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Bill Morrison: From pop to battling Parkinson's disease

A pop pioneer and visionary city planner, east Belfast man Bill Morrison tells Ivan Little how music helps give him respite from the debilitating symptoms of his serious illness.

By Ivan Little

Trying to pigeonhole Bill Morrison is mission impossible. He's been a pop music pioneer, an influential architect and visionary city planner, and there can't be many people who can say that they've changed Jamie Dornan's nappy or that they helped Snow Patrol get established before they were even a flurry.

Or that they gave a young Dundonald singer her first break which would lead her to Eurovision glory.

Or that they used to entertain a youthful Gerry Adams in a rock club before the onset of the Troubles.

Or that they helped change the face of Belfast. And St Lucia in the Caribbean.

But Bill Morrison has done all that. And a helluva lot more besides.

Which makes his new book, Big Hand for the Band (Tales from Belfast's rock 'n' roll years), such a fascinating read as he lifts the lid on the pop music scene that was his life in his early years before he devoted himself fully to his career as an architect/planner.

But the book also deals with something that Bill didn't plan - his Parkinson's Disease. And the tome tells how he has courageously battled the illness even though it made the entire process of compiling the publication difficult for Bill who says: "With Parkinson's everything slows down from the thought process to the speed on the keyboard, but it also disturbs the sleep patterns.

"I wake around two or three in the morning, but on the plus side the book gave me something to do and I was able to write it without interruption."

It's been five years since the onset of Parkinson's Disease for Bill who recalls: "I had been aware for some time that something was wrong and the medics thought I might have had a slight stroke or a heart attack, but they put me through various tests and I was diagnosed with Parkinson's.

"It's news that nobody wants to hear, but I hope that my experiences which are recounted in the book might help other people. I have been inspired by other people's stories and what they have been able to do with their lives."

Bill, who is 73, decided to put his story down on paper after he discovered that a number of his former colleagues on the music scene also had serious illnesses.

And another motivation was the coincidental unearthing of a box of tapes of his old music recorded live in the Sixties, mainly in a legendary Belfast club called the Pound in Oxford Street and another called the Marquee in the old Astor ballroom in Castle Street.

He says: "I was pleasantly surprised at how good it sounded and it made me think that the story of the music scene in the Sixties was worth telling."

The attention to detail in the book is remarkable, not solely because of Bill's powers of recollection but also because he carried out exhaustive research to find the relevant dates for the milestones in his career.

"I even went to the British Library in London to find files which weren't in the local newspaper library in Belfast," he says, adding that what he found were invaluable records of the Sixties which were exciting times of hope and promise in the city.

Singers like Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher and Sam Mahood were the local heroes just before the Troubles blew apart the heart of the music scene and closed pubs and dancehalls in a city where few people wanted to venture out of their own areas at night.

In his youth in the Knock district of east Belfast, Bill was surrounded by musical influences. His father, who died when Bill was 10, was a drummer in a number of orchestras and his mother was a classically trained pianist.

But six feet four inches tall Bill went his own way. "I joined a skiffle group when I was at Campbell College and we played at Belmont Tennis Club where we discovered that girls would scream when I sang songs like Paul Anka's Diana.

"It made me think this was good fun and later on some friends and I formed a group called The Dominoes and we did a residency in the Boat Club at Stranmillis for about six years. A lot of people have told us they met and fell in love there."

Bill, however, quit the band and formed The Group which played in legendary haunts in Belfast city centre like Sammy Houston's Jazz Club.

But after just two years The Group morphed into one of the province's most successful bands of that era, Chips.

And for years it was Chips with everything as what for the time was a ground-breaking line-up with two girl singers out front.

One of them was Linda Martin, who went on to win the Eurovision Song Contest during a glittering solo career.

Bill says: "We held open auditions in Belfast and Linda and the other singer Anne Ferguson were the best two by a mile. It was the perfect formula."

Almost too perfect in fact for Bill who cashed in his Chips after six months. "I could see they were set to become big and establishing themselves as a full-time band making records and settling in a base in Dublin.

"I had to make the choice between Chips and my day job as an architect."

Bill chose the latter. After graduating from Queen's University, Belfast become the youngest qualified architect in the UK and had joined the planning service working initially in the team designing the ultimately doomed new city of Craigavon.

But Bill later turned his skills to developing a new strategy for Belfast from offices in River House in High Street, where he experienced the panic of Bloody Friday - July 21, 1972 - as bomb after bomb exploded in the city killing nine people.

"After hearing all the explosions, I got down to my car to head home, but it took a long time to get out of the city. I knew things were bad but it was a while before I realised just how awful it was."

Bill, who had been playing jazz from time to time and had formed a part-time pop group called Dunno, decided to leave Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, after having been 'sickened' by the Ulster Workers Council strike in 1974.

"I saw an ad for an architect/planner in St Lucia and I was delighted to get it. Uncannily the man who was leaving the post was also from Belfast and was an Old Campbellian like myself.

"My boss was the Premier of St Lucia, which had just gone independent, and I was described as the island's director of planning with responsibility for housing, roads, planning, water and overseas aid."

It was an idyllic time for Bill and his young family. But all good things did come to end after three years and the lure of home proved too much for Bill.

"If I'd stayed there was a danger that I would have become a gin-soaked beach bum," says father-of-two Bill, who didn't turn his back on his music on the Caribbean island.

"Ex-pats like myself played at a folk night once a fortnight. It was fabulous and I am still in touch with some of those guys."

Bill returned to Northern Ireland to his old job and stayed in the role until 2001 when he was engaged by the Office of the First and deputy First Ministers to help an action team deal with peace-line tensions during the Holy Cross dispute.

He later became an independent planning consultant, but music has always been a mainstay of his life.

Family friend Jim Dornan persuaded the former members of The Dominoes to reform for a special reunion concert and they were still playing 30 years later with Dornan getting up to sing with them on a regular basis.

Bill got to know Jim's son, the modern day acting heartthrob Jamie Dornan, star of The Fall and Fifty Shades of Grey, and he even used to take his turns at changing his nappies during family holidays.

Bill also has his own chapter in the story of Snow Patrol, the Bangor group which has millions of fans all over the world.

At Dundee University, Bill's son Michael along with Gary Lightbody and another Belfast man Michael McClelland, formed a group together under the names of Shrug and Polar Bear.

"I lent them all the equipment they needed for their first gigs," says Bill, but Michael's association with the first incarnation of Snow Patrol was ended by illness. A couple of years ago Bill and the other members of Chips met up for a reunion which was designed as a purely social occasion. "When everyone came back to our house after a meal in Holywood, Linda and Anne started to sing and their harmonies on songs like Dedicated to the One I Love were as good as they ever were," says Bill as we prepare to say our farewells in an east Belfast coffee house.

But just before he leaves Bill hands me a sheet of paper with important bullet points, not about his colourful life, but about Parkinson's Disease.

It says one in 500 people have it and Bill writes that he knows his life will get progressively tougher as the years go on.

Bill also lists the names of well-known people who have or have had Parkinson's ranging from Muhammed Ali, Michael J Fox and Billy Connolly to Johnny Cash, Bob Hoskins and even Adolf Hitler. He adds: "Some days I feel fine; other days I am shattered and have to take cat-naps four times a day. I struggle with speech, both in terms of voice projection and in marshalling thoughts, and I have to opt out of conversations when there is background noise.

"People with Parkinson's don't lose friends ... they stay young at heart and tend to have a wrinkle-free fresh-faced look about them."

Bill also says that he can escape from it all by short bursts of singing and playing the piano or his Rickenbacker 12-string guitar adding: "I may have Parkinson's but it doesn't have me ..."

  • Big Hand for the Band: Tales from Belfast's Rock 'n' Roll Years, by Bill Morrison, is available from No Alibis bookshop on University Road, Belfast, or from Amazon UK

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