It is with much regret, this week, that I write my column as a tribute to my friend, Brendan O’Brien of The Dixies. Brendan died suddenly at home in his native Cork city last week from a suspected heart attack. He was only 66 and he is mourned, not only by his heartbroken family and friends, but by many thousands of people all over the country who danced to him in the halcyon showband era that was the 1960s.
In truth, Brendan was one of a small number of singers who were truly the original stars. There was Brendan Bowyer and The Royal, Brendan O’Brien and The Dixies, Dickie Rock and The Miami, Joe Dolan and The Drifters, Butch Moore and The Capital and Eileen Reid and The Cadets. Of course, many big and talented names followed hard on their heels but they were the first pop stars in this country and they have always held a very special place in the public’s heart.
I last met and spoke with Brendan at a function in Cork just before Christmas and, while I thought he looked tired, he seemed more relaxed and at peace with himself than he had been for many years. It might be a cliché to say it but he really was a lovely, decent man who hadn’t a malevolent or conceited bone in his body. He was often taken aback at how popular he was and surprised when he was recognised in the street or in hotels. I don’t think, he realised that he was, in fact, one of the iconic entertainment figures in this country during the latter half of the 20th. century.
Brendan wasn’t one of the original members of The Dixies and he first pursued a career as an architectural draughtsman. Had he continued on that path he would almost certainly have progressed to being an architect because he was academically gifted. It ran in the family, one of his brothers is a neuro-surgeon while the other two are very successful businessmen.
However, music was to be his life and, within a short time of accepting an invitation to join The Dixies from bandleader Sean Lucey, he became a household name. He was an extremely versatile singer although for many years he was associated with the music and hits of Buddy Holly. In the recording studio, Brendan was a producer’s dream and, invariably, his first ‘take’ would be the one that was used. He had almost 20 hits in this country but, of course, the one most associated with him is ‘Little Arrows’.
The 1970s was a cruel decade for Brendan O’Brien because, while his contemporaries proceeded to carve new careers out of the still warm embers of the showband era, he was struck down by ill health. By the early 1970s, Brendan and Joe McCarthy had left The Dixies to form the breakaway band Stage 2 and this writer was a member of the new Dixies still fronted and managed by its original bandleader, Sean Lucey. Even though we were in different bands, Brendan was always generous and encouraging with his comments and went out of his way to make me welcome in Cork where we had some good times together.
I was in his company in The Stardust Ballroom in Cork on that fateful night of October 1st., 1974 where a charity show was being mounted for a local good cause. Several members of The Dixies and myself had already performed before Brendan took the stage as the star of the night. Midway through his set, he received a massive electric shock suffering severe burns on both hands and, even more serious, a consequence was severe thrombosis of the main veins of his body.
For a while it was feared that Brendan might never walk again but he eventually pulled through. However, it was a long, long recovery and by the time he was fit enough to work again it appeared as if the world had passed him by. His accident had serious financial consequences for him as well and he lost very close to all his savings and investments. But, as if fate hadn’t dealt him a big enough blow, his biggest battle was to come, against alcohol.
Sadly, there were to be many lows in the years ahead including the collapse of his marriage but there were also many periods of soberness when his dazzling talent once again shone brightly. The original Dixies reformed for a hugely successful farewell tour and Brendan recaptured the audiences of his youth. He was out front under the spotlight doing what he did best. He was home, he was loved and he was well. But the world moves on incessantly and, for a variety of reasons, the original Dixies couldn’t keep touring and, still battling courageously against the booze, Brendan returned to his one-man shows and regular spots on radio and television.
The last time I saw Brendan play live on stage with a proper band backing him was in The Olympia Ballroom in Waterford in 1997. The building was due to be demolished and its owners, Ollie and Carmel O’Brien, somehow got planning permission and insurance cover to open it as a dancing venue for one last week. Many of the old bands were booked to perform at the ‘Last Dance at the Olympia’ and the series of gigs was a great success. Brendan came as a solo artiste but, when he went on stage, he was backed by Noel and the Aces, a band formed out of the Black Aces Showband from Kilkenny.
There were at least 2000 people in the hall and Brendan went down so well he had to perform a string of encores. The years had been rolled back for one night and I was delighted for Brendan because he showed he still had the old magic that, these days, is referred to as the X-factor. He had it in spades.
In recent years, Brendan had scaled back his performances apart from major bookings such as The Late Late Show gig he did recently. He and Sean Lucey were particularly close and spent a lot of time in each other’s company. I walked with them through Cork city centre last December and they must have been sore from shaking the outthrust hands of non-stop well-wishers. It was over 40 years since they were Cork’s musical superstars but the legend appears to live on even among the younger generations.
But that’s one thing I’ve always admired and liked about Cork people. Despite the passing years, they never forget or stop loving the people that brought glory to Leeside be it in the entertainment, sporting or political sectors and, without doubt, Brendan O’Brien was a true Cork hero. This column was written in advance of his Requiem Mass in St. Patrick’s Church, Lower Glanmire Road on Wednesday but I know it will be full to overflowing in memory and respect of a rare and much loved man.