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George Jones: How I rebuilt my life after years of depression over axed BBC radio show

As showband legend George Jones prepares to star in a new musical, he tells Stephanie Bell the end of his BBC NI programme left him depressed for years... and how he rebuilt his life

George Jones has not only kept the halcyon days of the showband era alive in Northern Ireland for over five decades, but he has managed to make it relevant.

The 74-year-old, a legend of the era, is continually reinventing the fun and nostalgia of those special days with fresh new shows which never fail to sell out.

And after the success of his show Do You Come Here Often?, which ran for over two decades in the Waterfront Hall until three years ago, he has done it again with a new musical in Belfast, The Rock & Roll Show and Dance Hall Days.

Billed as "undoubtedly the happiest show in town" the musical, which features George's band, Clubsound, is set to go on tour later this year and will perform two nights in the Grand Opera House in January.

Clubsound, which started in 1970 and evolved into comedy cabaret, has become the most successful and longest running showband in Ireland.

Although now semi-retired, George, who has fronted the band for all those years, is as passionate today as he ever was about his music.

As well as touring with Clubsound, he also recently helped reform the band, the Monarchs, with whom he first enjoyed success in his teens alongside his boyhood friend Van Morrison.

A family man, George and his wife Hilary live next door to their daughter Natalie (44) and son-in-law Jeff McCormick and two grandchildren Sophie (17) and Jessie (15) in an idyllic part of the Ards Peninsula, where Hilary runs a riding school for the disabled.

George is one of two vice presidents of the Riding for the Disabled Association, while Hilary worked as a riding instructor and county coach for the charity before setting up her own school four years ago. The couple also have a son, Jason (46), who lives in the Austrian mountains and a grandson, Ethan (11).

George, who became a Christian five years ago, says his faith has brought a new kind of peace to his life.

He has rediscovered a talent for art and takes on "the odd" commission, although he paints for the love of it.

He feels gratitude for the success he has enjoyed in the music business and says he is driven to continue by the belief that there is little entertainment for the older generation today.

He says: "I've had a wonderful life and feel very blessed. Music has always given me a great buzz and at 74 I still ski and get around and am very active.

"I feel people in our generation should still be thought about and cared for and one of the reasons I am doing the musical is because I feel the older generation has been neglected, entertainment wise.

"Clubsound has been around for 49 years and is the longest running showband and there are still four of us out of the original five still in it.

"In all that time we've never had an argument - we've had serious debates but no fisticuffs. We tend to sort things out and get on with it."

George is, of course, also well known for his television and radio work.

He presented his popular Radio Ulster show, Just Jones, for 21 years, pulling in a huge audience and picking up the coveted UK Sony Award for best local radio presenter.

The show was axed unexpectedly in 2006 and, while George expressed his hurt at the time, he has never revealed until now just how devastating a blow it was form him.

He says: "The show had a massive amount of listeners and it allowed me to be myself, which is what I loved about it.

"I had Sadie and all my own wee characters on radio and made surprise calls and it was proper radio entertainment.

"When they told me they were letting me go I still had a massive audience and I couldn't understand it.

"It was one of the biggest shocks of my life and to be honest I never really got over it.

"We had to sell our house, because at that time you didn't save money and I found myself suddenly out of a job.

"It was depressing for a good few years and it still hurts. I did try other radio stations after that, but it wasn't the same.

"When you step down out of the limelight it is very hard to come to terms with it.

"It is not that I wanted the limelight but I felt I had a lot more to do.

"I thank God that I still had Clubsound to keep me out there. I had an angry head on me for many years about the radio show, but that has gone now. It is water under the bridge now but it was the saddest part of my life when they paid me off."

George grew up in the Bloomfield area of east Belfast close to Van Morrison and the two were boyhood friends, going to the same primary school.

George was 11 when he first started to play the guitar and it wasn't too many years later that he and Van formed a band which got to tour Europe.

In 1963 they brought out a single in Germany - Boozoo Hully Gully/Twingy Baby - with George singing the lead and Morrison playing saxophone.

The band, the Monarchs, were reformed recently and while Van Morrison's worldwide fame has kept him back from being part of it, he did join the boys for a private session to mark the comeback.

George says that even as a teenager it was obvious that Van Morrison had the potential to be a global star.

The pals still meet every other month for coffee and have done so for the past 50 years.

He says: "We were in Germany in 1963 performing with the Monarchs at the same time as the Beatles were there. It was an amazing time. We still meet for lunch every other month to chew the fat and a couple of guys from the band and myself decided to get it back together again recently.

"Van joined us one night for a gig for Marie Curie in Holywood Yacht Club and we've been doing some small gigs since, just to keep the Monarchs alive.

"Van loves that we are back together and has come to one of our gigs. It was such a massive part of our youth.

"We've had an incredible journey since the ages of 12 or 13 and by the age of 19 we really had lived our lives and we had starved for our music.

"We were four young lads who left Belfast at the drop of a hat and by an act of faith met a guy from Scotland who offered to take us to Germany.

"When we came back from that tour we were about 18 and we were all from working class families and were told to get a proper job. I joined the showbands and Van was determined to do his own thing in music.

"He had great talent and even though he was always just one of the boys, you just knew that Van had something different and amazing inside him."

Music continues to be George's first love but at home, close to the shores of Strangford Lough, he can be found more often than not in his new studio, painting a sunset or a beautiful landscape.

He and Hilary are also members of First Bangor Presbyterian Church, where George has formed a band which now plays at the Sunday service.

He says: "I became a Christian about five or six years ago and it guides me in my life and has given me great peace.

"My wife and I are both Christians and we were very much influenced by our daughter, who lives next door and has been a Christian all her life."

He has also rediscovered a forgotten talent for art. He explains: "My sister, who is like a second mum to me, and has also been a Christian all of her life, handed me an envelope about four years ago and said she had kept it for over 50 years.

"Inside were drawings and sketches I had done when I was 14. That started me painting again and it was like somebody giving me a message of what I should do. I love it and find it really relaxing.

"People do buy my paintings, although I don't ask much money for them and I do the odd commission. It has given me another string to my bow and I get great satisfaction from it."

George has been thrilled to use his artistic talent to help raise funds for his wife's riding school.

He is proud of what Hilary is achieving with her riding school and takes great pleasure from seeing the joy in the children she teaches.

Music follows him wherever he goes, even on holiday.

George is a keen skier and has been visiting the Austrian villages of Birgitz and Gotzens every year for over 30 years.

He brought showband music to the villages during his visits performing as The Irish Band and is now so highly regarded in the area that he has been made an honorary citizen.

Unable to stop making music wherever he goes, he is now preparing to start touring with his new musical in December.

He adds: "It is a lively mix of music from the Fifties and Sixties, covering everything from ballads to rock and roll.

"Everyone is on stage throughout and I play the part of an agent who discovers these people who turn out to be great stars.

"We are playing all the principle theatres throughout Northern Ireland and touring down south and hopefully in Scotland as well.

"Someone once said to me 'if you are a born entertainer then you will always be one' and music always has and still does give me a great buzz."

For details of the dates for the musical, visit www.goh.co.uk and local theatre websites and for appearances of Clubsound go to www.davidhullpromotions.com

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