Phil Coulter back in Derry for launch of Ryan McBride Foundation

Legendary songwriter, producer and performer Phil Coulter will headline a concert in Derry tonight to help launch the Ryan McBride Foundation, named in tribute to the late Derry City skipper. He tells Joanne Sweeney how his home city, and the 'Candy Stripes' are still close to his heart

Phil Coulter will perform tonight in Derry at the launch of the Ryan McBride Foundation Picture: Dermot Byrne Photography

FOR someone who has travelled far and wide in a music career spanning more than half a century, Phil Coulter is never too far away from his Derry birthplace – or at least that's where his heart is, even if he may be physically miles away.

For the man who in one of his best-loved songs both captured the mood of a generation and put Derry on the map, who wrote Ireland's Call, the Irish rugby team's non-partisan match anthem, and who helped Britain get its first Eurovision winner with Sandi Shaw's Puppet on a String in 1967 (he was also behind the misical arrangement for Ireland's first Eurovision win, of course), Derry remains 'the town he loves so well'.

He's back there tonight to help launch the Ryan McBride Foundation at a gala concert and dinner at the Everglades Hotel, along with another of Derry's musical sons, Damian McGinty of US hit TV show Glee fame. The foundation aims to develop and support young footballers.

McBride, the 27-year-old captain of Derry City FC, died suddenly in March at his home less than 24 hours after he led his team to victory against Drogheda United, the club that Phil's son Ryan plays for now.

"I had seen Ryan play, of course but I didn't know him," Phil, a long-time club supporter, said from his home in Bray, Co Wicklow.

"His death certainly hit home in a big way. It was particularly scary because my son Ryan is the same age and I know what it's like to have a sportsman, a professional athlete, as one of your children.

"It was a pretty dark week for Derry when Ryan and Martin McGuinness died within 24 hours of each other.

"As soon as I heard the bad news, I make contact with a third party who's a main player in Derry City, and said, anything I can do don't be afraid to ask. Then they started this Ryan McBride Foundation and asked if I would headline the event and I had no hesitation whatsoever in doing so."

Phil was away from home and was performing in San Francisco, when his protégé Damian McGinty suggested driving from LA to join him on stage to do an emotional duet of The Town I Loved So Well in tribute to McBride and McGuiness. The videoed performance has since gone in to receive nearly 100,000 views on social media.

Phil was a Derry supporter as a boy, was club president in the 1990s, and has fond memories of enjoying the game every Saturday with his father, Phil senior.

"My da was a cop and used to be on duty at the Brandywell [stadium] when Derry City were playing,” he recalls. “I have vivid recollection of tagging along with him and being lifted over the turnstile as I was too small to go through.

“I still remember standing with my dad at the spot where the players run out of the dressing room. He was supposedly there as security back in those days but he was watching the game, of course, standing there in the uniform, looking very important.

"I can even still recall the smell of embrocation from the players. They used to rub it in before they played and smelt like a mild Jeyes. Believe it or not, I didn't have a picture of Elvis Presley or Buddy Holly on my bedroom wall. My first hero on my bedroom wall was Charlie Heffron, who was the goalkeeper for Derry City.”

At 75, Phil is still highly active in all aspects of the music business, songwriting, recording and performing, and was just back from a five-week tour of North America where he played to audiences every night.

It was his love and talent as a pianist and love of a good melody that led him to forming his first rock and roll band as a student at Queen’s University, Belfast. By his final year, his talent for songwriting was realised with a couple of hits in Ireland.

His love for the business is undaunted; he's just signed off an Irish tour running from November 2 to December 23 and he's planning his 22nd Tranquility Cruise from Fort Lauderdale in Florida in January next year.

His genius for songwriting across many genres – at one time with songwriting partner Bill Martin – and his ability to try new things and different disciplines, is something that the father of six adult children credits his career longevity too. He has achieved an extraordinary collection of accolades for his work, including 23 platinum discs, 39 gold discs, 52 silver discs, two Grand Prix Eurovision awards, five Ivor Novello awards and three American Society of Composers gongs, in addition to a Grammy nomination.

Phil has performed and worked with nearly every major name in music; he was responsible for the Elvis Presley hit My Boy, and is a close friend with legendary artist Van Morrison. He wrote hits for the Bay City Rollers as well as Cilla Black.

His need to foster new talent has led him to working and writing for Omagh songbird Donna Taggart, who has already toured with him in Ireland and will be on the Tranquility Cruise next year as well.

"I still do a bit of everything – writing, recording, performing and producing," he tells me. "It's one of the reasons why I have survived for 50 years in this game – I don't allow myself to be pigeon-holed.

"When I was on the Eurovision run when I won in 1967 and came second with Cliff Richard's Congratulations in 1968, won it again in 1970 with Dana’s All Kinds of Everything, which I arranged and produced, and came fifth in 1974 when my wife Geraldine Branagan sang my song for Luxemburg. If I had thought to myself, 'Wow, this is what I do: I'm an expert Eurovision songwriter', where would I be today?

"Or when I had that run with the teeny bopper stuff with the Bay City Rollers; if I had thought 'I will be all right now with a boy band', where would I be today?

"Equally, when I was writing and producing with The Dubliners, if I thought, 'This is what I will do, and I will stay in folk music', where would I have been?

"I've always been open to new things, even to producing Billy Connolly. That used to confuse reverend mothers and sisters in convents, who were fans of Tranquility [Phil's series of solo classical albums], who all of a sudden discovered that I was producing him. They couldn't quite figure that one out," he laughs.

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