Life

Sax player Des Lee says time is right to celebrate the music of the Miami Showband

With the stage set for a new musical play based on the Miami Showband, saxophonist Des Lee tells Gail Bell it is now time to celebrate the fun, the laughter and the music of a group whose name became a byword for the horrors of the Troubles

Des Lee, saxophonist with the Miami Showband, photographed near his home in Belfast this week. Picture by Mal McCann
Gail Bell

WHEN Des Lee takes his seat in the Grand Opera House this summer to see a re-run of his life in new musical play The Miami Showband Story, it will be a deeply emotional moment, but he is ready for it.

He is ready for the paroxysms of pain, of pride and, yes, of pleasure too; pleasure at seeing his slick, white-suited younger self on stage, living the dream in the most successful showband in Ireland.

"I don’t know who is playing me yet, but I do know he will have to look the part," the Belfast musician, now 72, says, half-seriously, half-jokingly. "People think they know a lot about the Miami, but they will be surprised by some of the behind-the-scenes stuff which will come out in this new play by Marie Jones and Martin Lynch.

"And something members of the audience may not know is the way the band was run – it was very regimental, almost like an army.

"Tony Bogan, the drummer at the time, was a character. His job was basically to come and check us over every night, as we had to look a million dollars. He would come and check our ‘ones and twos’ – our shoes; our ‘tin of fruit’ – our suit; and our Fred Astaire [hair] before we were allowed on stage.

"Image was so important – your haircut, your clothes, what you said, what you didn’t say, how you said it… I understood completely, of course, because at the end of the day, we were a professional band and the best in Ireland."

The story of that band and the brutal massacre in July 1975 of Fran O’Toole, Brian McCoy and Tony Geraghty is the tragedy of the Miami Showband, but now Lee wants fans to know more about the talented musicians and their music.

An idea for a musical play was first mooted by a friend of his in the music industry, an approach was then made to Lynch and Jones and now the project, with Lee’s approval and help, is set to open in the Grand Opera House in August.

"Most people think of the massacre when they think of the Miami Showband, but in this show I want them to see more than the headlines,” explains Lee, who still performs with his own Miami Showband, also featuring original member, drummer Ray Millar.

"Yes, of course, the tragedy will have to be part of the play, but is all about the Miami from the beginning, right up to today. It brings fun, laughter, music, the whole history down the years, from the early days of Dickie Rock as the lead singer.

"We were the Westlife and Boyzone of those days, so I want this to be a show where we have laughter, fun, songs, dancing and humour to reflect the times when we had maybe 2,000 people inside a ballroom and another 2,000 outside, trying to get in.

"It was a time to enjoy life and we did – we enjoyed all the glamour, the fans, the women… and we toured all over England, Europe and America, playing in Las Vegas and at Carnegie Hall, New York, on St Patrick’s Day in 1972 which was unreal.

"And, as well as the pre-stage checks, one of the funniest thing I remember is the manager, Tom Doherty, deciding to send us to dance lessons. He wanted us to sway left and right, move up and down with our brass instruments – a bit like The Four Tops. We thought it was hilarious, especially as I was the world's dancer and still am."

But, despite his fond memories of the craic on stage and off, Des Lee is a survivor who never forgets and he is still fighting to have a monument erected in Belfast and a plaque added to the Fran O’Toole Bridge in Bray.

With his beloved Cork-born wife Brenda, to whom he was married for 36 years, having passed away 14 years ago, and his sons, Gary and Daryl, living in Texas and Singapore respectively, he now lives alone in a Belfast apartment, photos of Fran (lead singer), Brian (trumpeter) and Tony (guitarist) placed lovingly around his home.

"I will never forget that day which was the worst day of my life," he says quietly, "and nor do I ever want to forget. I travel past the site of the massacre [Bushkill, Co Down] quite regularly on my way to Dublin and each time I get a lump in my throat.

"I turn the car radio off and say a prayer. At Christmas I got out and laid a wreath and, thankfully, it was still there the last time I looked. Sometimes, when there are flowers, people remove them or put them in the ditch and that hurts me.

"I know how badly mutilated the boys were and I still feel survivor’s guilt. I was especially close to Fran because we wrote a lot of songs together, including hit single, Love Is. I had family in Belfast, but no-one in Dublin and so we became very close, right up to the end. I still miss him."

There were two survivors that night – Lee and bass player, Stephen Travers – while Miller, the drummer, had his own car and was driving back home to Antrim when the Miami minibus was stopped by loyalists staging a mock military checkpoint.

"I’m actually writing a book called My Saxophone Saved My Life,” Lee reveals, "because after we were flagged down and told to line up against a ditch, I decided to go over to the minibus and get my saxophone.

"I wanted to show it to these guys, who we thought were military – UDR and army – so, after I laid the saxophone on the road, instead of going back to where I was, I stayed at the end of the line, next to the minibus, not knowing that these guys were putting a 10lb bomb inside it.

"When it exploded prematurely, killing the two of them, it blew me into the ditch and that’s what saved my life. If I had gone back to my original place in the line… well, whenever the bomb went off, they just opened up and I would not be here today."

How exactly this traumatic but essential part of The Miami Story will be portrayed in the musical, is, as yet, unclear, but Lee is adamant he doesn’t want sensationalism or the noise of bomb or bullet to be heard in the theatre which holds a special place in his heart.

"I am particularly excited to see our story unfold on the Grand Opera House stage as I used to walk past the theatre as a young Belfast boy and see names like Cliff Richard and the Beach Boys up in lights," he reflects.

"Little did this former altar boy from Andersonstown know that his own name would be up there too some day – first with the Miami Showband and now with this new musical play. It will feature all the hits of the Miami Showband which I hope will reach a new generation of fans.

"It has all come together quite quickly, but it is time to celebrate the whole story of the Miami Showband, from the beginning, right up to the present day. I think the boys would be pleased. I can just imagine them all looking down, smiling and clapping and wishing us the very best."

:: The Miami Showband Story is open for booking (goh.co.uk)

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