Noel KelehanBorn: December 26th, 1935, Dublin (Ireland)
Died: February 6th, 2012, Dublin (Ireland)
Although he had the necessary qualifications, going to university was not an option for a bright working-class boy in the early 1950s. Noel had to start earning money: “My mother’s brother had a clothing shop. I was sent to him to work in the family business and learn to do this job properly from my uncle. I worked there for quite some years, but I absolutely hated it. Meanwhile, I had started taking piano lessons again, not privately, but at the Municipal School of Music in Dublin. Slowly but gradually, it dawned to me that I wanted to be a musician – and nothing else. I began earning some extra money by playing in different jazz and dance bands during my free hours. Luckily, my parents were very understanding, but, nevertheless, I continued working at my uncle’s for quite a while, because I did not make enough money with music right from the start. When I did, however, I immediately gave up my daytime job. At that time, I already was with Mary, and we got married in 1960.”
At Dublin’s Municipal School of Music, Noel did not just study the piano, but music theory and harmony as well. From the late 1950s onwards until the early 1970s, one of his main sources of income was playing jazz and dance music in hotel lounges. Amongst other engagements, Kelehan performed at the Intercontinental Hotel with the later world-famous guitarist Louis Stewart and bassist Jimmy Mackay, and at the Shelbourne Hotel with Martin Walsh (bass) and Ian McGarry (drums). Meanwhile, he had become a regular piano accompanist for broadcasts at RÉ (Radio Éireann), having made his debut on nationwide radio at just 19 years old in 1955. The obvious talent of the young pianist did not go unnoticed and when, in 1961, RÉ was transformed in RTÉ and started its TV broadcasts, it was not long before television work came Kelehan’s way too, including performances in music shows with various groups and arranging RTÉ’s first major music series. In 1963, the piece ‘Cuchulainn’s Lament’, which he had composed at the request of RTÉ, was chosen as one of Ireland’s contributions to a programme of jazz compiled by the EBU and broadcast throughout Europe.
In 1962-’63, Noel Kelehan also led the combo which accompanied the artists performing in the Late Late Show, the new and instantly popular chat show hosted by Gay Byrne. “When TV started in Ireland in 1961, it was a goldmine for me, with all kinds of work available”, Kelehan recalls, “but of everything I did in those years, nothing was given more exposure than the Late Late Show. An enormous audience watched it. There was a small combo of about five or six to accompany different singers. I had been asked to find people for this band. This is how I got to be musical director of that particular show. We played the intro tune and accompanied the artists who had been invited to perform. Admittedly, the work was very easy!”
In the summer of 1963, Noel Kelehan made a striking career move, leaving for the United States to play in the ballroom band of Johnny Butler. Kelehan: “Butler was an Irishman who lived in New York. He led a band which performed in an Irish bar in Manhattan. Someone must have told him about me, because I did not know him personally. He wanted me to join his group. Going there was a risky decision, as I was starting to earn a decent living in Dublin, mainly thanks to my work as an arranger and pianist for RTÉ. Moreover, Mary and I already had a family of our own with two young children. However, I wanted to give it a try and left for America – just to have a look and see how things would go. Meanwhile, Mary and the children stayed in Ireland. In New York, I lived in the house of some distant relatives. Johnny Butler played with his band in a ballroom in Manhattan five nights a week. They played for the local Irish community. The orchestra mainly consisted of Americans; apart from me, only Butler’s son, who played the drums, was born in Ireland. Although I liked working and living in New York, I knew I could not stay there forever. Of course, I could have brought my wife and children over, but we would have had to move into an apartment on – god knows – the fortieth floor of some skyscraper. From a professional point of view, I wish I could have stayed, but practically speaking, a return to Ireland was a much safer choice, with all the work at RTÉ and in the recording studios waiting for me. Therefore, I came back after six months.”
Between his return in Ireland (1963) and 1973, Noel Kelehan extensively worked as a freelance musician on commissions in different fields. Kelehan explains how he got back in business immediately: “Fortunately, I could start working again with the people who I knew from the time before I had left. I did not have to worry about having enough work… and I took every opportunity. Every time the telephone rang, I came – whether it was work for radio or TV, or for recording sessions. I also played dance music in posh hotels. I personally preferred ballroom music and jazz, but I was not picky… which was good, because this enabled me to learn to play all the genres. At RTÉ too, there were ample opportunities; because of my work for the radio and the Late Late Show, I knew a lot of people there. RTÉ had two orchestras: a classical symphony orchestra, and a smaller ensemble, the Concert Orchestra. This consisted of some forty-five men and played light classical works and entertainment music. Soon, I conducted that orchestra on all kinds of occasions for radio and television shows. Although I was not a trained conductor, I had seen how others did it, at concerts… Moreover, I had built up some experience during studio recordings.”
For RTÉ, Kelehan worked on a multitude of radio and TV projects as an arranger and composer in the 1960s. He conducted his first Irish Eurovision pre-selection shows in those years. In 1965, he was commissioned by the broadcaster to compose a jazz suite in three movements entitled ‘Dubliners’, which was based on episodes from James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’; the work was first performed in the Festival of Light Music in Munich (1967), which was broadcast by radio throughout Europe. Occasionally, Kelehan also composed and arranged music for theatrical performances. In the same period, he got heavily involved in commercial recording sessions with virtually all the stars of Irish show business, including Sean Dunphy, Brendan Bowyer, Pat Lynch, and Butch Moore.
“The 1960s was really the time when the recording business in Ireland was still in its infant days”, Kelehan recalls, “and slowly we all learnt how it worked. Producers asked me to write suitable arrangements to popular songs and bring together a group of good session musicians to make the recording. Usually, I could not pick the musicians with which the singers toured in Ireland on the so-called Showband circuit. Most of the guys playing in those showbands, frankly speaking, were technically not good enough to play studio arrangements; many of them did not even read music. While the name of the showband often appeared on the sleeve, the actual music for the recording was played by professionals from Dublin, most notably players from both RTÉ orchestras. Thus, it often happened that, during the day, I conducted the RTÉ Concert Orchestra for a radio programme, while I met some guys from this orchestra again after five o’clock in the commercial studios. Here in Ireland, there was a nucleus of orchestra musicians who did all the work for radio, TV, and at sessions. This was especially true of the rhythm players: guitarists, bass players, percussionists, and pianists… the usual suspects were always there! Once we were in the studio, there was absolutely no need to explain anything to anyone… there was no room for small-talk – we wanted to record as much music as possible in the shortest possible time. When the session ended after three hours of virtually uninterrupted playing, we were immediately handed our check: thank you very much! We often spent the rest of the night in the pub. We got along very well together and I consider myself happy to have been part of this world.”
Kelehan’s life as a freelancer came to an abrupt end when he was offered a contract as a radio producer and staff conductor for RTÉ in 1973. Three years later, he also became the broadcaster’s staff arranger. “Having a salary instead of constantly looking for jobs to do was the best thing that could have happened to me”, says Kelehan. “Amongst many other things, I was given the opportunity to produce a jazz programme for the radio. Being RTÉ’s arranger was one hell of a job! In those days, live music was a much more usual feature on radio and television than later onwards. I spent entire nights working on all sorts of scores at the kitchen table. Sometimes, my children had breakfast before going to school, while I was still at work on some arrangement.”
Noel Kelehan composed signature tunes to dozens of television programmes, while he worked on live TV shows with comedian Hal Roach in the 1970s and talk show host Pat Kenny in the 1980s. RTÉ regularly commissioned Kelehan to compose serious works for radio and television broadcasts and special occasions, ranging from jazz groups and string quartets to fully fledged symphonic pieces. Amongst the most striking works in his oeuvre are two compositions from the 1980s, a ‘Suite for Chamber Orchestra’, which was performed featuring guitarist Louis Stewart as a soloist, and ‘Three Pieces for Percussion Ensemble and Symphony Orchestra’, which was premiered by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Dublin Festival of Twentieth Century Music.
For RTÉ, Noel Kelehan worked on the Eurovision Song Contest, but on other music festivals in Ireland and abroad as well. He was the chief conductor of the 1978 and 1982 editions of the Castlebar Song Contest, which was broadcast on nationwide television. On a couple of occasions, he was the musical director of the Irish delegation in the Knokke Cup, an international song festival in Belgium. Most importantly, however, Kelehan participated in many editions of the Nordring International Popular Music Festival, which was first held in 1973 in Dronten (Netherlands) and ran for over fifteen consecutive years. In this radio contest, with participating broadcasters from Western and Northern Europe, each country presented a one-hour-music programme. Kelehan took part in this festival as an arranger and/or conductor almost annually in the 1970s and early 1980s with entries such as ‘Zodiac’ (1975) and ‘Dubliners’ (1981). In 1979 and 1983, the Nordring Festival was held in Dublin, with Noel Kelehan at the helm of his beloved RTÉ Concert Orchestra. Kelehan comments: “Nordring was one of the most rewarding projects I was involved in. The level of music was so much higher than at the Eurovision Song Contest. We did not have to take into account the laws of pop music for fear of falling out of favour with the mass audience. Each nation presented a programme about its culture and history. Sometimes, the results were very interesting and we Irish were honoured to be chosen as the overall winner of Nordring once.”
In jazz concerts and festivals, Noel Kelehan had the opportunity to work with some of the truly great, such as Pepper Adams, Art Farmer, Ronnie Scott, Bud Freeman, Maynard Ferguson, Jiggs Whigham, and Harry Edison. In 1978, he played the piano in the accompanying trio for American tenor and soprano saxophonist Zoot Sims in the Kilkenny Arts Festival. He was a member of the big band conducted by Bobby Lamb which performed in the 1981 edition of the Cork Jazz Festival. Considered one of Ireland’s most acclaimed jazz pianists, Kelehan was also invited to play in the Limerick Jazz Society and worked with his old friend, guitarist Louis Stewart, in a television concert broadcast in 1989. He had a lasting working relationship with Honor Heffernan, Ireland’s best-known jazz singer, who he accompanied on stage and for whom he arranged several albums; moreover, Heffernan and Kelehan worked together on radio programmes with jazz music as well. Kelehan recorded several jazz albums of his own, most notably ‘Ozone’ with the Noel Kelehan Quintet (1979), comprising Mike Nolan (trumpet, flugelhorn), Keith Donald (soprano and tenor saxophone), Frank Hess (bass), John Wadham (drums), and of course Kelehan himself (piano); this record includes a spectacular interpretation of the Celtic traditional ‘The Castle of Dromore’.
Due to his extensive professional activities with RTÉ, Kelehan’s work on commercial studio releases diminished dramatically after signing his contract with the broadcaster in 1973. Nevertheless, he still was involved in several projects, including conducting the orchestra for the recordings of two suites written by modern classical composer Shaun Davey: ‘The Brendan Voyage’ (1980) and ‘The Pilgrim’ (1983). In 1982, Kelehan arranged and conducted the crossover LP ‘An evening in Ireland’ for opera singer Louis Browne. His most unlikely involvement in any recording project came in 1984, when he was invited to write a string arrangement to ‘The unforgettable fire’, the title track of the eponymous U2 album – U2 being the single-most successful rock band of the 1980s and 1990s. “I was astonished when I heard they wanted me to write for them”, Kelehan laughs. “Although Bono and my wife Mary are distantly related, I did not know him personally. In truth, I doubted if it was wise to accept the offer, because I could not imagine how I could help a rock band. In the end, I went down to meet them and talk things over. They were only boys then and they could hardly explain what they wanted me to do, musically. As far as I know, none of them is able to read music. I made some notes during our conversation. Before I left, I made it clear I was absolutely not sure if this was going to work. Anyhow, I wrote this orchestration and we recorded the string arrangement. They had already recorded the melody – if you can call this a melody at all – to which the strings were added.” Contrary to Kelehan’s expectations, the combination of orchestral sounds and a U2 creation worked: ‘The unforgettable fire’ has become one of the band’s signature songs.
On his 65th birthday (December 2000), Kelehan retired from the staff of RTÉ. The broadcaster offered him a surprise party with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and conductors Proinnsías Ó Duinn, Gareth Hudson, and Colman Pearce providing the music; among the guests joining in the celebrations in the RTÉ Studios in Dublin was Noel’s old friend from England, Ronnie Hazlehurst. Kelehan continued working as an arranger and conductor after his retirement, mainly for crooner Daniel O’Donnell, for whom he arranged several albums in the 1990s and 2000s; for O’Donnell, Kelehan also conducted the orchestra on several television shows in Ireland as well as during his tour in the United States.
Although Kelehan developed Alzheimer's, he never lost the ability to read music, play the piano, and change key at will. After his passing away in February 2012, he was honoured with a funeral mass in which his beloved RTÉ Concert Orchestra provided the musical accompaniment, with Eimear Quinn singing two songs. As a tribute to their former conductor, the orchestra also played Noel’s arrangement to ‘Send in the clowns’.
Noel Kelehan in the Eurovision Song Contest
Mainly thanks to the enthusiasm of legendary TV producer Tom McGrath, RTÉ decided to enter the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest, due in Naples (Italy). The Irish representative was Butch Moore with his melancholic tune ‘I’m walking the streets in the rain’. “The original arrangement for this song, used in the national final, was written by me”, Kelehan comments. “After it won, the recording was made in London, something which was quite usual at that time. I was not involved in this recording in England. I was not sent along to Italy to be the conductor, either; we entered the competition for the first time and I suspect RTÉ never gave it a thought that it was customary to send a conductor along with the singer. In the years after, however, I was always asked to accompany the Irish representative; for the first time in 1966 with Dickie Rock. We went to Luxembourg, by plane. Oh yes, we were nervous! I did not know what to expect. I had done TV in Ireland before, of course, but this was something of quite another scale. Moreover, the contest was hugely popular in Ireland in those first years. It was completely new to us; the newspapers wrote a lot about the subject and it was on everybody’s lips.”
After having been replaced by Italian chief conductor Gianni Ferrio for Ireland’s first participation in the contest in 1965, Noel Kelehan conducted the remainder of the Irish entries in the 1960s: ‘Come back to stay’ for Dickie Rock (1966), ‘If I could choose’ for Sean Dunphy (1967), ‘Chance of a lifetime’ for Pat McGeegan (1968), and, the only up-tempo song in this list: ‘The wages of love’ for Muriel Day (1969). “All of them were giants in the Irish Showband scene”, Kelehan explains. “The Showbands are a purely Irish phenomenon. Singers accompanied by amateur or semi-professional instrumentalists brought their music to every part of our country, however remote. Therefore, the Showbands managed to create stars with a nationwide appeal. It was Dana who broke the mould somewhat in Ireland by proving that the Eurovision Song Contest could produce stars in its own right.”
In spite of his nervousness on the occasion of his first Eurovision performance as a conductor in Luxembourg (1966), Kelehan soon found out his job was not a challenge. “The international contest was quite easy for a conductor”, Noel says with the modesty that is so characteristic of him. “Because these orchestras were so huge, I had to make somewhat more impressively looking gestures in order for all musicians to be able to see me – that was the only difference with a normal gig. But then again, you only had to do this one song. The music was simple; when I had read the music through once, I could conduct it. Professionals should all be able to do this. It is really something different to do Eurovision or to conduct a piece of classical music for a symphony orchestra! To be quite honest with you: when you cannot conduct a festival entry, you should not be in the business. The orchestra musicians in the country where the contest was staged knew the arrangement and had rehearsed before the arrival of all delegations. Usually, there were no problems whatsoever. Most of the time, these guys were fantastic professionals: they could have played without a conductor!”
Does this mean Kelehan thought of the contest as just another job? “It is true that the work that I have done for Eurovision is simply part of my professional responsibilities”, he explains. “However, this has to be balanced with what a Eurovision performance means to the participating artists. For them, it is often a crucial moment in their career, and I always try to put myself in their shoes – so it never becomes routine. After some years, I knew exactly what was awaiting us at the international contest. Therefore, I was sometimes able to help the participants when they were very nervous. Before the show, I often came to their dressing room to calm their nerves – especially these young girls could do with a little pep talk! I would say: ‘We are simply going to do our best, nothing more, nothing less. And after that, the juries will decide who is going to be the winner, but this is not in our hands! All you have to do now is giving as much as you have got. And then we are going to have a good time during the rest of the evening.’”
Although Noel was still a freelancer in the 1960s, RTÉ commissioned him to accompany the winner of the Eurovision selection programme in Ireland to the international festival year after year. However, when Ireland won the Eurovision Song Contest in Amsterdam (1970) with Dana and ‘All kinds of everything’, Noel was not there. Just as in 1965, the host conductor, in this case Dolf van der Linden from the Netherlands, conducted the orchestra for the Irish entry. Why was that? Noel wryly comments: “This was quite a painful affair. It was about money... In those days I was not on the RTÉ staff yet. The board of RTÉ refused to pay me the hundred pounds I asked for, offering a mere seventy pounds. When going to Eurovision, RTÉ covered the expenses, the flight and the hotel. On top of that, you were given an extra payment, but it was not much to speak of. In fact, I could earn more money by staying in Dublin, continuing my normal activities there. At that time, I used to play with my trio in the Shelbourne Hotel. It would have cost me money to give that up for a week and go to Amsterdam. After I became an RTÉ employee, I was given a fixed salary and Eurovision simply became part of the job. In 1970, however, I had to make sure that I gained enough income. When Dana won it, I was very disappointed and even somewhat angry – a bit of both. RTÉ did not always treat me well in those early years. Imagine: I was once fined for not wearing a tie during a TV performance!”
After Dana’s victory, it was up to Ireland to organize the 1971 Eurovision Song Contest. RTÉs staff conductor Colman Pearce was given the honour of being the musical director of the contest, but Kelehan received the commission to compose the opening music and conducted the Irish entry, ‘One day love’ by Angela Farrell. “This first Eurovision Song Contest in Ireland was the most ambitious undertaking the Irish broadcasting service has ever had to cope with”, Kelehan recalls. “It was the first time RTÉ had ever undertaken a production on that scale, and in addition it was the first time they produced in colour. The whole thing would not have been possible without the vision of producer Tom McGrath. The Gaiety Theatre was a very small venue by today’s standards. There were only a few dressing rooms, so everyone had to arrive dressed for their performance. The stage was tiny and the presenter read her announcements from one of the balconies. It was a small theatre, nothing more! Venues such as the RDS and the Point Theatre, which were chosen to stage the contest in the 1980s and 1990s, were certainly more accessible logistically speaking.”
After his involvement in the 1971 Eurovision Song Contest, Colman Pearce, a staff member of RTÉ, replaced Noel Kelehan for several years as the musical director of the Irish pre-selection programme and the conductor of the Irish entry in the contest proper. When Kelehan was appointed conductor and arranger at RTÉ in 1973 and 1976 respectively, it was not long before Pearce, who was always mainly a classically-minded musician, had to make way for Kelehan again. Noel conducted three more Irish Eurovision entries in the 1970s: ‘When’ for Red Vincent Hurley (1976), ‘It’s nice to be in love again’ for the Swarbriggs+2 (1977), and ‘Born to sing’ for Colm Wilkinson (1978).
Kelehan has especially fond memories of the festival at Wembley, London, in 1977. “Eurovisions in England were special occasions for me, since I knew a lot of the musicians in the orchestra there – at least, by name. So before starting the first rehearsal there was a lot of handshaking to do! At the festival in London, Ronnie Hazlehurst became my friend. He was the conductor of the BBC orchestra. We met again at the contest in Harrogate in ’82, which was a wonderfully organized festival too. We remained closely acquainted until Ronnie died. I knew quite some conductors from other countries who did Eurovision year after year with the same approach as I – we did not take it entirely seriously. When we met for yet another festival, we would say, laughingly: ‘Here we go again!’ This does not mean that we did not want to do our best and make the most of it – far from! But we liked to have the occasional drink and laugh. Freddy Sunder from Belgium was another conductor with whom I liked to hook up. Apart from that, you would mostly be with your own delegation. It was a joy to be in a foreign country while being looked after very well by the organizers.”
Thanks to Eurovision, year by year, Kelehan’s face became more and more familiar to European viewers. This does not automatically lead to a similar amount of acclaim at home, as Noel himself laughingly explains: “Towards the end of the 1970s, the oldest two of our three children were adolescents. Children of that age have a very clear vision about what is cool and what is not… and Eurovision was certainly not cool, according to them! So when they found out I was working on yet another Irish final or Eurovision Song Contest, they complained to me: ‘Dad, don’t tell me you will be doing the Eurovision again… not again, please! Do you really have to do that?’ They were embarrassed for me and tried to keep it from their friends at school. Sometimes, they came home telling us what their classmates had said to them: ‘Go tell your father we are paying a lot of money just to see him on television’. This was, of course, something which fathers of children had said, referring to the TV fees everyone in Ireland has to pay. These parents said it in jest, of course, but my children did not take it lightly back then!”
Noel Kelehan skipped the 1979 Eurovision Song Contest in Jerusalem, as he was nervous about travelling to Israel, upon which he was replaced by his colleague Proinnsías Ó Duinn. Kelehan came back, however, and conducted all Irish Eurovision entries in the 1980s, the first one being ‘What’s another year’ in 1980. Interpreted by Johnny Logan, the song composed by Shay Healy crushed all other competitors at the festival held in The Hague. “We had a good time in the Netherlands in 1980, even before we won”, Noel says. “‘What’s another year’ was a song which I expected to appeal to a lot of people; for me, the victory did not come out of the blue – and I can say pretty much the same about ‘Hold me now’ in ’87. Although I never worked with Johnny Logan outside the Eurovision Song Contest, I can say he was a nice bloke to work with; winning the festival did not make him arrogant. As I was part of the winning team for the first time in 1980, I was very happy and proud to be part of it. It felt a bit as a personal victory as well! In the night following our win, Irish people living in the Netherlands flocked to our hotel to congratulate us. When we returned to Ireland the next day, the airport in Dublin was a madhouse! For a long time, I did not manage to find my wife, who was there with her sister and her father to collect me. There was such a huge crowd of people surrounding Johnny and all of us that my family did not succeed in even coming near to me.”
As a result of Johnny Logan’s Eurovision victories in 1980 and 1987, RTÉ got to organize the contest twice. The 1981 and 1988 editions of the festival were both staged at the Royal Dublin Society (RDS), with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra led by Noel Kelehan providing the music. Including his involvement in the 1990s, Kelehan had the honour of being the chief conductor of the contest on no fewer than five occasions (1981, 1988, 1993, 1994, 1995), another unbreakable Eurovision record.
How much preparation time did a musical director of such a huge show programme need? Kelehan: “We are looking at months of preparation here. The first step came when the scores of the songs all over Europe came in. This was well in advance of the rehearsals. There used to be a team of three people helping me, for example when we were waiting for an arrangement to arrive from any given country. In such a case, one of my assistants got on the phone with that country’s broadcaster to find out why we had not received anything yet and if they could be so kind to send it to us. Subsequently, I checked the scores for things that were not clear. If there were problems, mostly, these could be cleared up with the arrangers before the performers arrived to rehearse. With the orchestra, I played through all songs and, if we still had any questions, it was noted and discussed with the composer or arranger before the rehearsals began. I had made notes about all songs. When a conductor came out, I could ask him: ‘Before you start… we played the arrangement, but there is something we do not completely understand about the trombones in bar 57. Could you explain this to us?’ During the week itself, I was on hand during every rehearsal to act as a mediator between the guest conductor and the orchestra. These were very long days indeed, but it was quite important to get even the slightest problem out of the way as soon as possible. When the rehearsals are about to start on location, the music part of the show has to be sorted out completely. There is no room for discussions anymore. After all, the director and his crew need all the time they have to make their shots and the sound as good as they can.”
Having been involved in so many Eurovision Song Contests, Noel Kelehan does not have specific memories of all of them; the 1990 festival in Zagreb, in what was then Yugoslavia, is a marked exception. Ireland’s representative Liam Reilly managed to do very well, finishing second, but Kelehan did not enjoy his stay in the Croatian capital at all: “I had a feeling of impending doom in Zagreb. This is hardly surprising considering the later turn of events in the former Yugoslavia. There was not the usual interest and support for the contest from the ordinary people on the streets that you normally feel in a host country. To add insult to injury, Yugoslav TV had in mind not to let the conductor take his bow before his country’s entry. They wanted to show postcards of each country instead. Upon that, the conductors from all participating nations came together and we decided to draft a signed petition to offer it to the organisation. As I was the most experienced of the lot, all others gathered around me and I became the ringleader in spite of myself… We threatened to go on strike. Luckily, the decision was reversed” (check the biography of Yugoslavian host conductor Stanko Selak for more details of the impending conductors’ strike in Zagreb, BT).
During the broadcast, all conductors were shown while counting in the orchestra, except for… Noel himself! Was this an act of revenge on Noel by the local production team? We will probably never know. Kelehan: “Ah, I rather think it was simply a mistake. Zagreb, organisation-wise, was the worst contest in which I participated. The people were not very friendly, the hotel in which we stayed was worn-down, and there were guards with machineguns everywhere… not the nicest of atmospheres. There also was this issue with the Spanish rhythm track. I will never forget the reaction in the conductors’ dressing room when we saw the breakdown of the track on the TV monitor. It was the first song in the contest! The poor Spanish girls had to start their song again and my colleagues felt that it was an omen of disaster (check the bio of Spanish maestro Eduardo Leiva for more details, BT). I myself was not too worried, as our music was performed entirely live. Many years later, my wife suggested going on holiday to Croatia, but I would not have anything of it! To have been there once was more than enough for me…”
If Zagreb 1990 was the worst edition of the Eurovision Song Contest for Noel Kelehan, the festival in Rome (1991) is a strong contender for second place. Kelehan: “In Rome, things were not much better. My hotel was in the middle of nowhere… I was totally isolated there. The show was staged in the studios where all these spaghetti westerns were recorded. Those Italians could not care less about this Eurovision Song Contest. They constantly told us they were not ready yet. During the rehearsals, there were moments I thought the whole programme might be cancelled. They were far behind schedule. We were certainly given the full Italian experience that week…” That year, Ireland finished tenth with Kim Jackson and her ballad penned by Liam Reilly, ‘Could it be that I’m in love’.
The Green Island fared much better in Eurovision 1992, held in Malmö (Sweden). Linda Martin won with ‘Why me?’, composed by none other than Johnny Logan, who celebrated his third contest victory. Kelehan enjoyed the trip to Sweden to the full: “It was the only time my wife Mary accompanied me to a festival away from Ireland. Ronnie Hazlehurst, who conducted the English entry again, had a new girlfriend and he suggested that I would bring Mary with me, because it would be more enjoyable to spend the week with the four of us together. The Swedish organisation was marvellous, a real treat after the disasters in Zagreb and Rome; we were in a very good hotel and buses arrived constantly to bring you anywhere you wanted. We made some interesting daytrips. One of them was by boat to Copenhagen, where we visited the former harp player of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, Helen Davies. She had moved to Copenhagen after marrying Danish jazz trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg. When Linda Martin won, I was very happy for her. She is such a friendly lady and a very capable singer. Linda is someone who learnt the business the old-fashioned way, by touring Ireland year after year. Later onwards, we worked together on a great number of TV shows.”
Linda Martin’s victory with ‘Why me?’ was the first of three consecutive Irish victories. As a result, the festivals of 1993, 1994, and 1995 were all held in Ireland – the 1993 edition in the Green Glens Arena in tiny Millstreet, the two others in Dublin’s Point Theatre. Noel Kelehan was the musical director of these three contests. “While the Point was a superb venue, Millstreet was a unique and challenging experience”, Kelehan recalls. “The nearest accommodation to the Arena was twenty odd miles away by country road in Killarney. We were leaving the hotel at 7.30 in the morning and returned at about 11.30 at night. In the early 1990s, many countries from the east joined the contest and quite many of the delegations from Eastern Europe did not have their proper conductor. Therefore, I had to do the job for them. Two of these entries spring to mind. The first one was the Bosnian song in Millstreet (1993); the Bosnian delegation wanted me to wear another tie during the performance of their song. It was a tie with a special motif, not really my taste – but I was happy to accept their request. My wife has kept this tie as a sort of relic. More striking perhaps was my involvement in the Polish entry of 1995 (Justyna Steczkowska with ‘Sama’, BT). The Polish composer did not speak English and we had to communicate through an interpreter. Although the interpreter could speak perfect Polish and English, she was not versed in musical terminology. This would have been a difficult enough situation of its own, but to add some disagreement broke out between the singer and the composer. She was an excellent artist and had her own ideas about the tempo at which the song should be performed. I was stuck in the middle of all this on Monday morning with a frantic floor manager shouting at us to get a move on and start the rehearsal. But that was my job!”
In the 1990s, Ireland seemed truly unbeatable. In 1996, when the festival was staged in Oslo, the Irish won again with angelic singer Eimear Quinn and her Celtic ballad ‘The voice’, written by Brendan Graham. Thanks to British Sky’s documentary about the Oslo festival, ‘It’s a killer’, in which Noel Kelehan features extensively, we get a tantalizingly short insight in the way the Irish conductor used to charm an orchestra with his modesty and mild humour. When the first rehearsal is about to begin, Kelehan turns to the orchestra musicians, saying: “Good afternoon. There will be no problem. I am not very good, but the song plays itself. I used to be a musician myself years ago… I made a brave attempt at the piano.” Kelehan refused to climb the conductor’s platform, choosing to lead the band simply standing in front of the string section. After the rehearsal, when there was a meeting of the Irish delegation to discuss the performance, he expressed his worries about the string arrangement, believing the loudness of it created a contrast which was too much; however, as soon as he noticed composer Brendan Graham was not considering making alterations, he backed off, obviously not being the kind of person to force his opinion on others.
One day before the actual contest, the conductors found out producer Odd Arvid Strømstad had decided to leave out the usual bow of each maestro to win time for a special feature: short films of politicians from each country wishing their representatives well – it was the same situation as in Zagreb 1990 all over again. Kelehan was very annoyed, as he explained to Sky TV: “We are like nonentities and this is getting up noses, obviously.” With three of his colleagues, Paul Abela, Anders Berglund, and Olli Ahvenlahti, he made it clear to Strømstad that he could expect a strike of all conductors if he persisted in his plan. Although the producer was much annoyed being threatened, he backed off. Kelehan, relieved, to Sky TV: “It is fixed. So what is going to happen: when they are showing the pictures of the various prime ministers or heads of state or something, there will be an applause and the floor manager will say ‘now’, upon which we will make a bow… thank you and good night. Two seconds!” On the night, Kelehan was very optimistic about winning the contest, asking a reporter: “How would you like a Dublin Guinness next year?” More than in any of the four previous winning acts he was involved in, Kelehan seemed part of the victory celebrations, embracing Eimear Quinn on stage after she had given the reprise of her winning song.
In 1997, the Eurovision Song Contest returned to Dublin’s Point Theatre, but, due to illness, Kelehan had to be replaced by Frank McNamara. Quite surprisingly, he made his comeback the year after, in the last Eurovision Song Contest to date with a live orchestra present. Ireland was represented by Dawn Martin, who performed ‘Is always over now?’, a ballad composed by Gerry Morgan, which finished ninth. For Kelehan, the 1998 contest in Birmingham was somewhat different from all previous occasions, as it was the first time he conducted an orchestration he had penned himself. “As a rule, I did not write any arrangements for songs in the Irish selection programme or the Eurovision Song Contest”, Kelehan explains. “As I was a member of the broadcaster’s staff and moreover involved as a conductor in the national final, RTÉ wanted me to avoid being involved in any participating entry. They did not want any talks about conflicts of interest or favouritism. It was an unwritten law which I always abided by, but… in 1998, things were a little different, as there was no orchestra in the heats in Dublin. After Gerry Morgan’s song won qualification for the international final, he requested me to take care of turning the record version into a suitable live orchestration. As I had not played any role in the selection programme, I saw no reason to turn the offer down. Although at no point in my career I felt the urge to participate in the contest as a composer, it was nice to write a little arrangement to a song… yes, why not? The week in Birmingham was very nice. I was able to spend my day off at a cricket match – a hobby of mine.” Then, laughingly: “When I noticed that singer from Germany during rehearsals (Guildo Horn, BT), I immediately called my wife in Dublin. That guy climbed the stage… it really worried me. After all, he could have fallen on top of me!”
Suitably, Kelehan received a Certificate of Outstanding Achievement at the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest, which was awarded to him by European media in recognition and appreciation of his outstanding services and unique contribution to the continued success of the contest. Quite remarkably, Noel Kelehan was the first and the last Irish conductor in the contest, having led the orchestra in 1966 for Dickie Rock and in 1998 for Dawn Martin – and most of the entries from the Emerald Isle in the years between, for that matter. When asked about his Eurovision record, Kelehan replies: “I suppose I was just a remarkable survivor. I cannot say that I am proud of being the record holder in terms of number of participations, but I was happy to do the job. Eurovision was a programme that gave me huge exposure. Moreover, thanks to the contest, I had the opportunity to visit all kinds of countries that other people would never see. But then, the national final in Ireland was fun to do as well. Especially in the 1960s and 1970s, it was an event of national importance. It was thought of as more important than the Eurovision Song Contest itself and always was one of the best watched TV programmes of the year. Although taking part in it was a risky business, some artists made a career out of it. Colm Wilkinson, for instance (Wilkinson represented Ireland in the 1978 festival in Paris, finishing fifth with ‘Born to sing’, BT)… he was an outsider in the business here in Ireland, as he had never been in the Showband circuit. His niche was blues music, but it was Eurovision which gave his career new impetus! Later, he starred in Broadway musicals.”
How does Kelehan explain the striking successes enjoyed by Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest and… does he have a favourite amongst the nearly thirty entries he conducted? “We Irish are a people that like to compete and give the best we have. The viewing rates were proof of that: everyone watched the contest. In pubs the programme would be on, as well – even if most people there were not interested in music at all. During the Irish entry the whole country came to a halt. But the voting was what it really was about. It was thought of as a matter of national pride! Moreover, I have always had the impression that most Europeans are friendlily disposed towards us, the Irish. And last but not least: some of our songs were very good! Although it is hard to pick a personal favourite, I would have to go for ‘In your eyes’ by Niamh Kavanagh, which won it for us in Millstreet (1993). A brilliant song performed by a very able singer. It is a shame Niamh did not really succeed in building up an international career in the aftermath of her victory. Of course, there were also songs which were not really my cup of tea, but who was I to utter criticism? After all, the entry representing us was selected by the Irish public.”
From 1999 onwards, there has been no orchestra in the Eurovision Song Contest to back up the participating artists. It is not hard to guess what Kelehan thinks about the absence of live music in the festival: “It was ludicrous to scrap the orchestra from the competition. The event lost so much of its character and became something of a farce. The orchestra was replaced by someone backstage pushing the button of a CD player. I am not against the use of tracks to enhance a piece of music; there are some tricks used in modern music production that just cannot be recreated by a live orchestra. Reinstating the orchestra would bring some reality back to the show and improve the atmosphere in the auditorium. As a musician, I have stopped watching the festival. To be honest, I am a bit surprised to hear that the programme still exists.”
Other artists on Noel Kelehan
Jon Kjell Seljeseth conducted the Icelandic entry in 1990; he remembers the impending conductors’ strike in Zagreb well: “1990 was my first participation in the contest. I was disappointed when I heard the conductors would not be shown on screen. But then, as a newbie, I thought there was nothing we could do. Then, I was approached by Noel. The veteran had it all figured out: ‘This is an insult to our professionalism’. He suggested going on strike and asked me if I was willing to sign a petition. Sure, I thought, what a great idea! After having consulted the head of the Icelandic delegation, I signed the petition. The threat of all conductors going on strike made the organizers reconsider; after all, without conductors, the show could simply not go on! A compromise was decided upon: before the start of each song, the conductor was shown on screen, but without the customary bow and without being introduced by the hosts. This was not an introduction that was as extensive as in the years before, but then, without Noel a solution would probably never have been reached.” (2007)
Olli Ahvenlahti, the regular conductor in the Eurovision Song Contest for Finland in the 1990s: “Zagreb 1990 was my first participation as the conductor for the Finnish delegation. I had met Noel, years before, in the jazz circuit – we are both jazz pianists – and it was a joy to meet up with him again at the contest. The introductions of the conductor before each entry had always been an important tradition in the show. Noel had been there the longest time, so he knew this better than anyone else. So we, the conductors, got together and decided to go on strike, if need be. Luckily, we came to an agreement with the organizers and thus, the tradition was maintained. After, I met Noel every year when Finland took part. Noel’s career as a conductor in the contest is unbeatable; he is one of the great icons of festival history. He is a true Dubliner, a warm, friendly music personality and a fabulous jazz pianist.” (2007)
Niamh Kavanagh, the singer who won the 1993 contest with Kelehan conducting her effort 'In your eyes', commenting on the news of Noel's passing away: "I cannot say enough about a talented and beautiful man, who I had the honour to know. He will be sadly missed. We shared a love of the wonderful standards. As we once played together, I say: everytime we say goodbye, I die a little, everytime we say goodbye, I wonder why a little… I know you are still playing the music, Noel. Rest in peace x". (2012)