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'Pearly Spencer was only one of the many extraordinary songs that Daddy wrote' - David McWilliams' daughter Mandy

 

Half a century after Ballymena singer David McWilliams' iconic song was released, his daughter Mandy tells Ivan Little why she decided to record her own version and how she is still discovering music he performed.

A daughter of the late, lamented Ulster singer David McWilliams has recorded her own moving version of her father's most famous song to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the day it was released on the crest of an unprecedented wave of publicity.

Mandy Bingham recorded 'The Days of Pearly Spencer' in just one take at the Millbank studios in Lisburn, and such was the emotion of the day, and her haunting and spine-chilling delivery, that even producer Michael Mormecha said he had goosebumps.

What made the recording on Mandy's new album, Bury Me Deep, even more special is that her 18-year-old daughter Lola, who can't really remember her grandfather, sang backing vocals on Pearly Spencer just as she had done 10 years earlier when Belfast singer Brian Houston recorded the song, which was a massive hit in Europe - but not in the UK - for David in the Sixties.

Mandy, whose father died in 2002 at the age of 56 from a heart attack, says: "Pearly Spencer was only one of many extraordinary songs that Daddy wrote, but it was the one that always seemed to be around when we were growing up. And even now it's played a lot on the radio.

"I just didn't want the anniversary of its release to go by without a bit of a fuss being made around it so I decided that I would record it myself as a tribute to my father.

"And things couldn't have turned out better in the recording studio. It all came together perfectly.

"It was a very emotional experience for me. I only wanted to sing it once and Michael said he didn't think it could be improved upon. Afterwards the Arco String Quartet came in and added their marvellous contribution and Lola came along to sing at the end of the song."

Mandy's husband Graham, who played on the song, says: "We all knew that there was no point in recording it time and time again. It was all very organic."

Unlike her father, who came early to music, Mandy has taken her time to find her voice in her late 40s.

"I've only been singing for the past five years. I never thought I could sing," she says. "Everyone else in the family seemed to be musical and I always wanted to learn a song as a party-piece to play on the guitar."

But before too long Mandy was writing her own songs and performing them in concerts along with hubby Graham, who plays the lap steel guitar.

"It's just been amazing how quickly it has all happened for me," she says. "People in the music scene here have been extremely welcoming."

Her father was born in the Cregagh area of east Belfast in July 1945 and moved with his family shortly afterwards to Ballymena where he was an accomplished footballer and Ballymena United fan.

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Late singer David McWilliams

He played for junior teams in Ballymena as a midfielder. However, when he turned his hands to goalkeeping he caught the eye of Linfield, but his career at Windsor Park was cut short by a broken ankle.

David, who worked in a Shorts missile factory in Antrim, was writing poems and songs in his home town and he eventually came under the notice of Phil Solomon, who had been Van Morrison's manager.

Solomon signed David up for his Major Minor record label and The Days of Pearly Spencer was initially intended as a B-side to a song called Harlem Lady.

But after the single was released on October 6, 1967, it was Pearly Spencer which was played incessantly on the pirate station Radio Caroline.

A veritable blitz of newspaper advertising was launched, including promotions on the front page of the influential New Musical Express.

The advertising onslaught was reported to have cost £20,000, which would be equivalent to £342,200 today.

David's face was even splattered on the side of London double decker buses in more ads at a time when it was said that he didn't have enough money to pay for a ride on one of them.

There was only one problem. Mandy says the BBC refused to play Pearly Spencer on their airwaves, including the newly launched Radio One, because of David's links to the illegal Radio Caroline, in which Phil Solomon was an investor.

In London, through the Solomon links, David established what would become a lifelong friendship with author, singer and playwright Dominic Behan, who wrote The Patriot Game.

David lived for a time with Behan's family and it was in their home that he wrote songs for the three albums he was contracted to release in 1967.

Mandy, who was born in London, came to live in Northern Ireland with her family at the age of six.

After David's first marriage ended in divorce he wed his second wife, Julie Ann, and the couple went on to have four more children, doubling the number of his offspring who are still all close.

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Mandy Bingham and her husband

David and his family were living in Ballycastle in 1992 when Pearly Spencer at last became a hit in the UK, but not for him.

A cover by Soft Cell's Marc Almond, which featured similarly sumptuous orchestral arrangements as the original, reached number four in the charts

David, who shied away from the spotlight, gave me a rare interview at the time and any thoughts that he might be a difficult interviewee were quickly dispelled as he chatted amiably off camera, as well as on it.

It was obvious, however, that he wasn't a showbiz type and he said his musical passion centred on waiting for the next release by his American singer-songwriter hero, Randy Newman

Mandy says her father's death in January 2002 from a heart attack was a seismic shock.

But his legacy lives on through his music.

Down the years a number of European artists have released cover versions of The Days of Pearly Spencer in many different languages.

And ever since the song was first released, there's been intense speculation over its meaning.

Some reports say it was about life in general in Ballymena, but other theories were that it was about a homeless man from Cullybackey.

Mandy Bingham says her mother Gil believes David wrote the song with at least one troubled woman in mind, but her dad never really opened up about the back story.

"I think the 'milk white skin' lyrics back up the notion that it was about a woman," she says. "But whatever the inspiration was, it was the sort of thing that Dad would have noticed - people down on their luck.

"However, he never really talked about his music at all. I have memories of him writing at home and asking for quiet. But for the most time in the house he was just our father."

Mandy and Graham met while working for the same company in England and they were married after six months.

They settled over 20 years ago on the north coast where they opened a fairtrade gift and jewellery shop in Coleraine before relocating in 2004 to Holywood.

Mandy is clearly proud of her father's achievements and of the fact that he is still fondly remembered in Ballymena, where there's an appreciation society in his honour. They even released an album of local musicians' versions of his songs.

Veteran sports broadcaster Jackie Fullerton, also a Ballymena man, recorded his own rendition of David's Blue Eyes.

The anniversary of the release of Pearly Spencer will be marked by a 'family and friends' concert in Ballymena which is being billed as a celebration of David's work.

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In his heyday: David McWilliams

Mandy will sing, and a video of the making of her version with the Arco String Quartet will be shown.

But David isn't just a local hero. He still has fans all across Europe.

"There's a really nice website, davidmcwilliams.com, which is run by a man in Holland and which has all the lyrics to Dad's songs on it and a forum for his fans," says Mandy, who 15 years after his death is still learning about her father, discovering songs and videos online that she knew nothing about.

"Now that I'm writing songs myself I can appreciate his work even more, analysing their structure and what might have been the thinking behind them.

"He was just such a smart man in the way in which he looked at the world. And the poetry and social commentary on his songs are quite remarkable.

"It's astonishing that he wrote his first three albums in his early 20s. He came from an ordinary Presbyterian family with no musical background. And I don't think there was any real influence in school. But he read a lot."

Friends say David, who wasn't enamoured with Marc Almond's version of Pearly Spencer, would have been proud of Mandy's cover.

"It's a very different take on David's original. It's a lot slower and has Mandy's own stamp all over it. I think David would have loved it," one said.

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