Not many can boast that they have been performing professionally for six decades – but that is the milestone that Johnny Carroll will be celebrating in a tribute night in Salthill in a few weeks’ time.
His fans call him ‘the man with the golden trumpet’ and he not only made his mark on the Irish scene but internationally, having met some of the greats in music including Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Jim Reeves, Roy Orbison and Chubby Checker — the man behind The Twist.
A Roscommon man by birth, Galway has been his home for the past 40 years. And little did the 13 year old boy know – when he first expressed an interest in the trumpet in his home town of Castlerea – that it would be his passport to success.
Contemplating on his life and career in the lead-up to his tribute night in the Salthill Hotel on Thursday, September 21, he recalls the hardship of going on the road at such a tender age but quickly adds that he wouldn’t change a minute of it.
He believes in fate and often wonders if he hadn’t been overheard playing the trumpet in his kitchen by a passing band member, might he have followed his father into the painting trade.
“I don’t think so. Once I picked up that instrument, I knew I didn’t want to do anything else and when I got the opportunity a few years later to go on the road with the band, my parents couldn’t stop me because they knew how much I wanted to play music.
“In those days (the fifties) most of the bands were pioneers so at least my parents didn’t have to worry about that.
“But as there was no dancing allowed in Ireland during Lent bands went to England and I went with them. They were a hard few weeks going from one town to another playing to mostly Irish crowds.
“I loved every minute it. I loved meeting people and being on stage even if it was from 9pm till 2am. There were no relief bands in those days. We used take it in turns to have a little tea break but I didn’t mind. I knew this was what I wanted to do,” Johnny remembers.
Sitting in his salubrious home on the outskirts of the city, he knows how far he has come but appreciates that the music business has been good to him, certainly better than what a trade in a rural town would have gained him.
The Premier Aces was one of the first Irish bands to tour the US in an era when venues were massive and hundreds danced the night away. They also topped the charts in Ireland and the UK.
He stayed with The Premier Aces until he decided it was time to start his own band and move to Galway, where he knew he would have a greater chance at establishing himself as a musician.
The Magic Band was different because it was fronted by a singer whose costume was lit up. As it was Johnnny’s band, he was finally running his own show.
The Premier Aces had brought out a few albums but by now Johnny was synonymous with his trumpet so it seemed natural for him to bring out solo albums — he has 15 in all under his belt.
“I played instrumental versions of well-known songs from Danny Boy to The West’s Awake and every hotel, restaurant and B&B in the country played it and sure guests started asking where they could get it,” he says.
There were TV guest appearances and requests to play at special event. He embraced all of this because he felt it was meant for him.
And while his musical career was on the up, tragedy was to strike on the domestic front when his beautiful wife Stella, the mother of their four children, died after a short diagnosis of breast cancer at the age of 37.
He tearfully recalls how most of the next decade was heartache for him as he kept working at his career while rearing children, aged from seven to 14, on his own.
“I had no family here in Galway and we had just built this house (referring to his Salthill home). We were only in it a few years when she died. Bills had to be paid, I had to stay on the road. It was hard. Those were the days before mobile phones. I remember ringing home from pay phones to check in on them.”
He is very proud of his children, all grown up now though none followed him into the music business. But they have given him seven grandchildren, aged from 19 to a few weeks old, whom he adores.
He remembers driving on bad roads around Ireland in second hand vans that often broke down.
Bands on the road would head home after playing for hours from venues in the far corners of Ireland.
“I remember one night the van broke down in Abbeyfeale in Kerry. I got a lift home but the lads stayed in the freezing van until I returned the following day with a tow truck.
“People wouldn’t live that life now. I remember too the first house we bought in Highfield Park. Stella and I lived downstairs and we turned the upstairs into two small flats. We had no choice as the mortgage interest rates were double digits at the time.
“Life was hard. I remember long journeys to gigs and the kids would be in bed when I got home and I’d still be in bed when they left for school. That’s how it was for showbands at the time.”
He has a strong faith and is grateful that he always had good health, something which is crucial when you are self-employed.
He also believes he was lucky when he met Ann, his second wife at a gig in her family’s hotel in West Limerick.
“I believe she was an angel sent to me. . . I’ve had a good life, no doubt,” he says in a room adorned with his two golden discs and family photographs.
His highlights are reaching Number One in the Irish Charts with Oh Mein Papa, playing The West’s Awake when Galway won the three All Irelands in the 80s and meeting and sometimes playing with some of his musical heroes.
Johnny says he has no regrets as he believes everyone’s life is set out for them, as his was and continues to be. There’s longevity in his family genes as his mother Rose turns 102 the same week as his tribute concert.
“No, it’s not my swansong. There’s life in the old dog yet,” he laughs.
Tickets for the gig which feature a host of guest musicians are on sale in The Salthill Hotel, Des Kavanagh Electrical, Tom Dempsey’s in Oranmore and Quinn’s Newsagents in Tuam.