First encounters

Sat, Jan 5, 2013, 00:00

In conversation with FRANCES O'ROURKE

JIMMY SMYTH

is a guitarist who enjoyed success in the 1980s with The Bogey Boys, who reformed last year. He has worked with Van Morrison, Gilbert OSullivan and Roger Daltrey. He teaches modern music in DIT, Dublin, and works with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. He lives in Malahide, Co Dublin, with his wife, singer Jenny Newman and daughter, Ruby

I played guitar from the age of seven. My dad had a dance band in the 1950s and 1960s. There were 10 children in the family: two of my sisters are singers – Gloria [One Day at a Time] is one of them. Andy, who lived on our street in Navan, was drafted into the family band as a result of taking accordion lessons from my dad.

Andy and I weren’t so much friends as kids but were in our teens. Andy used to call around with the latest sheet music from Peter Skellern or Gilbert O’Sullivan. I was a little in awe of Andy’s musicality: he was a much better reader of music than I was. Then we formed our own band.

Andy and I were like-minded characters yet very different; I was much more rebellious, wanted the rock ‘n’roll life. So we weren’t bosom buddies then, and the four-year age difference – Andy’s older – was crucial. But Andy’s still like he was when he was 15/16: he’s one of the most non-judgemental people I’ve ever met. Music was always the bond: I thought I was open-minded but Andy really was. He would investigate singer/songwriters I thought were a bit lame, and that opened them up to me.

In Dublin, I rented rooms in Barry’s Hotel for a while, following on Andy’s coat-tails – he had a job in the cabaret rooms there. I formed The Bogey Boys in 1978: we made two albums, then broke up in America. I stayed there for nine years, got a record deal, moved to Los Angeles, joined a singer called Toni Childs and toured all over the world with her. We did our last album together in Peter Gabriel’s studio in Bristol.

At that point I was back home and trying to maintain an international career. I love America but was tired of living there. I’d met my wife Jenny, who’s a singer, from Malahide; we got married in 1994. I started to work with Van Morrison. Then Andy got me involved with RTÉ and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.

You have to develop a philosophy, I tell my students in DIT: I love playing music and this is what I do, sometimes in very salubrious surroundings, sometimes not. Not to sound disingenuous, but if Bono magically said, let’s swap places, well, maybe I’d take his bank account, but the life that they lead, although probably wonderful in lots of ways, it’s not for me.

Andy and I don’t socialise that much, our relationship is much more atavistic than that, it’s a long-term thing. He’s a close personal friend and I know I could depend on him if I needed something. Nothing has changed since since we were young – Andy’s the same very open-minded guy he always was.”

ANDY O'CALLAGHAN

is a musician and arranger who started his career playing with neighbour Jimmy Smyth. In the 1970s, he began arranging and producing records. He now works for RTÉ as a director for musical shows and with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. He lives in Sutton, Co Dublin, with his wife Clodagh and two daughters, Sheenagh and Kate

Jimmy and I were born four doors apart in St Mary’s Park in Navan. My sister was studying piano in the convent and I tagged along. Then I started doing accordion lessons with Jimmy’s dad. The name Smyth and music were synonymous in Navan, his uncle still has the Navan swing band.

The first paying gig I ever did, I was 15: it was a hop on a Sunday afternoon in Drogheda, in a boxing club and then the Silver Tankard pub outside Navan that night. It was with Jimmy’s mum and dad and Jimmy, and between the two gigs, I got £1. At 16 or 17, Jimmy broke away from the family, formed a band I was involved in and did lots of pop rock, T Rex, Led Zeppelin.

I went to UCD for a short time, but I’d been bitten by the music bug and dropped out. I was offered a resident job in the Tudor rooms in Barry’s Hotel, it was a cabaret room in Dublin. And I was starting to arrange a bit of music for artists like Acker Bilk – I was doing this without any specific training, just the Meath hard neck.

I left the Tudor Rooms in 1977: Jimmy and I were both on the showband circuit, kept bumping into each other. We were both full-time musicians, it’s the only thing I’ve ever worked at. While our lives have separated and rejoined many times over the years, music has been the constant connection.

From an early age, I knew that Jimmy had an exceptional musical talent. It was apparent, even back then, that his was a special gift. Jimmy was as good as any guitar hero of the age. He just loves to play – it doesn’t matter what, once it’s good. He’s as happy in JJ Smyth’s [Dublin jazz and blues pub] on a quiet Monday, playing his beloved fusion set, as on the big stage.

Conversation comes naturally to us both . . . if Jimmy and I are in a dressingroom, it’s rabbit, rabbit, rabbit. Ours is not a silent partnership!

I got married in 1986, had kids, so I was grounded in Ireland; my career at an Irish level was flying, doing TV shows, orchestral stuff. Now I have a little studio at home, where I do a good bit of work: I do the music for Mrs Brown’s Boys, for example. And I do these RTÉ Concert Orchestra shows: we did four shows in the mid-noughties, the music of Bond, Elton John, the Bee Gees and Abba. Then we did the Bee Gees show last autumn, had a blast, so we’re going to do two more in February. Our aim is to get everyone up dancing in the aisles.

On February 7th, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra will present a Bee Gees show, You Should be Dancing and on February 28th, an Abba show, Super Troupers, in the National Concert Hall, Dublin, both produced, arranged and conducted by Andy O’Callaghan