A Beginning

 

My birth, on February 19th 1942, was a bit of an anti-climax. While celebrated by my parents, as their fourth child and third son, my arrival went completely unnoticed by the outside world. Mind you, in fairness, there were a few distractions at the time, most notably the Second World War, which was packing them in throughout Europe.

I grew up in Derry, Northern Ireland, in an era of air raid shelters and ration books. Everything had to be bought with coupons - from essentials like clothes, tea and sugar, to luxuries like cakes and chocolate. The latter category was no great hardship in our family. We could never have afforded them anyway! I had two older brothers, an older sister and a younger one, with a year or so between each of us.

My father was a cop on the beat, one of the few Catholic Constables in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and we lived in a simple two up, two down terrace house.

The most valuable and valued piece of furniture was the Challen upright piano. Our house was always full of music.

My father was from Strangford in County Down. He played the fiddle. And my mother, who was from Belfast, from the Markets, played the piano. Now they weren’t particularly good, but that didn’t matter. They enjoyed every note. And from them I learned that love of just playing and the pure joy of music.

And it seemed that if there was any excuse for a party in the neighbourhood, it would be at Coulters.

Education

 

I went to college in St. Columb’s in Derry. There was a very strong academic tradition there and the emphasis was on achieving. This was your ticket out of there, your ticket to better things.

I suppose they must have done something right, because amongst other products of the place around about then were Brian Friel (the playwright), Seamus Heaney (Nobel Laureate for poetry), Seamus Deane (writer and Professor of English at Notre Dame) and John Hume (Nobel Laureate for Peace).

There were a couple of us from St. Columbs who got State Exhibitions. I think they were awarded to maybe the top twenty places in the North of Ireland in final exams and as you might imagine they were hotly contested. It was a particular point of pride for St. Columb’s, a Catholic college full of working class kids on scholarships, that they could compete with the best of the ‘posh’ more privileged establishments. So there was a kind of a tradition, that if you won a State Exhibition, you came and asked for a free day for the rest of the school. The word had percolated through,it seemed that every single pupil had gathered outside the front door. And I went up and asked the Head for the free day.

And although there was this long established tradition, he kind of hummed and hawed about it, and said “Well I don’t know,” then “Okay, okay Coulter......... I suppose you’d better let them know!”

So I came out to the top of the stairs, with all the school assembled below, and I just went “YES!” And to this day, I can remember all the eyes looking up and the faces. And there was that feeling of being the local hero, it was such an intoxicating feeling. It has never left me.

Within weeks of beginning my first term studying music at Queens University, Belfast, I started my own band and from that moment onward my fate was sealed.

I spent my days being intense about Palestrina, and playing polyphony of the late 1600’s, and my nights being even more intense about Fats Domino, and playing Rock and Roll of the early 1960’s.

By my final year at University, I’d already written a couple of hits in Ireland and there was only one place on the planet for me in 1964 - LONDON!

London in the Swinging Sixties

London in the mid 60s was the most exciting place on earth. I’d wangled a job as an arranger/songwriter with a music publisher in Denmark Street, London’s Tin Pan Alley and I loved it. Mind you, the first few months were pretty frustrating. Instead of arranging scores for all the top stars, as I had imagined, I was arranging sandwiches for all the office girls!

After a few years, I teamed up with a slightly mad Scot called Bill Martin, and we joined an illustrious band of songwriting duos on the street - Roger Greenaway and Roger Cook, Les Reed and Barry Mason, Mitch Murray and Peter Callander, Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood.

To supplement the cash flow I was also moonlighting as a piano player and worked in the studio or on stage with everyone from Van Morrison and Tom Jones to Jerry Lee Lewis and The Rolling Stones. Life was sometimes fraught, never boring.

Within a couple of years we’d written our first major hit ‘Puppet On A String’ which won the Eurovision Song Contest for the U.K. in 1967. It went on to be a huge international hit clocking up over 100 versions. The next year we came within one point of pulling off a double with ‘Congratulations’ by Cliff Richard. We didn’t win, but we had another massive worldwide hit.

Between those two songs we sold over ten million records. Now we were in business!

The Sensational Seventies

For us the next 15 years were a wonderful adventure. Not every song we wrote was a hit. Not every project was a winner. But we certainly had more than our fair share of success and we sure as hell had a lot of laughs.

In 1970 we continued our incredible run of luck with the Eurovision Song Contest and came up with another winner, ALL KINDS OF EVERYTHING sung by DANA, representing Ireland, who also happened to come from Derry this made me a bit of a hero back home and my Mum and Dad the toast of our street!

That year the country was in the grip of soccer fever. This was WORLD CUP year and as reigning champions England were off to MEXICO to defend the title. We dreamed up the notion of recording a single and album with the players. It’s hard to believe today, when football records are the norm, that back then it was regarded as a completely wacky idea! Nonetheless we persevered and on the very day that the squad were flying out both the album and the single BACK HOME were number one in the charts.

We just didn’t realise what we had started!
Richard Harris who was a major movie star had enjoyed a surprise hit with a brilliant and complex seven minute song called MCARTHUR PARK. By any standards it was a pop classic, but Harris went back to making movies.

Harris and I used to drink in the same pub in Chelsea, The Queens Elm, popular with emigre Irish. We became friends and I persuaded him to go back into the studios to record again. The result was a hit single and album called MY BOY. On the back of that we toured the U.S. for eight weeks. I can’t remember a lot about that tour, and the bits I can remember you don’t want to hear about. Trust me.

We’d had some wild times, offstage and some unforgettable moments onstage, including a concert with the LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA. But once again, Harris went back to making movies.

It was a real bonus and one of the biggest thrills of my life when two years later MY BOY became an international smash hit for ELVIS PRESLEY.

The early seventies saw the emergence of a new phenomenon - the TEENYBOPPER, and record companies woke up to the fact that the kids who were buying singles were ten years younger than they used to be!

We set about getting our piece of the action, looking round for a band that would be a good vehicle for our songs. Out of the blue we got a call from DICK LEAHY who was running BELL RECORDS. He had a band he believed in but badly needed songs and production. The band was THE BAY CITY ROLLERS and a minor industry was born.

As writers and producers we sold millions of records with REMEMBER, SHANG-A- LANG, SUMMER LOVE SENSATION, ALL OF ME LOVES ALL OF YOU, we had number one records in the U.S. with the single SATURDAY NIGHT, and the album ROLLIN and we watched in awe as ROLLER MANIA became a worldwide craze, carried on a wave of tartan from South America to the Far East. Happy days!

Our teenybopper machine continued to crank out hits. We had five top ten hits with a band called KENNY (HEART OF STONE, GIVE IT ME NOW, THE BUMP, FANCY PANTS, JULIE ANNE) and a massive number one “FOREVER AND EVER”, for SLIK featuring MIDGE URE who went on to greater things including ULTRAVOX and BAND AID.

Around this time I had a phone call from SLIK’S manager in Glasgow. He was trying to persuade me to take on another act that he managed. He described him as a Scots folk singer who played the banjo, told a few gags and was just a bit mad. The whole package sounded like a particularly bad idea to me and I basically said “Thanks but no thanks!” He was however a very persuasive man and talked me into going to Scotland to hear this act. Am I ever glad that I changed my mind, because the act in question turned out to be a huge worldwide success and even more important has become one of my closest friends. His name? Billy Connolly!

Irish Roots

Surrounded by all this madness I was able to keep my sanity by working in the somewhat gentler pastures of IRISH FOLK MUSIC. I’d always had a passion for Irish music and I suppose my commercial success meant that I could indulge myself by working with some of the very best exponents.

While teenybopper music was good for my bank balance, Irish music was good for my soul!

In the early seventies I produced three ground breaking albums with PLANXTY (comprising LIAM O’FLYNN, DONAL LUNNY, ANDY IRVINE AND CHRISTY MOORE) They were a seminal influence on Irish music and even today there are strong traces of PLANXTY in the music of RIVERDANCE.

As a songwriter I felt I had a chance to write songs of a little more substance working in this idiom, and indeed some of my personal favourites date from this time.

It was during a 3 year period producing the DUBLINERS, for example, that I wrote “SCORN NOT HIS SIMPLICITY”. and “THE TOWN I LOVED SO WELL”, both introduced to the world by the unique voice of LUKE KELLY.

I also had a wonderful time producing some highly successful records with THE FUREY BROTHERS. “SWEET SIXTEEN”, may have been their biggest hit but I have a particular soft spot for their version of my songs “THE OLD MAN” and “STEAL

Tranquility

Without a doubt it was my passion for Irish music that gave me the idea of one day getting around to making an instrumental album of my favourite Irish melodies.

That opportunity finally came in 1984. I had split with my partner of many years Bill Martin and had decided to devote myself to projects that I had wanted to do for years. One of these turned out to be an album called CLASSIC TRANQUILITY.

I took a bunch of the great tunes that I had grown up with and gave them arrangements and orchestrations which I felt were fresh, maintaining at all times the simple beauty of the melodies. Then I recorded them, using my favourite young rhythm section and strings, in my favourite state of the art studio.

I was pleased with the result and hoped that people would share my enjoyment of the music. I was quietly confident of the quality of the album but nothing could have prepared me for the incredible reaction. It just took off!

In a matter of months it became the biggest selling album ever in Ireland - we even outsold the POPE!

I realised that I had struck a chord with this combination and it was so rewarding and so exciting having a hit album as a performer!

I couldn’t wait to get back in the studio to see if we could repeat the process, which was by no means a foregone conclusion. To my great relief, “SEA OF TRANQUILITY” out performed CLASSIC, knocked it into second place of all time Irish bestsellers! It seemed I had a new career!

Hit the Road Jack

Fifteen years and as many albums later, I can look back on that adventure, sometimes with disbelief, always with affection and gratitude.

The highs have been amazing:-

  • Coast to coast tours of U.S.
     

  • Four sellout visits to Carnegie Hall.
     

  • Royal command performances from Japan to Finland.
     

  • Three personal invitations from the President of the U.S. to perform at The White House.
     

  • Playing live to 600,000 outdoors on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C, with the National Symphony Orchestra.
     

  • Marching at the head of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York with Mayor Giuliani.
     

  • Recording and touring with James Galway.
     

  • Sharing the bill with Gregory Peck at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
     

  • The memories are so vivid, so special, cherished and never to be forgotten.

Songs and Productions

After “WINTER’S CROSSING’ I took some time out from performing to produce a couple of very interesting projects. One, with Irish piano virtuoso ALISON HOOD, featured contemporary arrangements of the music of Ireland’s most influential classical composer JOHN FIELD.
The other gave me an opportunity to work with an old friend, and fellow Derry native ROMA DOWNEY. (Touched By An Angel). The album, called “HEALING ANGEL” featured Roma speaking the words of old Celtic prayers and words of wisdom, accompanied by original music which I had written. It enjoyed a spell in the BillBoard New Age chart and has now become something of a collectors’ item.

The year 2000 was particularly memorable because my album “HIGHLAND CATHEDRAL” received a Grammy Nomination. Although it had been very well reviewed, and gone straight into the chart on its release, the nomination came out of the blue and completely blew me away!

Having been in the game for nearly 40 years as a writer/producer it was so thrilling to be recognized as a recording artiste. I was truly delighted.The Award ceremonies in Los Angeles and rubbing shoulders with other Grammy nominees are memories I’ll always cherish.

I daresay it was this recognition that gave me the courage to follow through with an album that was very reflective and deeply personal.

“LAKE OF SHADOWS,” of all my albums is probably the one of which I most proud. The lake in question is Lough Swilly, in Donegal. Curiously it is said to be the place where a certain sea captain called JOHN NEWTON, composed ”Amazing Grace,” having been delivered to the safety of the lough from a raging storm in the North Atlantic. It was also the location of some major events in Irish history, including the Flight of the Earls in 1607 and the capture of Wolfe Tone during the Great Rebellion in 1798.

It is a place which is deeply entwined in my own life. It was the scene of some the happiest times in my life when I played and swam there with mybrothers and sisters during Summer holidays, and of the most tragic, when,in two separate incidents, I lost my brother Brian and my young sister Cyd, through drowning.

I was fortunate to be able to call on a couple of supremely talented friends, LIAM NEESON and SINEAD O’CONNOR, to contribute to that album. It is worth checking out.

My next project, ‘THE SONGS I LOVE SO WELL” was, again, something different – an entirely vocal album, with me singing my own songs. Our earliest concerts had been all instrumental affairs but gradually, in response to so many requests, I began introducing a few vocals , until that ingredient grew to become a very important part of our sets.

Folks started asking where they could find my vocal versions of ”The Town I Loved So Well,’ or “The Old Man” or “Steal Away.” Others asked where they could get the words and music. So we decided to kill two birds with one stone, and released the album and music folio of ”THE SONGS I LOVE SO WELL.”

Current Projects

A NEW MILLENIUM


Having marked the turn of the century with a Grammy nomination, very soon after we were handed a whole new set of  challenges.


In 2003,I was invited by RTE, our National T.V. station, to  host my own show ‘Coulter & Company”. It ran for three seasons, was a hell of a lot of fun and allowed me to feature a collection of friends and musical heroes, from John Prine to Albert Hammond, Nanci Griffith to Dr Hook, Ralph McTell to the Dubliners.


The dust had barely settled on that project when I threw myself wholeheartedly into helping to create a new group,CELTIC THUNDER. I even came up with the name during a violent storm while we were recording in my favourite studio, up in the Glens of Antrim. From the casting auditions to writing all the original material, choosing the repertoire and acting as Musical Director, in studio and on tour, for four years it was my number one priority. It was hard work but I got immense satisfaction in witnessing its enormous success across the US. via P.B.S.
It became a phenomenon.The first six Specials were record breaking.  They all made it high in the Billboard World Music Charts, and most were certified Double Platinum.It was a great adventure and an achievement I’m immensely proud of.                       

 

Here’s a quick rundown of standout events in the years that followed…………


2009    

For Outstanding Achievement, The British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors gave me their highest accolade, the GOLD BADGE AWARD.


2010     

‘An Irish Christmas’ hosted by me and filmed on location, featuring Roma Downey, Moya Brennan, Jean Butler, Frank McCourt.


2011       

Heartland, the composer’s salute to Celtic Thunder’ ,CD released on Shanachie Records.


2012  

THE IRISH REPERTORY THEATRE, off Broadway in N.Y. stage my one man show, The Songs I Love So Well , for five weeks, to great critical acclaim.


2013       

Derry is named U.K.City of Culture. I am commissioned to compose a new Derry anthem. “A Bright,Brand New Day”. Perform two sold out concerts with the Ulster Symphony Orchestra. A hometown lap of honour!!


2014     

 U.S.  Coast to Coast Tour, culminating in a triumphant return to CARNEGIE HALL, provoking standing ovations from a full house, including President Clinton.


2015     

Release of ‘Echoes of Home’ C.D. with guest appearances from Paul Brady, Finbar Furey and Billy Connolly.


2016    

Awarded Honorary Doctorate by the Irish American University.


2017    

A national reviewer calls my One Man Show, PURE GOLD, which prompts me to release an album and start a Nationwide tour of the same name.


2018  

Awarded  Honorary Doctorate (My Fifth!) by the Open University.


2019  

Gill Books, publish my memoir BRUISED, NEVER BROKEN.In its first week it actually makes number three……in my local bookshop!!


2020 

COVID arrives and all bets are off. Encouraged by the younger members of my team I grab the social media bull by the horns, hosting 22 weeks of THE LOCKDOWN LOUNGE every Saturday and posting  a couple of videos every week.

 

Demand just keeps growing, until ,with our latest post, SCORN NOT HIS SIMPLICITY featuring Ryan Hennessy, we hit over a quarter of a million views. Happy days.


ONWARDS AND UPWARDS!

Image by Katie Harp

©2020 Phil Coulter