Muriel Day, still doing a full day (and night’s) work, spoke to the Irish World about her remarkable career
In November Petula Clark turned 84. This week Dame Shirley Bassey turned 80. Another birthday that received slightly less fanfare was that of their slightly less well-known contemporary Muriel Day, Ireland’s first ever female Eurovision star, Showband Queen Muriel Day.
When the Irish World spoke to Muriel, who turned 80 on 11 January, earlier this week she had just returned from finishing performing at 3.00 am (the last performance of the Do You Come Here Often? Showband Show that has been going for the past twenty years) and was preparing for her local radio show that afternoon, on Fever 40 in Newtownards.
Although she lived and performed in Canada and North America from the early 1970s to the early 1990s, Muriel (nee Galway) is a native of Newtownards in County Down whence she returned to look after her mum Margaret with her father James and brother Jim when Margaret was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Although it ultimately precipitated the end of her second marriage – “to a lovely man from Belfast, Eddie McCann, we were in the same band in Canada and got married” – it also brought her career full circle leading to the somewhat rarified title of Ireland’s “oldest and longest performing show band singer” and Show Band Queen.
That career started when she fronted Armagh’s Dave Glover show band from the late 50s, a screen appearance as the band singer in the film of Billy Liar in 1963, and alongside an up and coming performer at the start of her career, called Dusty Springfield. She hosted her own weekly live TV series with guest singers on the BBC called Day at Night between 1968 and 1970 and also a series on RTE.
In 1969 she became the first woman and first person from Northern Ireland to represent Ireland at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1969 – her fellow competitors in RTE’s National Song Contest included Dana, Dickie Rock, Butch Moore and many others – and went from Northern Ireland to represent Ireland in 1969’s Eurovision Song Contest in Madrid with The Wages Of Love. (That was the year the UK, Spain, the Netherlands and France were all joint winners).
The performance prompted Tom Jones’ and Shirley Bassey’s manager Ivor Miller to offer to represent her (the closest she ever got to either act) – even though, she says, he detested the actual song but, as Muriel recalls, it wasn’t to be because her husband, and former band leader, Dave Glover just did not want his wife working.
“when I mentioned the newspapers might find out about his other relationships and infidelities he gave me permission”
“That was what prompted me going to Canada but at the time Pierre Trudeau was in charge and he would not allow wives preceding their husbands entering the country without the written permission of the husband. I asked my husband and he initially refused but when I mentioned the newspapers might find out about his other relationships and infidelities he gave me permission,” says Muriel.
For the next twenty years she toured Canada and the US with her band The Night Squad appearing on the same TV shows and bills (if not necessarily the same stages) as Liza Minnelli, Carole King and Tony Bennett.
“We were regulars at Hugh Heffner’s Playboy Clubs like the Great Gorge in New Jersey (these days known as The Legends Resort & Country Club on County Route 517 in Vernon Township in Sussex County, New Jersey).
“There would be three floors, on the top floor would be the big star headliners like Tony Bennett, on the idle floor would be a jazz pianist and on the bottom floor would be performers and acts like us.
“Tony Bennett would come down and watch us and applaud and other stars like Vic Damone. We also performed with people like Buck Owens and his Buckaroos, he was also such a lovely man despite being a huge, huge star.
“They were such gentlemen, at the top of their game and careers, and so humble and modest and encouraging. Vic Damone travelled with his wife and his priest. All very unlike a lot of today’s younger performers who just seem so…arrogant. It might just be me but that is how so many of them, obviously not all, come across especially compared to these giants.
“And Tony Bennett is still singing and performing today and he is still just so great,” says Muriel.
One of the highlights of her North American years, she says, was a four month residency in the early 1980s on the Panamanian island resort of Contadora. “It was just so beautiful there, the Shah of Iran has his yacht berthed there and he danced to our band,” she says.
Although Muriel’s two showstoppers are the late Dusty Springfield’s You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me and Tina Turner’s River Deep, Mountain High she had a UK Top Ten Hit, out of the Abbey Road studio, with Nine Times Out Of Ten.
She was in Canada when it charted in the UK but it still features on Northern Soul playlists.
In 1995 she joined the Do You Come Here Often? Show Band Show which has just wrapped up after playing to an estimated 500,000 people in the last two decades or so and she is a regular performer at Eurovision- related gigs and on TV throughout Europe.
She regularly performs Soul, Rock, Jazz and Pop – in the best show band tradition – but admits that the demand for Irish Country music probably pays the bills.
“It doesn’t come naturally to me the way it does to someone like Philomena (Begley) who is probably the undisputed Queen of Irish Country Music, but I do my best and I’m still belting out River Deep Mountain High as well as when I first sang it in my twenties.
“My voice is as good as its ever going to get and I’m still singing in the same keys.
“I wake up singing and I’ve been blessed with good health. I broke my shoulder recently and the doctors told me that at my age I should slow down but I said that’s just not the way I am and now it is 99.9 per cent back to normal.
“That said I have told myself that this year I will take up going to the gym, although I think I would much prefer something like dancing,” she says.
As for singing – which she says must release ‘feel good endorphins’ and be god for health because of the breathing control – she says: “I just love singing the rock stuff, the ballads and the jazz and I’m a huge fan of newer acts like Bruno Mars,” she says.
Asked who her dream duet partners might be she replies:”Female, it would be Ella Fitzgerald, her voice is just an instrument, she could scat – something I’ve never been able to do – she was just incredible. And, male, it would have to be Ray Charles.”
Muriel’s 2014 studio album Girls Night Out, featuring Pop, Country, Showband and Nostalgia, is still available and the accompanying video featuring the biggest ever gathering of Irish female music stars including her friend Philomena can be found on YouTube.