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An Irishman’s Diary: Remembering the excitement when Reeves toured Ireland
‘On his two-venue-a-night routine, on tour in Ireland, Jim Reeves he was timed to start the first at 10.30pm and the second at 12.30am. Some venues were in fairly isolated areas and with the huge crowds and the chaotic parking (of tractors in some cases), sometimes Reeves and his group (the Blue Boys) would have to walk down sheep paths to complete the final part of their journey.’ Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images
There was great excitement in many parts of Ireland, North and South, in late May and June 50 years ago because country-music legend Jim Reeves was on tour. It was to be his only tour of this country; he died in a plane crash a little more than a year later.
The soft, velvet tones of “Gentleman” Jim, as he was called, made him enormously popular with lovers of country, and other types, of music all over the world. When he was elected posthumously to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1967, the citation said: “His rich voice brought millions of new fans to country music from every corner of the world”.
He had no fewer than 11 songs in the Irish charts between 1962 and 1967, including three No 1s during 1963 and 1964: Welcome to My World , I Love You Because and I Won’t Forget You . His most popular song here (as in many other places) was He’ll Have to Go , which was in the charts for many months in 1960. One source places him at No 4 in the top 10 recording artists of the time in Ireland, behind the Beatles, Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard.
He toured Ireland from May 30th to June 9th and June 16th to 19th, having done a tour of US military bases in Britain between June 10th and 15th. An extremely busy schedule was laid out for him, as on most nights he played two venues. This involved a lot of travelling around Ireland at a time when the road network was not anything like it is today.
On his two-venue-a-night routine, he was timed to start the first at 10.30pm and the second at 12.30am. Some venues were in fairly isolated areas and with the huge crowds and the chaotic parking (of tractors in some cases), sometimes Reeves and his group (the Blue Boys) would have to walk down sheep paths to complete the final part of their journey.
According to Jim Reeves: His Untold Story by Larry Neal Jordan, sometimes the two shows a night were booked far apart, an extraordinary example being one in Limerick and one in Belfast, a journey of 200 miles on not-so-good country roads.
The gruelling schedule may account for the tour not always running so smoothly. Badly tuned pianos at some of the venues seemed to be such a problem that Reeves became almost fixated on it. In an interview with Spotlight magazine (a popular entertainment magazine in Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s), he said Irish audiences were the best he had ever encountered but the pianos were the worst.
There is a description of a piano that was being used at the Orchid in Lifford, Co Donegal, on the Larry Cunningham website (larrycunningham.ie) and, if it is accurate, Reeves certainly had grounds for complaint: “The piano in question was full of spiders and hadn’t been in tune in years”. As a result, we are told, Reeves left after just a few minutes on the stage. A very discontented crowd was placated, the website says, when Larry Cunningham stepped in and sang all of Reeves’s hits.
Another venue, where Reeves did not even go on stage, was the Diamond Ballroom in Kiltimagh, Co Mayo. According to some accounts, the reason was the out-of-tune piano, but in an article in the Mayo News (October 5th, 2010), the son of the owner of the ballroom is quoted to the effect that when Reeves learned he had to do a second show that night 40 miles away in Sligo, “he threw a tantrum” and left Kiltimagh.
However, there are many local newspaper accounts of very successful nights, such as at the Mayfair Ballroom in Kilkenny (where he entertained 1,700 people), the Las Vegas Ballroom in Sligo and the Pavesi Ballroom in Donegal town. Indeed, Dermot Devitt wrote a play, Put Your Sweet Lips , which was based on reminiscences of people who were at the Pavesi on June 7th, 1963.
Clearly there were a lot more happy than unhappy memories of the tour, something that the many tributes written to Reeves in Ireland after his premature death in 1964 would bear out. One of the most successful was A Tribute to Jim Reeves , said to have been written on the back of a cigarette packet by Sligo solicitor Eddie Masterson, who gave the monologue to Larry Cunningham. It turned out to be a huge hit for Cunningham.