Phil Coulter's memoir examines high points and personal tragedies of 55-year career
Derry songwriter Phil Coulter talks to Jenny Lee about finally writing his memoir, his friendship with Billy Connolly, answering his door to Gene Kelly and how music helped him cope with personal tragedy
"NOW the music's gone but they carry on; For their spirit's been bruised, never broken".
These lyrics from the last verse of Phil Coulter's The Town I Love So Well, his personal lament for his home town of Derry, inspire the title of the singer-songwriter's memoir, penned after 55 years working in the music industry.
Heartfelt and wry, meditative and entertaining, Bruised, Never Broken is the story of the author’s remarkable rise from modest beginnings on the streets of postwar Derry to the summit of the global charts, as a composer and confidante to a host of stars, such as Van Morrison, Luke Kelly, Elvis, Cliff Richard, The Bay City Rollers and Sandie Shaw.
"The idea of writing a book has been knocked about for 20 years. It was my friend [the journalist and broadcaster] Eamon Dunphy that said 'Phil, you better get started on this book when you can still remember stuff'. He also said you owe it to your readers and yourself to be honest and that's what I tried to do.
Poignantly, Bruised, Never Broken, also explores the personal and political upheaval he faced, most of which has, to date, been kept hidden from public view.
This includes losing his brother and sister in separate drowning accidents in Lough Swilly. His brother Brian, died after getting in trouble windsurfing, while his sister Cyd, a counsellor, died as she was trying to help one of her clients who drove into the lough while she was with them. The tragedies would later be immortalised in his laments Shores Of The Swilly and Star Of The Sea.
The 77-year-old, whose credits include 23 platinum discs, 39 gold discs, 52 silver discs, and a Grammy nomination, credits his success to the four Ts of talent, temperament, tenacity and timing.
"I am not the most talented man in the country. I know that. As Luke Kelly once said, 'Coulter is not a genius, he's a craftsman and a very good craftsman.' I will settle for that. To make a living from something you enjoy is a simple definition of success," says Coulter, who turned down the offer of a ghost writer for his memoir.
"My motto in life is, if you're going to do something, do it properly or don't do it at all. I've made my living from writing for the past 55 years, albeit of a different kind, and I wanted to do it myself."
Coulter believes drive and ambition is "in your DNA" and in the early pages of his memoir he shares his father's persistent determination to join the RUC.
It was while researching the book that he discovered his father's handwritten diary.
"There was a lot in there I was unaware of. I knew their first-born child died of diphtheria and I knew he was called Philip, but I didn't know he was Philip Michael and by coincidence I chose Michael as my confirmation name.
"I also wasn't aware of the harrowing detail of my parents being prohibited from visiting him in the fever hospital," adds Coulter, whose own first-born son passed away at just four years of age.
In his book he confesses how he struggled to bond with his son, who was born with Down syndrome.
"I even found it hard to lift a baby from his cot and give him a cuddle, God forgive me," he writes.
He eventually did bond with his young son, Paul, writing the song, Scorn Not His Simplicity, which has been recorded by Luke Kelly and Sinéad O'Connor among others, about him.
From answering an ad for a piano player and discovering he was going to be a Butlin's Green Coat and believing that "this was as good as it got", through to leaving Queen's University Belfast without sitting his final exams for his big break in London's Tin Pan Alley and Eurovision success, Coulter's career has certainly been colourful.
Over the years he developed an unlikely partnership with Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, from writing the parody of Tammy Wynette's D-I-V-O-R-C-E to recording the theme track of 1980s kids TV drama Super Gran.
"There was never a dull moment with Billy Connolly around," laughs Coulter, recalling chocolate cake fights at Ralph McTell's birthday party and a dinner party where the guests included Robin Williams, Steve Buscemi, Eric Idle and Sarah Ferguson.
"I met him last January in Florida. We had a five-hour lunch over which we laughed, reminisced and sang songs. He told me how the meds for his Parkinson's had [the symptoms] under control and it was like having the old Billy again," he recalls.
Although now residing in Bray, Co Wicklow, Coulter is still passionate about his home city of Derry. He recalls writing his first political song Free The People in response to witnessing the introduction of internment in 1971.
"It was a knee-jerk angry reaction. It's not a great song but without it I probably would never have written The Town I Loved So Well," says Coulter, who helped organise a talent contest in 1979 to help boost public morale in the city.
He had only just started playing The Water Babies score when a bomb went off at the back of the Guildhall. He continued playing the Steinway until, after a second loud bang, MC Don O'Doherty shouted at him "For f**k's sake, Phil. They're shooting!" and he dived under the piano.
"From my new vantage point, I could hear the screams getting louder. Then I spotted him – the man who was coming to rescue me. On his belly, commando style, he crossed the stage and joined me underneath the piano. He reached into his inside pocket, to get a pen and a piece of paper, and said calmly: 'Phil, any chance you could get me Billy Connolly's autograph?' In Derry people survived the darkest hours with the help of humour."
Before returning to Ireland to work with the likes of The Dubliners, Planxty and The Fureys and embark upon his own solo career, Coulter enjoyed success in LA – living on the same street as singer Diana Ross and recording industry executive Herb Alpert.
But it was opening his door to the dad of one of his daughter's friends that remains his greatest memory of that time.
"My oldest girl, Siobhan had a best pal called Bridget Kelly. One afternoon she asked if it would be OK if she stayed a bit longer at our house and her dad would collect her. I answered the doorbell and nearly passed out they're standing on the doorstep was Gene Kelly.
"He was a real gent, very unassuming. I must admit, though, I was very tempted to trade off me giving his daughter tea for some tap-dancing lessons," he laughs.
Coulter has nine children himself, with only one, Niamh, working in the world of entertainment, as a set director, her credits including Far From The Madding Crowd and The Lady in the Van.
Showing no signs of slowing down, this month Coulter played his first gig in London in 30 years and has plans for UK and US tours in 2020.
"Every time I go on stage I learn something new. As long as I have my health and people are still coming to my gigs I will keep going."
Over the past few years, he has been followed by cameras from TG4 for a new documentary, which will be broadcast on Christmas Day. Phil Coulter: Mo Shaol will also feature rarely seen archive material and a large chunk of narration from Coulter in Irish
:: Bruised, Never Broken by Phil Coulter is published by Gill Books and is available now. TG4 will air the new documentary Phil Coulter: Mo Shaol at 9.30pm on Christmas Day.