My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Val Doonican

Country music in the United Kingdom and Ireland part 1: 1950s-1972

Since American folk and country music, particularly that of the of the Appalachian region, had its roots in the English and Irish folk traditions, it seems only fair that the American product crossed back over the Atlantic Ocean to the home of its forbears.

The age of recorded music dates back over a century but it appears that the cross-pollination of English pop music with American Country music began in earnest in 1952 when Slim Whitman, a smooth-voiced American country singer with a wide vocal range and outstanding ability as a yodeler released “Indian Love Call” as a single. The song reached #2 on the US country charts but also got to #9 on the US pop charts and #7 on the British pop charts. Then in 1954, “Rose Marie” topped the British pop charts. While Whitman would have only one more top ten British hit, his recordings continued to chart occasionally through 1957, and received some airplay thereafter. The BBC played Slim’s 1968 single “Livin’ On Lovin’ (And Lovin’ Livin’ with You)” with some frequency.

Although no longer a pop singles charts factor, Slim’s albums would continue to sell well with the last charting album falling off the British album charts in 1978. Red River Valley charted at #1 in 1977 and Home On The Range reached #2. Slim would tour the UK and Europe for the next several decades.

Because of his highly individual style, perhaps Slim isn’t a good exemplar; however, a few years later the heavily country-influenced rockabilly artists such as Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent Craddock, Carl Perkins and Eddie Cochran began making their presence felt. Initially the presence was to be found in the work of skiffle artists such as Lonnie Donegan and the Vipers. Skiffle was an amalgam of American blues, folk and country, and would fuel the early English rock ‘n roll movement. One American act, Johnny Duncan and the Bluegrass Boys, also would thrive as skiffle artists.

While the skiffle artists were not, per se, country artists (and like rockabilly, the movement was short-lived), Nashville songwriters were beginning to have success in England with country songs, even if not necessarily performed as country music. During the 1960s artists such as Max Bygraves, Val Doonican, Ken Dodd, Des O’Connor, Englebert Humperdinck and a dynamic singer from Wales, Tom Jones, were having huge success with American Country songs.

One of the first English groups to actually feature American style country music was the Hillsiders. Signed to RCA, they found their way to Nashville to record an album with country great Bobby Bare. The album The English Countryside reached #29 on the US country album charts and spawned the single “Find Out What’s Happening” that went to #15 on the US country chart and reached #5 on the Canadian country chart. While neither the album nor the single charted in England, the album reputedly sold decently and the single received some airplay. While there were no further chart hits, the Hillsiders remained an integral part of the English country scene through the mid-1990s.

Thanks to a pair of BBC radio programs, Country Meets Folk (hosted by Wally Whyton) and Country Style (hosted initially by David Allan and later by Pat Campbell), there were weekly shows that featured country music. Country Meets Folk was a live program that was about 50-50 folk and country whereas Country Style mostly featured recorded music with an occasional live performance by a local act. Through Country Style, I became familiar with such entertaining acts as Tex Withers, Roger Knowles, Nick Strutt, Brian Golbey, Pete Stanley and a host of Irish acts such as Larry Cunningham, Big Tom & The Mainliners, Dermot O’Brien and Joe Dolan. I should mention that Irish Country music often came in the form of an Irish Showband, with the music sometimes resembling that of modern day American polka star Jimmy Sturr.

The First International Festival of County Music at Empire Pool – Wembley, was organized by Mervyn Conn and took place on April 5, 1969 and featured a number of prominent American country artists such as Conway Twitty, Bill Anderson and Loretta Lynn (my father and I both attended) and also showcased a number of fine English and Irish country acts as follows: Phil Brady & The Ranchers, Larry Cunningham and the Mighty Avons, The Hillsiders, and Orange Blossom Sound (a fine bluegrass group).

The Second International Festival of Country Music was held March 28, 1970, and my father and I again were both in attendance, to see the Roy Acuff, Tompall & The Glaser Brothers and Lynn Anderson, along with other American acts and the English acts Orange Blossom Sound, The Hillsiders, and Country Fever.

These festivals continued through 1991 and gave such fine English and Irish acts as Brian Coll, Lee Conway, Ray Lyman & The Hillbillies, Patsy Powel and The Honky Tonk Playboys, The Jonny Young Four and Frank Yoncho exposure.

Meanwhile Lucky Records was formed to provide an outlet for local artists. One of my most treasured albums was by acoustic country artist Brian Golbey titled The Old & The New Brian Golbey.

At about the same time The Nashville Room opened in Kensington, which featured music by local country acts with an occasional Nashville star such a Hank Locklin dropping in.

I moved away from England in 1971 and lost track of the English and Irish country music scenes. In the days before the internet it was difficult to keep up with what was going on across the sea.

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Fellow Travelers: Val Doonican

Val_Doonican_1971Unlike 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.

    Who Was He ?

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.