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How Northern Ireland music agent Paul Charles managed his first group at 15 and went on to work with Van Morrison... before forging a successful career as a crime novelist

Magherafelt-born impresario and author Paul Charles tells David O’Dornan about life on the road with some of the biggest stars in music, and how he created popular fictional detective Christy Kennedy

Paul Charles
Paul Charles

By David O'Dornan

Paul Charles managed his first group when he was just a 15-year-old living in Magherafelt and used the number of his local telephone box for his business cards. He didn't know it then, but it would lead to a glittering career as a music agent looking after the likes of Van Morrison, The Undertones and Ray Davies from The Kinks among others.

But the impresario has other strings to his bow, having forged a reputation as a writer as well with his detective series of novels centred on his creation Christy Kennedy, and is hosting a free reading event at Belfast's No Alibis bookshop tomorrow.

The mild-mannered music boss clearly has a steely underside in order to survive so long in the often cutthroat world of showbiz, and he even managed to take on one of the industry's most fearsome figures in Don Arden.

Arden, father of Sharon Osbourne, had a reputation as being an aggressive Mr Big in the entertainment world and, legend has it, once dangled someone out of an office window during one heated exchange.

Yet Paul managed to get him to pay up when a tour by glam rock band Wizzard fell through and he went to London to confront him.

He smiles: "I worked with him. I used to book for the Irish university circuit, Queen's University, the University of Ulster, Trinity College, all of them.

"We booked Wizzard direct from Don Arden and the money was all up front and I remember they cancelled for some reason, but at this stage the universities had paid up all of the money.

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"Don was kind of: 'Yeah, yeah, don't worry, we'll get to it'. But he wasn't getting to it so I thought, well okay, I'll do it the old way I'd learnt with the showbands.

"The showbands, when I was managing a wee group called the Blues By Five, the best thing you could do was go visit the ballroom owners in person, not phone calls, go and see them face to face.

"So I thought I would try the showband trick and I went down and sat in his waiting room until he would see me.

Robert Plant
Robert Plant

"I said: 'Look Don, it's not my money or even the money of the students that I'm talking to, it's the universities' money'.

"And I added: 'It's not that anything will happen other than the fact that we'll shut down the entertainment in these universities at a time when we really need music coming into Ireland'.

"So I said: 'I would like you to cut me a cheque now'. And he went out and disappeared and eventually he came back and he said: 'Just because you had the b****s to come down here and eyeball me, I'm going to give it to you now'."

Paul was just 15 when he started managing Blues By Five after being inspired to get into music when he first heard his heroes The Beatles.

He says: "Two things happened to me, really. I remember to this day vividly coming into my mother's kitchen and she was getting the dinner ready and music hadn't really had any impact on me up until that stage.

"And I heard this sound on the radio, and it literally physically, mentally, spiritually, froze me in my tracks. It was so incredible, joyous and infectious, pleasing and melodic, everything you want - and it was the first time I heard The Beatles.

Rory Gallagher
Rory Gallagher

"That just set me off on a different path. And then mates of mine at college, one of them was a guitarist called Vincent McCusker and he formed this band with guys mostly from Maghera called the Blues By Five.

"I lived two doors down from a saxophone player and I could knock on his door and book them to be a relief band for the showbands, and because I went back to the band and said 'right, I've got you a gig' I just automatically became the manager. In those days the manager just did everything that needed to be done to get bands on the stage and I enjoyed doing that, I was never put off by 'no' or sometimes a ruder version of that. And that was me off on my adventure."

Paul then headed to London and it was again with his friend Vincent that his career moved forward promoting prog rock outfit Fruupp and at the same time writing a column for City Week, which was a Belfast paper at the time.

"The idea was because I was going to gigs and interviewing people like Rory Gallagher and seeing people like Yes, I knew a lot of the club owners," he says.

"So the deal was that I would book them a weekend of shows and get some record people down to see them and they would go off to fame and fortune and I would then continue with my writing.

"Anyway, they didn't get signed up by a manager or a record label, so I by default became the manager, the sound engineer, the lyricist for a few of their songs, the agent, the roadie and the last person to be paid.

"I don't know why, but I was always great at getting gigs, so I worked for four-and-a-half years touring around; they did four albums and then punk came along and exploded."

After getting noticed through his work with Fruupp Paul was then approached about taking on another group in the Seventies.

He says: "The band was called Buzzcocks and I immediately loved their songs. I went to see them and they were incredible live and I thought they were the tightest band on the punk circuit until The Undertones came along and I took them on.

Seventies music impresario Don Arden
Seventies music impresario Don Arden

"And because I had them somebody from Queen's University sent me Teenage Kicks by The Undertones and I played it to death, I couldn't believe how brilliant they were.

"So I made a pitch to The Undertones, and I was doing Van Morrison by this stage as well.

"I met them up at a hotel on the Lisburn Road as Van was doing some shows at the Whitla Hall and they said: 'Of course we're going to go with you - you look after Buzzcocks'."

He would go on to look after The Waterboys, Human League, Tom Waits and more, and he said that he always enjoyed working with Van the Man and doesn't understand why some people have the impression he can be a prickly character.

He says: "I never found that, to be honest. I think Van is definitely someone who doesn't suffer fools gladly. However, if you're doing your gig and he likes you musically you're totally fine.

"I found him very professional. Funny enough, out of all the people I've worked with, I would say that Van Morrison, Robert Plant, Gilbert O'Sullivan, Jean-Michel Jarre, all from Sixties groups, all had that professionalism off from the time that they started.

"You had to look good, you had to sound good, you had to be punctual, you had to be polite and well-mannered, you had to be generous and gracious to your fans - all of those things. They had that in spades. Ray Davies is another.

"That group of people and the Sixties groups, they had that 'the show must go on' showbusiness tradition, which was part of their breeding."

Paul also kept his hand in writing, including sleeve notes and some lyrics for Fruupp, but it was when he was on tour in Italy with Sinitta and was sent a video of Inspector Morse, based on the books by Colin Dexter, that he was inspired to write fiction himself.

He says: "It was just amazing and it got me thinking, if I did this, what would my detective be like? So then you find yourself daydreaming and I wanted a name and a look, and the name I came up with were too great Irishmen - Christy Moore and JFK, so I then had Christy Kennedy.

"And once you've got a name you start to flesh it out. Most modern detectives don't deal with the romantic side of their life, it's usually a wasteland, they are divorced and they're not allowed to see their kids.

"But my idea was, if you are going to solve these kind of cases you need to have a clear mind and also you need to have a wife, and before I knew it I was 10,000 words into writing a story. I just loved the process and I finished the story.

"I got nothing but rejection slips at first but one person, in fact it was Colin Dexter's editor, invited me out to lunch and told me what was good and what didn't work. So I went off and I wrote another story."

And the rest is history, as from 1995 he has had a series of books published - last week his 11th Christy Kennedy book, Departing Shadows, went on sale - and they have also been optioned to be adapted for television, something he admits is still an ambition for him.

Paul Charles is hosting a free reading event at No Alibis bookshop tomorrow at 6pm. You can register for your ticket via Eventbrite at tickets-75871334203

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