Unlike Engelbert Humperdinck, who achieved world-wide fame, our next fellow traveler’s popularity is largely confined to the United Kingdom and Ireland and parts of the British Commonwealth, with some popularity in the Netherlands. Like Humperdinck, Michael Valentine “Val” Doonican was born elsewhere (Ireland) but migrated to England where he achieved great success.
Val Doonican was born in Waterford, Ireland in 1927, where he started performing in his late teens as part of the Irish folk scene where he appeared on radio and on Waterford’s first television broadcast. Val moved to England in 1951 as part of a group called The Four Ramblers. Eventually Anthony Newley noticed Val’s singular vocal talents and pushed him into a solo direction. In 1963 Val appeared on Sunday Night At The London Palladium leading him to be offered his own television show on the BBC.
The closest analogy to Val Doonican’s career is that of Perry Como, an American pop singer whose hits spanned decades and whose television shows spanned four decades. Like Como, Doonican had a very relaxed style (Val was known for sitting in a rocking chair while singing on his television shows), but unlike Como who came from the Italian belle canto tradition and mostly performed songs from the Italian and American pop standards catalog, Val emerged from the Irish folk tradition and sang a wider variety of music. Doonican’s career on British television lasted for over twenty years. Val Doonican had remarkable recording success given that his recording career launched during the “British Invasion” years of the Beatles, Kinks and Rolling Stones. While Val never had a number one record in England, he did have five top ten records with “What Would I Be” reaching #2 in 1966. “Walk Tall” reached #3 in 1964 and “If The Whole World Stopped Loving” reached #3 in 1967. In all, Val charted 14 hits on the British charts.
What Was His Connection to Country Music ?
Val Doonican emerged from the Irish folk tradition, one of the key elements of Appalachian and early country music. Doonican’s repertoire consisted of folk songs, pop songs and American country songs. Two of Val’s biggest hits were covers of American country hits in “Walk Tall” (Faron Young) and “If The Whole World Stopped Loving” (Roy Drusky) and he issued several other country songs as singles (his cover of Jim Ed Brown’s “Morning” reached #12 in England and #5 in Ireland).
Val Doonican issued many albums during his career. Twelve of his albums reached the British charts with six of them reaching the top six, and one album Val Doonican Rocks But Gently going to #1 in 1967. Val’s albums featured many country songs, some of which featured arrangements that could have been played on American country radio. Val Doonican issued many albums during his career and gently introduced British audiences to American country songs. Moreover, several of his albums were released in the United States and Val would feature American country artists as guests on his television show.
I made the analogy of Doonican’s career to that of Perry Como, but as a vocalist a better comparison would be Jim Reeves or (to a lesser extent) Roy Drusky. It doesn’t appear that Val ever tried to conquer the US market although Americans who lived in England for a few years (such as myself) would have loved to have seen him do it. ABC TV ran The Val Doonican Show as a summer replacement from June 5, 1971 to August 14, 1971.
Val retired five ago from performing (he is now 87) but his much of his musical output is still in print and worth seeking.