For a decade and a half at the height of the live music days in pubs and clubs, one of the most popular bands in Dungannon and surrounding districts was a simple two-piece group comprising local lads Kevin Murray and Gregory Willoughby who called themselves Strings.
And Murray has been relating to me the intriguing story of how the duet was formed, his memories incorporating some very interesting tales of life on the road back in the days when even the simple task of fulfilling engagements presented unexpected hazards – as well as some very scary and humorous moments.
“It wasn’t my idea to start a two-piece band, it was Greg’s and it It started back in October 1978” he explained.
“We were just after leaving two great bands, Teresa and The Eagles and Simon Scott and Timepiece. I enjoyed playing with them both and Greg was there, too. The rhythm of his guitar was fantastic to listen to and his singing was great as well.
“The Eagles consisted of singer Teresa McStravog singer, Brendan Laird on rhythm guitar, Maxi Foye lead guitar, Donal Carey drums, and myself on bass guitar and one of the first bookings was in The Knights Of Malta hall in Sloan Street in March 1976.
“Teresa moved on then there was Carmel and the Eagles, Brendan had left and Greg had joined. Mairead Weir sang with us as well for a time. Ivan Vaughan followed and we changed the name to Simon Scott and Timepiece.
“Holding so many in any group is not easy, so Greg asked me about starting a two-piece as we were both singing so much - and our first gig was in the Cuckoo’s Nest in Ann Street with Bobby Mullan - the man who launched us” explained Murray.
But the fact that they still had no name made things awkward when they went looking bookings. But the problem was solved by Texan C&W star Don Williams of of ‘You’re My Best Friend’ fame.
“Listening to one of his first shows from Wembley, he turned to the crowd to introduce his band. But he didn’t call them his band, he called them his strings. I knew then that that was right for us, so the name Strings was born” revealed Murray.
“Our first year only okay, the second was when we really took off as a small circle of gigs - Coalisland , Stewartstown, Dungannon - expanded to take in Armagh, Cookstown, Moneymore and further afield.
“In 1980 we won an award from The Democrat readers, voted Top Local Country and Western Artists and the bookings kept coming, starting to get further away, as far as Newtownhamilton. And then we were asked would we go to Mullaghbawn GAA club one night. We didn’t have a clue where it was so, after a few directions, we took the booking.
“The first night is always the most important but it was on a Saturday night and it had been snowing on and off all day. We packed all the gear into my car, an Avenger, and started off, through Armagh to Newtown, into Beleek – and we hadn’t a clue if we were on the right road.
“At the bottom of Beleek street Greg spotted a signpost covered in snow. I can still see him climbing up the pole, with the cold wind blowing around him as he brushed off the snow.
“We still didn’t know the road but kept going and finally got there an hour late. We went in to find the hall packed with very sad people, who hadn’t expected us to face out on such a snowy night.
“We introduced ourselves at the bar and the barman shouted out to everyone: “The Group’s Here”. There was a very loud roar from everyone and, after shaking hands with us, the men followed us out to the car. One of the few occasions we had no gear to haul in, everything was carried in for us and, after that night we were kings in the Mullaghbawn club.
“All through the troubles, we played for all for all classes and creeds and, invariably, when coming home late we would be stopped and searched, sometimes having to take all the gear out of the trailer.
“Questions we would be asked: “Where were you playing tonight?” or “Much drink tonight, fellas?”. I think I disappointed a lot of policemen, as I didn’t drink at all.
“Of course, it was always a bonus if we played local which meant we would get home earlier than usual and one of the highlights was to rush back from the gig to the Clarkes Club, to McAshea’s chip van. I can still taste the sausages and chips and Gerry always gave us a big bag” recalled the guitarist, licking his lips as he vividly recalled those halcyon days.
But there were some frightening experiences as well.
“One night coming home from Stewartstown we got an awful scare. Taking the back rollercoaster road up to Brackaville, the lights of the car were shining downhill and we noticed a small man about three feet tall, with a huge white beard coming down the road towards us.
“He seemed very angry and for a few seconds we were petrified. The car, not me, drove on and as the lights started to shine up the hill they came to rest on what turned out to be a big ‘Lassie’ dog. Head on, it really had looked like a small man. We were scared then but had a good laugh afterwards.
“On frosty nights, driving on roads like bottles, with no grit on them at that time in the morning, with a trailer on behind needed extra care, but we generally managed without damage.
“One night leaving the Cohannon Inn, we passed two parked cars on the side and a man walked out from between the cars - right in front of us. Coming from the dance and a bit intoxicated, he was crossing over the road. All I could do was to turn the steering wheel very fast away from him.
“He was lucky. All he did was unwittingly walk on – not appreciating the mayhem he had caused. I had turned the steering so fast that I put the trailer over on its back but, thankfully, none of the band gear was damaged. We looked after the man and, amazingly, he just kept on walking into the night!”
Just like now, charity nights were a big thing in that era.
“They were always great occasions, the nights we would get to meet all the rest of the groups. We called them the opposition! Everyone did about fifteen minutes, so you got to see and hear what they were like on stage. Then we could talk and joke the rest of the night.
“To remember all the dances and functions we were at, I kept an admittance ticket for each one. I must have hundreds of them and also kept a small scrapbook with some photos. They are safe stored away and not many people have seen them. They have no value but, to me, they are pure gold.
“We had a few great nights that we will always remember. One was we got to meet great boxing legend Rinty Monaghan, a guest in Foresters Club with PG McQuaid. There he was standing beside us. There was Barnbrack from Belfast, a three-piece band we met a couple of times, and we backed Philomena Begley many times. I’m sure there were others, but I can’t remember them.
“Weddings were special. People still come up and say: “Do you remember playing at our wedding?” and I always ask: “When and where?”.
“The new thing was getting the wedding onto video. There would be plenty of those and I would dearly love to see some of them again and maybe take a few songs of them and put them on to a DVD - just to relive a wee bit of the past “ he said, by way of an appeal, I suspect.
But all good things come to an end and New Year’s Eve of 1991 was the final gig for Strings.
“It was in Killyman St Mary’s GAA hall. We must have impressed them the year before because they gave us this repeat booking and had asked us on that night to come back. We did so and at the end of the night I was sad but glad that the responsibility of getting to the gigs was over.
“A sore throat was always a disaster - but now it didn’t matter. ‘Would I do it all again?’ - you bet I would. Learning and remembering new songs was always difficult. Now, in 2012, I could hardly remember the songs we sang, never mind the words. Thus, it was over. We faded back into the distance and left the building. Strings were no more” added Murray, with an obvious melancholy.
They were great days for local musicians and singers alright and I will hopefully take more trips down memory lane with some others in the near future.