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Hugo Duncan: The man who helped to shape my career... why Pio McCann is still on song

Pio McCann (right, with Hugo)
Pio McCann (right, with Hugo)

By Hugo Duncan

A half-century was bridged on Monday night when I linked up again with the man I credit with having played a big part in fashioning my career as an entertainer.

I little dreamt that, when I accepted an invitation to appear at a charity fundraising concert at the Mulroy Woods Hotel in Co Donegal, the popular Pio McCann would be on the same bill.

But when I arrived at the venue, which is situated in a picturesque area near the village of Milford, stepped forward with his hand outstretched and the years - no, the decades - rolled back.

It was in the late Sixties and early Seventies that I was setting my sights on a career in entertainment, although if the truth be told, at that stage I did not really know what my role would be. That's where Pio stepped in. While I was beginning to nurture my interest in music, Omagh man Pio was already quite an authority on bands.

In fact, when I first met him he was playing with Brian Coll and the Buckaroos and he heard me singing at a talent competition on that occasion, at the Big Ridge Ballroom in Dromore.

Some time later, Pio called at my then home one Saturday morning - I had only been married to Joan for just over a year and Suzanne was a very small baby - and asked me if I would come and do an audition at Killyclogher, near Omagh, as Frankie McBride was leaving the Polka Dots and they were seeking a replacement singer.

I remember doing that audition and afterwards, although my singing was apparently fine, it was my physical size that initially appeared to be a barrier to me getting the job, in an era when lead singers tended to be imposing figures on the stage. But Pio fought my corner, got his way and my career was launched.

We played all the major ballrooms in Ireland and we were no strangers to England, where we played in big London venues, such as the Galtymore in Cricklewood, the Gresham in Holloway Road as well as the leading venues in Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham.

Pio was never slow to remind me that he taught me all I know, but not all he knows!

Obviously, this period coincided with the height of the showband boom and Pio immediately encouraged me when I suggested that we should form a band.

In no time at all, Hugo Duncan and The Tallmen had taken shape; Dear God proved a massive hit for me and I just took things from there.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect that, 50 years down the line, I would still find myself with a role to play in music.

Pio's enthusiasm, dedication and most of all his faith in me as an artiste played a big part in guiding me along the way.

While he himself has since become a household name, because of his profile as a country music programme presenter on Highland Radio in Donegal, he has never lost the human touch, or indeed his willingness to help others.

He was consumed by music and still is. As we reminisced on Monday night, I reminded Pio that I have always been grateful for the help he has given me in my career.

Pio was not the only person I encountered on Monday night to whom I have cause to be grateful in a career context.

Paddy Bradley, the Downings man, who organised the charity concert, has been involved in entertainment all his life and is the well-known booking agent for the hugely popular Allingham Arms Hotel in Bundoran.

Paddy was his usual enthusiastic self and, as we shared memories and recounted anecdotes, we reflected on how entertainment and, in particular, country dancing has changed.

So, Pio and Paddy - thank you from Hugo for all your help.

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