Learning the Trade

Edward Daly, Bishop of Derry
James & Mrs O'Doherty

So it was that James began to learn his skills with the two people who had such a formative influence upon his early career - Mrs O’Doherty and Wee Willie Doherty - and he gained an enormous amount of experience.

With Mrs O’Doherty he was afforded the chance to play for all the best singers who competed at the feiseanna in what James always regarded as the golden age of singing . Afric Mc Ginley, Dawson Noble, Bridie Mc Guinness, Willie John Mc Daid, Kathleen Lecky and Eddie Mount were just some of the successful performers then, and they continued their singing until very much older than today’s generation. Theirs was mostly a formal repertoire of Anglo- Irish and operatic pieces.

With Wee Willie, it was a more popular programme. He was the big draw with concert - goers and he organised concerts which would  be held even in barns or anywhere that would accommodate a number of people, and James had memories of youngsters sitting up in the rafters. Willie was a versatile and creative entertainer who also composed songs and played various instruments, but his chief fame was as a comic. His routines had grown men literally falling off their seats in laughter.

Now James developed other equally important skills - how to vamp, how to improvise and how to transpose. One of his less celebrated accomplishments was how he managed to wrestle anything resembling music out of many of the old battered pianos that were provided at some of these venues. On one occasion he was handed a piano accordion!

But one of James’s many great gifts was his phenomenal  memory and he quickly familiarised himself with an impressive body of material which he could accompany without the music. To give some idea of how good his memory was, he could recite verbatim the words of a piece called Betsy Lee by T.E Brown that he rehearsed once or twice with Jim Mc Cafferty fifty years previously :

Now the beauty of the thing when childher plays is
The terrible wonderful length the days is.
 Up you jumps and out in the sun,
 And you fancy the days will never be done;
 And you’re  chasin’ the bumbees hummin’ so cross
 In the hot sweet air among the goss,
 Or gath’rin’ blue-bells, or lookin’ for eggs,
 Or peltin’ the ducks with their yalla legs,
 Or a climbin’ and nearly breakin’ your skulls,
 Or a shoutin’ for divilment after the gulls.
 Or a thinkin’ of nothing,’ but down at the tide
 Singin’ out for the happy you feel inside.
 That’s the way with kids, you know,
 And the years do come and the years do go,
 And when you look back it’s all like a puff,
 Happy and over and short enough

James also learnt another important lesson for a professional musician - you  had to be prepared to travel wherever the work took you. So he found himself catching the train or bus to many parts of  Derry, Donegal and Antrim. One notable summer season he accompanied a troupe of pierrots on the prom in Portrush. The star of the show was a lady called Lil Dennis and at the end of each show the cast would circulate among the people in their deckchairs and call, as they collected, “All for Miss Lil.” Shortly after, James was to be seen running for the train, his pockets bulging with the pennies he had been paid in.

When he was not  working  he would practise at home, selecting a dozen or so pieces of  his parents’ music  which he attempted to sight read. He would then award himself marks out of ten for his efforts.

About this time something happened which was  to have a defining effect on the careers of James and Don. One day a message came to Francis Street for James. It was from the manager of Cavendish’s furniture store in Bishop Street inviting him to an interview for a job. James was out but Don decided to go along instead, and so began what was to be a lifelong career with the firm. James was to become a full time professional musician whereas for Don music would have to be fitted in around his day time job.