Phil Coulter is bringing his 80th birthday show to the Town Hall on Tuesday December 6. While he enjoyed connecting virtually with his fans over Covid lockdowns, he's happy being back in front of a live audience.
"Nothing beats live shows and people responding. I think people have been starved of that real life connection for such a long time. They're relishing the idea of getting back to live music. I'm really enjoying the gigs myself."
It's been a busy year for the legend. In October, he was presented with the Freedom of Derry. "It was brilliant. An award from your own town, from your own people - it meant an awful lot to me. It was like a homecoming." At the ceremony, Cllr Sandra Duffy said: "For all of your success internationally you always found time to give to those closer to home remaining very active in social and civic life here in the North West, so you may have gone far but you have never left us.”
After he was presented with the honour, 3,000 people turned up to join him in a singalong of The Town I Loved So Well on a drizzly afternoon in Ebrington Square. Coulter said: "To see grown men crying, and a mix of generations together, people of all ages. It was overpowering. A moment I will savor."
Coulter has had so many glittering achievements over the years, but what was his proudest professional moment? "Probably having written a song that was recorded by Elvis (My Boy ).
"Growing up in Derry, I remember being in our attic bedroom beside my two brothers listening to Elvis. He injected new life into pop music. Never in my wildest dreams did I think The King would sing my words! To this day, I have to pull the car over if I hear it on the radio." Did he ever meet Elvis? "We went to see him in Las Vegas once and he grunted in my direction backstage."
The man behind Edinburgh pop sensations, the Bay City Rollers (once heralded as 'the biggest group since the Beatles' ), Coulter had two distinctive sides: the commercially successful whiz who wrote world famous winning hits for the Eurovision (Puppet On A String ) and the more soulful side who had a ferocious passion for Irish folk music and who penned one of the most affecting politically-influenced songs of our time. Coulter credits Luke Kelly with helping him to delve deeper into his songwriting abilities and extract a more vulnerable and personal style.
"When I was writing The Town I Loved So Well, I had Luke Kelly's voice in my head. I was producing The Dubliners at the time when the internment was introduced. I was visiting my family in Derry that weekend. We all felt like the city had been violated. There were guys who went to school with me who were dragged out of bed at 4am and interned without trial.
"My knee jerk reaction was to write a song - that was Free The People. But I knew there was something more to be written about what was going on. I said to myself - I know what's going on, I know the nuances, the sensitivities. I can do this. It took me months to polish it off. I was acutely aware if I made a few wrong word choices it would become a rebel song, and we had enough of them already."
Coulter recounts the moment he played The Town I Loved So Well for Luke Kelly in a dingy Sheffield hotel room on a wet, rainy Monday.
"I was rehearsing the Dubliners for an upcoming album at the time. I played the song for Luke in a tacky twin bedroom with peeling wallpaper. Luke sat on one bed, I sat on the other with my guitar and played with my eyes closed. I didn't want to see his reaction until it was over. It was so deeply personal to me. It wasn't until I sang the last line that I opened my eyes and saw Luke tearing up. That's when I knew the song was right."
Coulter had a very special relationship with Luke Kelly. "I learnt so much from him - I owe him a great debt. He was a great collector of songs, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of folk music. He encouraged me to write songs that were perhaps more lyrically 'mature' than the likes of Puppet On A String, songs that addressed serious issues. When my first son was born with Down Syndrome, I started writing Scorn Not His Simplicity, almost as a form of therapy. You put yourself in a very vulnerable spot when you write from a personal place. I may not have had the courage to write it without Luke."
Although one of his most prominent Eurovision moments was of course winning Puppet On A String in 1967, another particularly special moment was meeting his wife and mother of their six children, Geraldine, who sang the song Coulter wrote for Luxembourg in 1975 (the song came fifth ). Geraldine (Brannigan ) was a successful singer in Ireland at the time.
Coulter is looking forward to bringing 55 years worth of songs, stories, memories and melodies to town on Tuesday December 6 in The Town Hall.
"I love a Galway audience. They know their music, they appreciate music. We always have a good time."
Get your tickets here: www.tht.ie