As showbiz legend has it, you can wait years to become famous overnight. But for comic, musician and broadcaster George Jones it's been a little like the other way round. By Noel McAdam
After almost six decades as an entertainer, George Jones has been famous for years, yet without any official recognition.
Until now, that is. Belfast City Council intends to make good on a promise to commemorate a half-century of Jones’ ground-breaking combo Clubsound.
And whether or not Covid puts paid to the plans in the short term, George and co are already in rehearsals to go back on the road for Year 51.
But is it fair to call them ground-breaking? A generation before the Hole in the Wall gang, Jones was sending up sectarianism while the Troubles still raged and getting Catholics and Protestants together to laugh at themselves and each other.
“It really took off after the legendary James Young died. We sort of took up the mantle of Ulster humour. That kind of black humour really came into its own. Most people didn’t give a stuff about the Troubles, they just wanted to laugh,” George remembers.
That is the achievement city fathers intend to mark, since Clubsound started in the 1970s in the Abercorn, wrecked by a bomb on March 4, 1972, killing two young women and injuring 130.
The commemoration has already been cancelled twice, due to Covid-19. But Lord Lieutenant Michael Long said: “We haven’t forgotten about George and his colleagues. It is very much on our ‘to do’ list.
“So many things have had to go on the back-burner due to the pandemic. But we will hopefully put this right in the New Year.”
To which George replied: “I really appreciate that. That is very kind of them. They have been very courteous to us, phoning to postpone it twice. So I am grateful that, all being well, it will still happen.”
Formed in the early 1970s, the current Clubsound line-up are now in their 70s, but George believes the once Belfast-based band has not had the formal accolade it deserves.
In his own successful career, including a 15-year stint hosting the BBC Radio Ulster mid-afternoon slot — which ended in anger — Jones says the lack of acknowledgment of the group is his biggest disappointment.
“That’s the saddest thing — and it’s not about me. It’s not for me. I have had a lot of recognition all my life and I’m grateful for that. But the other four have not had the accolades that they should have had,” he stressed.
“We brought people together in venues all during the very height of the Troubles, we had them singing peace anthems together and yet Belfast City Council, for example, has never given that recognition. Though other bands have been given it.
“I was the compere, so I was seen as the leader and had a higher profile. But really, we were all equal, they are all equally talented.”
As they will no doubt demonstrate yet again in their forthcoming shows in the Grand Opera House, already heavily sold, and the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey.
Now 77, George feels he has been lucky in lockdown and the challenges of the last 21 months. He has kept busy, not only with occasional performances but also hosting a DVD show which was sent free of charge to care homes across the province.
“The feedback was great, and I thoroughly enjoyed doing it. I know of some homes who say they play it every week,” he said.
The Swing Gals, singer Conor Taggart from the Phat Katz Wedding Band, and actress Catherine McCallum — whose credits include Game of Thrones — were among the artists taking part along with a number of tribute acts.
But George also took up the campaigning cudgels during the first year of the pandemic, when singers, musicians, artists, back-room people in the arts sector were left for months without any financial cushion, while others were on furlough.
Now he says, however: “Credit where credit is due. The Arts Council finally changed the criteria they were working on, and the help came through, when the Department of Communities were given money to distribute.”
At the height of their fame Clubsound proved too big for Northern Ireland, busting on to the entertainment scene in England and eventually travelling to Miami where they had PP Arnold for their support act and the on-the-bill comic was Ted Rodgers.
But it was an ill-fated venture.
“The pound crashed against the dollar and all the British cancelled their holidays. We had two press nights in a 900-seat venue which were packed out and then, on opening night, just 90 people and it went from bad to worse,” he said. “We simply ran out of money.”
The band then reformed in 1985 and, with a few gaps, have stayed together almost continuously since 1995 with a core membership of former Freshmen star Dave McKnight, Alan McCartney — who also toured abroad as a solo act — Barry Wood and Jimmy Black alongside bass man and band leader Jones.
While his comic ability marked Clubsound out, the group were first and foremost musicians who could rock it out one minute and then roll into a ballad or a folk favourite the next.
“We have never had a fall-out in 50 years. We have had heated words, people walking out of meetings, and so on, but no fisticuffs or bad language. The next day, all is okay again.”
Since becoming a Christian several years ago, he said: “I now realise it was God who gave me my talent.”
And during the last two years, George has discovered a new one — painting. He has created and sold over 200, from landscapes to portraits to family pets.
“I can honestly say it has helped keep me sane. I have found it very therapeutic. But not only that, I have actually been able to earn money doing it.
“I would not say it has kept us afloat financially, but it has contributed. No one is more surprised than myself.”
Jones has few concerns about aging. “I was 76 Trombones; do you remember that song? Now I’m 77 Sunset Strip [a very old American TV show]”.... but being 78 is going to be particularly special, since 78s are where it all started.
He is talking about 78 vinyl records — now making a massive comeback, which played at three speeds, 33and a third, 45 and 78 — the number of times they spun in a minute.
“I can still remember the first two 78s my mother brought into the house, Elvis singing All Shook Up and Long Tall Sally by Little Richard.”
Which helps explain why Jones’ other perpetual project, the show Rock’n’Roll Years and Dance Hall days, is also still on the go. It actually opens with Elvis’ very first release That’s Alright Mama and ends with Vegas Elvis.
“The first half is the 50s, with Del Shannon, Buddy Holly and so on and then into the 60s up through Cliff Richard, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, Lulu and many others — 40 songs in all,” he says.
Jones lives in a fairly isolated, idyllic part of the Ards Peninsula with his wife Hilary, who ran a riding school for the disabled.
Just over the hill is their daughter Natalie and son-in-law Jeff McCormick who have two almost adult daughters, Sophie and Jessie.
George admits he has no real need to work but feels like he cannot help himself. “I have always loved it — and I still get a buzz,” he says.
His long solo run also took in tributes to the showbands era and crooners like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, Jones is probably still primarily remembered as the face of Clubsound.
But there were hairy moments too.
“One night at a sports club location which I don’t wish to name we were told that unless we played a particular National Anthem, we would hardly get out alive.
“We had to fly out the back of the hall, jump into our van and scarper. But we played Orange Halls, GAA venues and other kinds of locations.”
One last, lingering, major project looms in the Jones’ mind — the memoirs.
“I have so many stories to tell, I would love to get them all down,” he says. “But where would I find the time?”
Rock’n’roll Years and Dance Hall Days is on in the Grand Opera House on January 14 and 15; Clubsound in concert, various venues, from March