Anne Hailes: Even in her 80s Muriel Day has the power to hold an audience
I INTERVIEWED singer Muriel Day nine years ago when, after a break, she was delighted at the revival of her career. Two months short of her 60th birthday suddenly she was in demand – a new song, a record deal and plenty of dates in her diary.
This is a lady who has sung with the greats, a friend of the late Lena Horn and a woman with a big talent and a big heart who has helped many people and charities throughout the years. Now aged in her 80s, and although retired, it’s just the same.
A couple of weeks ago she took to the stage of the Grand Opera House in Belfast, taking part in a tribute to the late Gerry Anderson and the audience went wild. She has the skill of communication.
Muriel was born in Newtownards, not the best singer in the family, she maintains: “My brother had the best voice, although, with a name like James Galway even the taxi drivers didn’t take him seriously. He tried to order a taxi one New Year’s Eve and when he gave his name the man said, ‘Ya, you and yer flute’ and hung up!”
She learned her craft at an early age when at 15 she ‘played the halls’, concert parties round the countryside, appearing with Tom Raymond, Marjory Rea, Frank Carson and Leila Webster – all gone now but their impact was powerful and their fan base immense.
“They taught me stagecraft, how to stand, how to breathe, even what to wear for best effect. As my career took off I had to have a huge wardrobe, a stunning gown for every occasion.”
Flying the flag
So she was fortunate to know an expert dressmaker. “Alice Campbell was fantastic. One evening the BBC phoned asking me to take part in a programme the following afternoon. I’d nothing suitable for a live afternoon show. I needed a smart day dress so I phoned Alice. ‘I’ll have something for you in the morning.’ And she did, a perfect dress in coffee, brown and cream.”
Alice had a very big part in Muriel’s life when the singer became a household name in 1969 in the Eurovision Song Contest final, having won the Irish leg of the competition with The Wages Of Love.
Bouncing on to the stage in Madrid, she wore a beautiful apple green mini-dress, the skirt swirling and her dark hair bobbing; as she moved, there was a flash of colour: Alice had incorporated silver and yellow with the green.
Gay Byrne commentated: “Green, white and gold for Ireland!”
The more you talk to Muriel Day the more stories tumble out, some illustrated with an impromptu song. Leave the room to make a cup of coffee and you’ll hear her singing to herself.
She’s been used to huge audiences throughout her career – at home here with George Jones on televised shows from the Waterfront Hall, teaming up with Philomena Begley and Susan McCann for special concerts, in America one of her most ardent fans was Playboy's Hugh Hefner who invited her to appear in his clubs.
She took to the stage with Merle Haggard in a Nashville TV show with an US audience of 55 million and she appeared in the classic film Billy Liar in 1963 with Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie, stepping in to fill the shoes of the original singer of Twisterella who’d become pregnant. £1000 for four days and Muriel was mega happy.
She had her own show on local BBC, Day and Night, a series of six programmes introducing the stars of the time. “Roy Walker was hilarious”, she remembers.
In a similar show, Here Come The Girls, on RTÉ she discovered she was expected to do a dance.
“I only had stiletto heels so I’d to I borrowed a pair of flats from one of the crew. The only thing was she was size six and I was size five and as the dance went on I kicked up my leg, the shoe came flying off and into the audience – on live television. It brought the house down.”
But for my generation in Northern Ireland Muriel Day is probably best remembered as the girl in the Dave Glover Band. They lived in Fortwilliam Park, the only house to boast a balcony. This was a top band with a dazzling singer, a professional outfit giving the audience what they wanted, music to dance to and songs to sing along with.
A different story behind the scenes
“We married but Dave was a difficult man to live with and tensions became too much so I left Northern Ireland for Canada,” she says.
Half of his band went with her and they were a great success performing as Muriel Day and the Night Squad. Dave followed her, pleaded with her to return to Ireland but her mind was made up. After their divorce she married her bass player.
“But that didn’t work out as my parents became ill and I had to come home to Newtownards. Eddie McCann understood, but as time went on I realised it was unfair to him and naturally he found someone else.”
Another divorce but this time with sadness rather than trauma. In Canada she studied laser therapy to help give up smoking and for pain relief, and although she brought this qualification home and opened a clinic, the stage was always her thing, as she demonstrated a couple of weeks ago in the Opera House. Give Muriel a Tina Turner number or a Dusty Springfield hit and she’s in her element.
Reminiscing with Muriel Day is fascinating.
“But it’s very different today,” she reminds me. “There’s none of the innocence and intimacy we had with the show bands.
"I went to see Dolly Parton in Belfast. Thousands of screaming people, you couldn’t hear what she was singing, and then, after interval drinks at the bar, it became even more raucous.”
Although looking back may be bitter sweet, Muriel could well sing, 'Those were the days my friend’ and I would join in.