as hard working and enthusiastic as ever. He adds: "Music is in my soul. It has given me an education and brought me around the world and back. "
As well as performing in Annie Get Your Gun from September 28 to October 10, George will return to Theatre at the Mill to perform with Clubsound on October 30