The Big Interview: Ollie Bird - Let the music play on
The showband era. It was a golden age for singers and musicians; a time of plenty - at least when it came to finding work.
The era extended from the 1950s, if not a little before, right up to the 1980s. A few bands lingered longer but the 1950s, '60s and '70s belonged to the showbands - and Ollie Bird was there, right in the middle of it all making a living as a bass player with outfits such The Firehouse, a showband fronted by Skryneman Jim Tobin.
"I remember we played the National in Kilburn, we were there in only its second week. Norman Wisdom was there the first week, we were in it the second. There were eight bars in the place, bouncers from Kerry all over the place, a lovely spot, thousands of people there. What a place," he recalls.
"At that time you'd get 2,000 people into Beechmount (a venue in Navan, now demolished). That was one of the best halls around, we played there twice a year, every year, on St Patrick's night and St Stephen's night, two of the busiest nights of the year, packed out."
Ollie - who grew up in Alexanderaide, outside Navan and still lives there with his wife Kathleen - remembers the time when over 300 showbands criss-crossed Ireland filling parish halls, marquees; all sorts of ballrooms of romances in towns and villages.
Then, gradually, inexorably, it all started to change. Music changed. Lifestyles changed. The discos arrived and suddenly instead of a band, promotors and venue owners just needed to book a DJ and his (invariably it was a man) records and flashing lights.
"You began to see the crowds dwindle in dancehalls and carnivals, although it didn't happen very fast, it was a gradual thing," recalled Ollie when he called into the Meath Chronicle office to talk about his life and times. About how he and The Firehouse appeared on TV shows, mixed and mingled with some of the biggest names in showbusiness.
Outwardly it looked a glamourous world to be part of, but there was another side too. As well as the adulation, the applause, the glitzy suits, there was the long, monotonous trips in smoke-filled vans on bad roads the length and breath of Ireland.
"People would see you up on a stage for two hours and they might think: 'Oh you have a great life.' But after the show you would get in a van maybe have to travel five or six hours to get home. I would be coming home going in the door at seven in the morning and Kathleen would be going out the door on her way to Marsh's clothes factory in Navan where she worked. I might then get up at three or four and head off to another gig before Kathleen would be home. Fair play, she was great, she understood the business, what was involved.
"With the travelling, the rest of it, it was a rough life but don't get me wrong, it was very enjoyable too and if you are into music it can be a great life in many ways. Every job has its downsides. I had more good days than I had bad days."
As well as draughty marquees, crumbling old parish halls there were other real dangers to contend with. He recalls when with the Firehouse he did a show in the west and real tragedy was only narrowly avoided.
"Travelling at night the roads wouldn't be as busy as they are now, there was no motorways of course but one night we were after playing in Galway, we had played for 21 nights in a row, and we were coming from Salthill. The lead guitar in the band at the time was Larry Gallagher a Donegal man who was with The Firehouse for a time.
"He asked me if I would drive, he had his girlfriend with him and he was sitting with her in the back. I must have fallen asleep. I woke up and saw this lorry in front of me. I suddenly swerved to the right to go past it. It turned out the truck was parked, it was on the far side of the road. I swerved, hit a stone wall, a couple of the tyres blew out and we ended up half-way across the road.
"The first vehicle to come along was the van with Brendan Grace's band and lucky enough our van was coming after that. So we pushed the car off the road and continued on our way a little shook up. We were lucky."
Ollie is not sure where the music in his soul originated. The source. "I just don't know but as a youngster it was in my mind to play guitar." He took up the bass and learning about it from the likes of renowned musician Jimmy Smith, father of guitarist Jimmy Smith (who was once asked to join Thin Lizzy) and Gloria Smith.
As well as working in a Navan-based furniture factory making children's cots Ollie gigged with local bands such as Woodpeckers, the Mexicales and the Kells-based Jetliners, learning his second trade. The time came when he was offered a chance to go professional with Heather Kaye and the Pines, a Longford-based combo, who asked him to go on a tour of Scotland with them.
"I grew up with five sisters, I was the only boy in the house and my mother didn't want me to go. This was 1966, I was only 18 or 19. I had been working since I was 14. I arrived in Longford met the band's manager, John Hynes, and slept in his house. The next morning we headed for Scotland." Ollie was on his way.
"Everywhere at that time there was big crowds, no matter how bad the band was. In Scotland we were treated like the Beatles. We travelled to play right up to the top of Scotland. It was a high life but very little money. We didn't mind though, we were young. If you had enough to live on you would be happy. Maybe the managers and the ballroom owners were making money but the boys who were playing didn't make very much."
Ollie was asked to join Jim Tobin and the Firehouse, a band known far and wide for their brilliant renditions of Jim Reeves' classics. The band travelled all over Ireland and did at least one, sometimes two, tours of venues in England each year, including the famed National in Kilburn where David Bowie and Johnny Cash also performed.
There were the laughs as well, the time in the studio making LPs as well as TV shows with the likes of the legendary Boxcar Willie and Big Tom. Memorable occasions. "We did a TV show in a cinema and one of the lads from the band saw this fella sitting there and wondered how did he get in? Who let him in? It turned out to be Boxcar!"
Ollie was the band's bassman from 1970 until 1983. By then new trends had well and truly eroded into the showbands once indomitable position as the undisputed monarchs of the music scene. He describes the dismantling of the band as "heartbreaking." He knew trends were changing and that would mean new challenges for folk like him.
To keep involved Ollie was involved in the formation of bands such as Ace that gigged locally. Eventually somebody suggested that Ollie should run a sound system playing songs at private events and such like. He went for that and played familiar classics from the likes of Abba, the Eagles, Neil Diamond.
Middle of the road stuff, country n'western. He recalls one bitterly cold winter's night in a pub in Kilmessan when he was DJ-ing. He was happy to be located beside the fire. Then a vinyl record he had put on started to sound strange, distorted. "The vinyl was melting with the heat!" he recalls before delivering one of his familiar laughs. Nobody said showbusiness would be like this. Ollie and Kathleen had a daughter, Sinead, who is now married to Mark Lynch. The doting grandparents are surrounded by grandchildren Patricia, Kate, Hannah and James Oliver - and never far from their thoughts is another grandchild, Grace, who sadly passed away nine years ago.
Ollie might do a charity gig from time to time, playing music on his system, perhaps to help out some cause or other. Just for old time's sake.
When he hears a familiar tune, or meets an old friend - he is immediately transported back to those days when the showbands ruled the world. Glory days, as Bruce Springsteen might call them.