He founded The Capitol Showband that scored a number of firsts for Irish bands at home and abroad. He discovered songwriting legend Phil Coulter, he set visionary trad band Planxty on the road to success, he is Des Kelly.
Des Kelly is a legend in the Irish music industry, and among musicians is extremely highly regarded, so much so that an event in his honour is taking place in Galway next month.
A Tribute To Des Kelly takes place in The Salthill Hotel on Thursday February 25 and will feature performances from Phil Coulter, Andy Irvine, Paddy Cole, Johnny Duhan, The Conquerors, and the Smokey Mountain Ramblers. The MC will be Galway Bay FM’s Keith Finnegan. Speaking in advance of the event, Phil Coulter said: “I am delighted that finally we have a chance to pay tribute to one of the good guys. I treasure his friendship and I’ve never forgotten it was Des who gave me my start.”
Des was born in Turloughmore and he started his first band, Quicksilver, in the mid-1950s, with his sister Bernie, brother Johnny, as well as Christy Dooley, Mickey Devaney, and Frank O’Brien. Their first gig was in Keaveney’s Hall, Cummer (later known as the Ranch House ), for which they got a fee of €12.
Moving to Dublin in the early sixties to study at UCD, Des and Johnny met Paul Sweeney and Eamon Monaghan from Donegal, and, with encouragement from Tom and Jim Doherty of Top Line Promotions, Des formed the Capitol Showband. The line-up was later completed by Butch Moore, Jimmy Hogan, Don Long, and Paddy Cole.
They proved to be something of a pioneering Irish band. They were the first showband to have a radio show on Radio Luxemburg; record an album; appear at the London Palladium; represent Ireland in Eurovision, through Butch Moore in 1965; record an original song (‘Foolin’ Time’ by Phil Coulter ); and see chart success by different band members - ‘Walking the Streets in Rain’ (Butch Moore ), ‘Black Velvet Band’ (Johnny Kelly, a traditional song Des played a key role in reviving ); and ‘Streets of Baltimore’ and ‘The Promoter’ (Des Kelly ).
After The Capitol called it a day, Des went into management and promotion, steering the careers of Sweeney’s Men and Planxty and also pioneering the development of Irish country music.
The legends pay tribute to Des
In advance of the concert, a number of high profile names across all areas of Irish music have spoken about the impact and importance of Des Kelly in their careers. Chief among them is the great Phil Coulter, who declared: “Des Kelly is the man who changed my life”.
“I met Des and the lads in the Capitol during the summer of 1963 in Bundoran where I was working with my four piece,” he recalls. “I lost no time in passing on copies of a record I had released earlier that year as a Rag Week fundraiser, while a student at Queen’s University in Belfast. A few months later, I got ‘the phone call’ – the one that set me on the path I’ve been following ever since. It was from Des Kelly, telling me the Capitol were going to release my song as their first single. If I was over the moon at that news, when ‘Foolin Time’, sung by Butch Moore, entered the Irish charts, I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven!
Des invited the young Derry songwriter to stay at his home in Dublin, and involved him in writing and arranging for the Capitol. That connection led to a meeting with Phil Solomon, the Capitol’s London agent, who gave Coulter “my first job. I was on my way – thanks to Des”.
The pair have remained close and Coulter describes Des as “one of the most honest, decent and loyal friends that I have. In a business full of charlatans Des Kelly was a rare commodity.”
He also argues that Des never “got the recognition he deserves for his contribution to the Irish music industry”.
“He was the very first to put a country band on the road – and just look at what that started!” says Coulter. “He was also the one who saw the enormous potential in Planxty and managed their emergence as a ground breaking act.”
Confirming Coulter’s assessment is Planxty founder member and Irish folk music legend Andy Irvine. “Des is one of the best human beings I met in my life,” he says. “Generous, wise and thoughtful to others, he was crucial to the success of my first band, Sweeney’s Men, and especially, some years later to that of Planxty. I’ll never forget the euphoric delight he shared with Planxty after its performance at the Hangar Ballroom in Galway, supporting Donovan; a performance that sped us on the road to success!
Back to the Capitol Showband, and one of Des’s bandmates was Paddy Cole, who would later go on to become one of Ireland’s best loved jazz musicians.
“In 1960 Des Kelly came to Castleblayney to ask me to join The Capitol Showband,” he recalls. “Des was hand picking different musicians and we finished up with two from Donegal, two from Cork, one from Dublin, two from Galway, and one from Monaghan. It was life changing. It was a good band I was proud to be a member of. The band was a hugh hit in Ireland and Des took us further afield on tours to USA, Canada, Germany, England, and Scotland, organizing TV and radio appearances in all these countries. Being an astute businessman, he kept the band at the top of the tree for about 10 years. He was a pleasure to have worked with. I learned a lot for later years when I led my own band, and I am looking forward to paying tribute to Des in Galway.
Another to pay tribute to Des is The Conquerers’ Tony Maher. “Des was a man of vision and innovation, with a great eye for talent,” he says. “It was no surprise he was so successful when he moved into management/promotion. He worked with a variety of stars such as Phil Coulter, Sweeney’s Men, Planxty, the Smokeys, and Dermot Henry.”
With regard to Des’s role in Irish country music, Tommy Higgins and George Kaye of the Smokey Mountain Ramblers, said: “The country music scene in Ireland is thriving at present. What a lot of people do not realise is that Des was the architect of this industry. Back in 1967, Des discovered George Kaye and had the vision to put a band around George. The Smokey Mountain Ramblers were born and it was a groundbreaking initiative in the industry at the time. It was the start of a country music boom that has continued to this day. We are all grateful to Des for his vision and foresight.”
Des has not only succeeded in music, but also in radio, presenting a popular show on Galway Bay FM for the last 20 years. As singer-songwriter Johnny Duhan says, “we probably passed one another many times in bandwagons around Ireland on our way to and from gigs during the sixties, Des in the Capitol and I in Granny’s Intentions. I didn’t get to meet Des Kelly until he was a radio presenter in Galway Bay FM.”
“One day out of the blue he called me up and asked if I’d consider doing an interview on his Monday evening programme,” says Duhan. “Our chat on air went so well, Des invited me back again and again. Des was a consummate professional when it came to broadcasting, always putting in research before going on air. We enjoyed our get togethers in the radio studio so much, we often extended our confabs after the interviews over a pint on the way back to Barna, where we both lived.
“I was delighted to get Des to add his voice - along with the vocal of his nephew Eugene Kelly - on the chorus of my song ‘Part of a Tribe’ when I first recorded it in Eugen’s hilltop studio for my album The Burning Word, prior to recording it with the Claddagh Band. Des is undoubtedly one the nicest and kindest characters I’ve met in my travels in the music game. A true gent.”
Tickets are €25 from The Salthill Hotel; Galway Bay FM; Opus II, High Street; Quinns, Bishop Street, Tuam; Clarks SuperValu, Barna; and Fahy’s, Turloughmore.