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Hugo Duncan: She's been on the road for decades, but Susan's still at top of her game

Susan McCann
Susan McCann

By Hugo Duncan

Susan McCann has come a long way since she launched her singing career as a vocalist with the John Murphy Band over 40 years ago.

Little did the modest south Armagh lady know that she was taking her first steps to stardom when she graced the stage at carnivals, dances and other functions, and that her distinctive singing voice and graceful demeanour on-stage would soon win her many fans.

Having started her career while still a teenager, Susan was quickly to experience the excitement and glamour of what was then a thriving entertainment scene.

The John Murphy Band became hugely popular, particularly in counties such as Down, Armagh and Tyrone, and were on virtually every carnival bill.

Their fame was to reach a much wider area as Susan's singing quickly gained her recognition as a top-class performer.

Today, she no longer plays five nights a week - as was in the norm in the 1960s and 1970s - but she is still kept busy fulfilling cabaret and concert engagements.

"The entertainment scene has changed a lot over the course of the years, but it's good to see that there is still huge interest in country music," says Susan.

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"Obviously, a new generation of bands and artists has come through and there is probably a greater emphasis now on concerts, country music weekends and festivals."

Susan herself has been successful in organising her own annual country music weekend at the Carrickdale Hotel, on the Armagh-Louth border, where she is joined by a number of guests every year, including myself, in what has become accepted as one of the best shows in the country music calendar.

"I still love performing and it's tremendous to see the reaction that shows can create," she says.

"While there are people, like myself, still doing a turn, it's also encouraging to see the number of new, younger singers who have been coming through recently. I wish them every encouragement."

She may have spent the greater part of half a century on stage, but Susan continues to diversify, forge new career paths, win awards and gain even greater admiration for her talents from fans and music industry chiefs, both at home and abroad.

I mentioned to her recently that she seems to be getting better with age, to which she responded: "It's the singing that keeps me young at heart."

As someone who has always put her fans first, it's hardly surprising that she enjoys a special rapport with her audiences.

"I love being on stage, but I love it even more when I see people enjoying themselves," Susan says.

"I think country music can prove a source of enjoyment and encouragement to people.

"It always gives me particular pleasure when people who have heard me in the old days reappear at shows nowadays and say how much they still enjoy the music."

Susan has attained success not only as a stage performer, but also as a recording artist.

Her hit songs spring to mind whenever her name is mentioned, and she is synonymous with numbers like Speed of the Sound of Loneliness, Someone is Looking for Someone Like You, Sing Me an Old-Fashioned Song and Big Tom is Still the King.

The array of gold and silver discs that adorn the walls of her home in Newry are testament to her massive album sales over the years.

I remarked to her that this saved her having to buy pictures and other adornments, to which she responded: "Maybe so, Hugo, but recording is hard work, as you and I know."

Her awards include being RTE's Singer of the Year for five successive years, as well as being voted Ireland's National Entertainer of the Year and being presented in 2010 with The Sunday World Hall of Fame Award and the Northern Ireland Lifetime Achievement Award.

She may have received a slew of lifetime achievement awards, but Susan has a lot of living to do yet.

"I'm in Ballymena tomorrow night and I'm looking forward to it," she says." The car could nearly take me there by itself, because I have performed so often there."

BBC got more than they bargained for

I thought I’d maybe seen and done it all since starting my singing career 50-odd years ago, but then people say that you learn something new every day.

This was very much the case on Monday at the Grand Opera House in Belfast.

We were preparing for the Hugo Duncan and Friends show and I walked along a corridor to go to a dressing room. But David Hull, the show promoter, caught up with me. He said I was to use the dressing room May McFettridge uses when she does her annual Christmas pantomime at the theatre.

“We thought we would do the pantomime for a year, then that became two years and now it’s 30 years,” said David.

He was alongside me as I made my way to the more spacious dressing room.

“That sounds a bit like me and the BBC,” I said to David. “I started initially for six months — and I’m still there 20 years later!”

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