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Saturday, 30 September 2017

PEARLY SPENCER AT 50



Popular music history is strewn with what are sometimes described as “one-hit wonders”, artists that are forever associated with a particular song, even though they have recorded and/or written many others and have built decent back catalogues.  Off the top of my head, I can think of The Streets of London by Ralph McTell, Spirit in the Sky by Norman Greenbaum and San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) by Scott McKenzie. Someone once said of recording artists that all they needed was one memorable record and they would live forever. There is a lot of truth in that.

Fifty years on from its release on 6 October, 1967, we can say this and much more about The Days of Pearly Spencer by David McWilliams. It is a classic track that still sounds as fresh and original today, half a century on. Those of us who love his music would not label him as a one-hit wonder because we know his immense talent as a creative artist and performer stretches way beyond such a limited definition.

In 1967, I was 13 and keen on acoustic guitars, singer-songwriters and buying records with my meagre pocket money. On Saturday mornings I would get the bus into Belfast and head for Premier records in Smithfield (the original old, musty buildings) and then over to Harrison's music shop in Castle Street. I cannot remember in which shop I bought my first David McWilliams LP, but I took it home, unsleeved it lovingly and very carefully, as you did in those days, and played it to death.

On most Sunday afternoons, my friend Sean Allison would come to our house and we would lock ourselves in a bedroom and play a wide range of stuff on turntable and also have a crack at singing our own versions of a long list of favourites. Sean was far more adept at guitar playing than me. I was the lead singer. Together, we were not a bad duo, no threat to the Everly Brothers, of course, but we could belt out a fair number of Kris Kristofferson, Gordon Lightfoot and Kingston Trio songs. Sadly, I don’t think we mastered Pearly Spencer but we couldn’t help but love it, especially as it featured one of our Northern Irish own.

I heard The Days of Pearly Spencer track for the first time on Radio Caroline through an annoying, crackling radio set. In spite of the wireless reception, the drums, the violins, the megaphone-enhanced chorus, the lyrics and the singing blew me away. It was then - and is now – an outstanding record.

The origin of the idea for the lyrics is a little vague with some suggestions that David McWilliams had observed perhaps a man or maybe a woman down on their luck in his native Ballymena. “A tenement, a dirty street, walked and worn by shoeless feet……” and “Pearly where’s your milk-white skin, what’s that stubble on your chin, it’s buried in the rot-gut gin……” – social observations and, ahead of his time, nothing in the song is gender specific.
More recently, it was suggested that it was inspired not by one but by two women. Mystery and myth in music!

David McWilliams was a true original, a man who loved music but not the music business, and it is sad to reflect that far too many people, including some in his home country, have no idea who he was and what he achieved. He had more than a good sniff at international fame with around a dozen albums of interesting and diverse songs including his aforementioned trademark, Pearly Spencer. It was said more than once that the English had Donovan, the Americans had Dylan and Northern Ireland had McWilliams, and while this may have exaggerated his standing somewhat, no one can deny that he demonstrated frequently the creative ability to sit comfortably in that kind of company. His main career problem seemed to be his on-off relationship with show business, the chore of touring and the thought of committing unreservedly to a full-time job in music.

He was born in the Cregagh area of Belfast, in 1945. Aged five, he attended Cregagh Primary School in its opening year. The family moved to Ballymena about eight years later, and David grew up with a passion for playing football and had a keen interest in poetry and music. The requirement to earn a living meant that he needed a proper job - a fitter at Shorts missile factory - rather than living in hope that he could make ends meet as a troubadour. His writing and performing continued as a hobby but he had a belief in his own creative ability, so much so that he made a demo tape that eventually reached a man who would give him his big break.

Phil Solomon was influential at Radio Caroline, the controversial pirate ship station that captured an enthusiastic young 1960s audience. Caroline was anarchic and played hits alongside new music, an antidote to BBC radio’s stuffiness at the time. Solomon liked the demo and offered a contract. David McWilliams signed up with the Major Minor label. There was talk of a tense relationship but, if there was or whatever it was, this new Northern Irish singer-songwriter soon gained admiration and decent record sales across Europe from considerable airplay. The Days of Pearly Spencer was a hit in France (number one), Belgium, Holland (number one) and Germany. He did not score personal chart success with it in the UK. The honour belonged to Marc Almond's cover version that reached number four in 1992. But that is not to say that David McWilliams’s recording is not revered and respected by a couple of generations of music lovers on these islands. It has stood the test of time.

The song attracted the attention of other performers, apart from Almond who pretty much stuck to the original arrangement, and why not? In 1968, New Zealand band, The Avengers, recorded it. In 1969, US band The Grass Roots included the track on their Lovin’ Things album, and a great version it is too. In 1988, a French psychedelic outfit, The Vietnam Veterans, had added their own backing mixture to good effect. In 2008, French crooner Rodolphe Burger did a splendid version in a smoky cabaret production not unlike, say, Leonard Cohen. Caterina Caselli, in 1968, recorded a version in Italian. There are other vocal and instrumental examples from around the world. The original was copied by talented people but, in my view, never bettered, (but I will come back to that later!). The important point is though, original or covers, the power of the song stands up very well.

In the recording studio the producer was Mike Leander, who tended to lean towards over-orchestration at times, complicating some of the simpler songs. But all three early albums made the UK top 40, respectable showings for an emerging artist. In 1967 his highest chart position, number 23, was for David McWilliams Volume 2, the album that featured Pearly Spencer and the beautiful Can I Get There By Candlelight? A year later David McWilliams Volume 3 produced the wonderful Three O'Clock Flamingo Street. His album covers show he was a man of his time with sideburns, intense poses, floral shirts and an acoustic guitar never far away.




A few years later he released Lord Offaly with a title track that sits well alongside many a folk song and is a perfect example of his relaxed but very effective vocals. For me, above and beyond much of this output, his haunting composition The Stranger stands out as an accomplished story song with a twist at the end. It is the kind of song that lingers in the memory because not only has a tale been told, but a picture has been painted as well. It is an excellent example of the McWilliams observational style of lyric writing and warm singing style.

However, he could never quite manage the necessary balancing act of enjoying the music while simultaneously tolerating the business side of things. After a number of years within touching distance of becoming a major artist internationally, he ducked out of the game through disillusionment and boredom, preferring a simpler, more grounded life. But, as with many creative people, the urge to write and the itch to perform never goes away and, occasionally, he rediscovered his enthusiasm to get back into the studio. As ever, he produced some fine work, but it failed to click with the music buying public. He even toyed with the idea of Nashville at one point but it was not to be.

It is not meant to be unkind, but it is a fact that David McWilliams was a nearly-man of pop music. In the end, through poor management, a sporadic international fan base and erratic interest from McWilliams himself in his own career, the fast-moving music business passed him by. He was ripped off like many artists over the years and never fared particularly well financially, a travesty when you consider his wealth of talent.

Listening to his albums, there is no doubt that he was a gifted songwriter and an effective singer. Not everything he wrote is appealing or significant but there is enough beautifully crafted music to question why he was not a bigger star, especially in the great singer-songwriter era of the 1970s.

But when all is said and done, there are many artists who would give their right arm for one defining piece of work and David McWilliams achieved that with The Days of Pearly Spencer. I would urge anyone with ambitions to be a singer-songwriter to seek out his albums and see just how good he was.

David McWilliams suffered a heart attack and died at 56 in 2002 but his records live on. And, more importantly, his daughter Mandy Bingham, along with her husband Graham, are carrying on the family’s singer/songwriter tradition. There is a rich seam of musical talent in Northern Ireland right now and Mandy is up there with the very best of them recording and performing some original and beautiful music. At the time of writing this piece, I have had the privilege of listening to Mandy’s new version of The Days of Pearly Spencer. It is stunning, an emotional tribute to her father’s work, and yet more evidence that she, Graham and their bandmates are a class act. It is quite a different arrangement to the original but no less remarkable. And you know what I said earlier about no one bettering the David McWilliams original, if I owned a hat, I would be eating it right now. The two records complement each other superbly. The Days of Pearly Spencer at 50. Amazing, and still very, very special.

*** I am grateful that Mandy Bingham read the article before I posted it to ensure I was being accurate, and to Gil McWilliams for advising me of a couple of corrections, which have now been made.


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