MOJO Time Machine: The Chieftains play The Royal Albert Hall

On 17 March, 1975 then amateur Irish folk band The Chieftains filled iconic London venue.


by Fred Dellar |

17 March, 1975

Jo Lustig was many things to many people. A Brooklyn-born New Yorker, he could be tough and exuded little patience with those he felt were wasting his time. But he loved music and wanted the best for the singers and musicians he represented. He’d been around, garnering press for a range of stellar entertainers that spanned Miles Davis, Nat Cole, Dave Brubeck and others of equal stature. He’d even had an association with Jack Kerouac at one point.

But it was the link with Nat Cole that changed his life. He accompanied Cole on his trip to Britain in 1960 and fell in love with the place. Soon after, he relocated to London, where he had notable success promoting Julie Felix and gaining Nico her first record contract. By 1969 was established as manager of The Pentangle, then moved to advance the careers of Ralph McTell, Steeleye Span, Richard Digance and Richard and Linda Thompson.

While attending the Midem music industry get-together at Cannes in early 1975, Lustig met Paddy Maloney, leader of Irish semi-pro band The Chieftains. The band had been founded by uilleann piper Maloney in 1962 when he got together with fiddler Martin Fay, flautist Michael Tubridy, tin whistle virtuoso Sean Potts and bodhran player David Fallon, intending to record a one-off instrumental album. However, The Chieftains opted to continue making music whenever their regular jobs would allow, all-Ireland fiddle champion Sean Keane joining their ranks and Peadar Mercier eventually replacing Fallon. During 1974 the band had released Chieftains 4, a superb, imaginatively packaged album, on Claddagh, a label for which Maloney was managing director.

Jigs, airs, reels… the party ended early – about 3.30a.m.

Peter Sellers

For Chieftains 4 Paddy added the sound of the harp, played by Derek Bell, a classically trained harpist from Belfast who'd joined the group in 1973. The album featured Mna Na h’Eireann (Women Of Ireland) an original composition by Sian O Riada and arranged by Paddy Moloney in a manner that grabbed international attention. Another of its assets was a liner note by Peter Sellers, which explained how he, while living in house in Kildare, introduced Spike Milligan to Maloney. “Out comes Paddy’s whistle,” wrote Sellers, “and he blew magic into the room. Jigs, airs, reels… the party ended early – about 3.30a.m. I still have some of it on a tape recorder…”

The Chieftains music sparked an idea in Jo Lustig’s fertile mind. He felt that he could provide the band with international acclaim if they would only turn professional. Paddy Maloney was sceptical. The band all had steady day jobs, Music was just for fun.

But Lustig persisted: “Okay,” he said to Maloney, “I’ll book you a great venue - The Royal Albert Hall.” The Chieftains had been expecting a club date or something less daunting. “We couldn’t play anything of that size,” maintained Maloney. But the New Yorker was now in full promotional stride, attempting to grab every last vestige of publicity in order to fame-push Maloney men. He returned to Paddy Maloney with a deal: “If I can sell out every seat in the hall, will you turn professional and have me as your manager?”

Maloney thought carefully, he doubted it the band could fill the 6,000 seats. If the performance was played to a half-empty venue it could prove embarrassing, or even mean the end of the band. Even so, following further discussions with his fellow-bandsmen, Maloney agreed to perform at the RAH, on St Patrick’s night. That evening, despite doubts, the hall was packed, with MC John Peel explaining, “When they play a sad song it will bring a lump to your throat and when they play a bright dance, you’ll have difficulty keeping your seat.”

Robert Shelton, writing in The Times, reported, “The band sidled into a semicircle of seats, suggesting several tribal leaders about to ruminate over affairs of state. And off they went on an evening of insuperable national music. The Chieftains are without parallel, seven musicians so steeped in a tradition of airs, jigs, hornpipes reels and hooray songs that all they can do is evoking green travelogues in the eye and ear.”

Scoring For Stanley Kubrick...

It was a triumph for both The Chieftains and Jo Lustig, who not only signed a deal for Island Records to distribute the band’s records, but also persuaded the band to provide incidental music for Stanley Kubrick’s award-winning film Barry Lyndon. And, when all the smoke had cleared, The Chieftains were named Melody Maker’s group of the year for 1975, beating out such as The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.

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