Belfast Telegraph

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'Dad was orphaned at the age of five and then battled tuberculosis and had a kidney removed... when he recovered he wanted to enjoy every second of life’

Much-loved radio presenter and musician Jackie Flavelle died just over a week ago. In a moving interview, his daughter Lisa Flavelle pays tribute to the man she says was her inspiration and the reason she fell in love with music

By Karen Ireland

For Lisa Flavelle, the tributes that continue to pour in for her father Jackie, the giant of jazz and popular Downtown Radio presenter dubbed 'the music man', are hugely comforting. "Everyone knew about Jackie Flavelle and they all have a story to tell about him", she says proudly of the public's response to his death, before inadvertently giving an insight into her very private grief: "But at the end of the day he was my dad."

Lisa, also a radio presenter as well as a university lecturer, freely admits her head "feels like it's in a fog" as she comes to terms with losing her adored dad, and there are times when the tears just flow.

"I've just gone back to my job as a radio presenter for 89FM, which I love, but music is bittersweet to me at the moment as it is so raw and reminds me of dad."

Lisa lives in Belfast with her partner Lyndon Stephens, a music manager, and her daughter Rosa (10). She also has a son Ben (20), who is a full-time musician.

She reveals that Jackie, who was 78, was diagnosed with bladder cancer in June.

"He had been having niggling pains since Christmas and I had been urging him to go to the doctor," she continues.

"Being a typical man, he kept putting it off. He was the type of person who had the attitude that we are all going to die sometime, so until then let's just get on with living.

"Dad really didn't want to know if there was anything wrong with him. In the end the cancer was diagnosed as very aggressive. Hence the brief timeframe until he passed away."

According to Lisa (45), Jackie had spent the last 10 years doing what he loved most - playing music with the globe-trotting The Big Chris Barber Band.

"He was back in his old stomping grounds and doing what he did best, he had an absolute blast," she reveals.

"This was his saving grace after mum passed away 10 years ago," she reflects. "It gave him something to focus on and a purpose. He and mum were a very close couple and they had a very intense and passionate relationship.

"They met one night at a dance where dad was playing. Mum loved to jive and she was there dancing.

"The story goes that he noticed her in the crowd and at the end of the night went over to her and said 'Who are you going home with tonight?' and she said 'Well, not you anyway'.

"Love blossomed from there and they were the perfect couple. Ironically, dad passed away on what would have been their 52nd wedding anniversary."

Keen to talk about her parents, Lisa tells how the couple moved to London, where Jackie worked the music scene. His stellar musical life had begun when he played the flute in the orchestra at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and the Ulster Amateur Flute Band, the latter winning world championships under the leadership of his uncle, Billy Flavelle.

In the Fifties, Jackie took up the bass guitar while working as an accountant, but really blossomed in his teenage years when he played with the Dave Glover showband. He also performed with the Johnny Quigley showband in Londonderry, and another in Galway, before returning to the Glover band.

It was while playing with Dave Glover at a gig in 1964 that the internationally renowned jazz band leader Chris Barber spotted Jackie and offered him a job playing double bass and bass guitar. This took Jackie and his wife Noreen to London, where he met the likes of Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney and David Bowie, and played with some of the world's best blues musicians, such as Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Dr John. He also played on the same bill at the Reading Festival with Jimi Hendrix.

After their second daughter Mel, was born, however, the couple decided they wanted to move home to their beloved Donaghadee.

"This was in the Seventies at the height of the Troubles and it was tough for them, being from Northern Ireland and living in London. They were worried about moving home too and that's why they didn't move to Belfast."

Lisa recalls how her dad was 'adopted' by Donaghadee after his mum died from tuberculosis at the age of 19 when he was just six months old. His father died in the Second World War, leaving him an orphan at the tender age of five.

"He was brought up by a succession of aunts and uncles and was very ill as a child. He also had tuberculosis and had to have a kidney removed. This was in the Fifties, so it was regarded as pioneering surgery.

"He recovered well, especially without a mum to care for him when he was sickly. Given everything he had been through, he did exceptionally well. I think that's where his resilience came from.

"He was able to just get on with things. I think the fact that he was so sick as a child taught him that when he was well he needed to enjoy every second of life. He worked hard all his life. In fact, he never wanted to stop work."

It was difficult to get her dad to retire, she recalls.

"He was cross that he had to retire from Downtown Radio when the time came, as he loved it so much and had been doing it for a lifetime."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was her father who inspired Lisa's own love of broadcasting.

She says: "He introduced me to radio when I was about 10 years old. I would go into work with him and that's when I fell in love with radio stations. Going into Downtown back then felt like visiting Hollywood to me, with big names like Candy Devine and John Greer coming and going. I loved it from day one.

"I started off making the tea and sorting out the record library and I was there all the time. I loved it so much that I signed up for hospital radio at 14 and have been involved in radio ever since. I have my dad to thank for that."

Following his diagnosis in the summer Jackie moved back home to Donaghadee.

"He had a beautiful ground floor flat overlooking the lighthouse and the harbour," says Lisa. "It was where he wanted to be. He made it clear that he didn't want to die in a hospital and he got his wish.

"He died at home surrounded by his family. Because he was ill for the last few months it was like the long goodbye. We all knew he wasn't going to make it so we got to say goodbye to him in our own ways.

"During one of the last conversations we had, he said to me: 'You and I have never fallen out, sure we haven't?' And the truth is that we never did. We were so close and dad didn't sweat about the small things so he never argued with me."

She continues: "I learnt a lot from my dad. He taught me about music and about working at something you love. Because of him I have never worked for anything that didn't bring me joy."

Evidently one of the things that comforts Lisa now was her father's sheer love of life. She says that he made every second count right up until the very end.

"He packed so much into his life.

"I remember when we were young he used to take us off on trips travelling the world and we would stay with people in the music family he had met along the way.

"One year the four of us - me, my sister Mel and our parents - packed into mum's Mini Metro and we asked him where we were going and he told us Yugoslavia. He drove us all the way there in the Mini Metro. It was an amazing holiday. Memories like that are what keep me going now - knowing he lived his life to the full and had no regrets.

"He also had an amazing sense of humour and found the fun and laughter in everything. Even at the end he was cracking jokes. I'll miss sharing a laugh with him."

Jackie's special celebration funeral was a testimony to how highly he was thought of in the music industry.

He told his family that he wanted a New Orleans-style funeral. With three phone calls Lisa made it happen and he had a Walking Jazz Band at his funeral. Jackie's coffin was covered in parchment and decorated in musical notes.

"The extent the music family will go to help each other out was demonstrated at his funeral, when we didn't have a tuba player and we put out a message on Facebook.

"A player in Guernsey saw it and got on a plane to Jersey, then London, then Belfast, where he had never been in his life.

"He checked into a hotel and then arrived in Donaghadee to play with the band. He had never even met my dad. That's just the type of thing music people do for each other."

Lisa says: "Dad loved his music and had a wonderful life, but he loved his family more.

"He was so proud of all his grandchildren and loved watching them grow up. He was at his happiest surrounded by us all."

And, regardless of her age, Lisa says she still feels like an orphan now.

"I will miss my parents for the rest of my life," she adds.

"No matter what age you are, you still want to talk to your mum or dad. That will never go away."

Belfast Telegraph


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