By Francis K. Beirne


“Billy Brown was not a man whose shoes could be filled by mere mortals. I have met three people in my life whom I would describe with the word ‘genius’, and Bill was one of them. He was not ‘just’ a most brilliant musician and singer, a gifted, though extremely lazy, songwriter and composer – he was also an accomplished landscape and wildlife painter and a fine writer to boot.”
– John Waters 1999

Thinking back of the heady days of The Freshmen’s Papa Oom Mow Mow and Billy Brown’s beautiful solo ballad, Cinderella, it’s hard to believe that the musical genius from Ballymena died 25 years ago this month. Aged just 56, Billy Brown passed away after a long battle with illness in June 1999.

A brief mention in the national papers the following day noted his passing. It didn’t remind its readers that Billy Brown was one of the heroes of the Irish music business; one of our greatest ever singer/songwriters; an exceptional musical arranger and the bandleader of one of the top showbands in Ireland during the ‘60s.
Born in Larne in 1943, his father was also a fine musician. Having completed his formal education, Billy enrolled at Belfast College of Art where he began to study stained glass design. While there, he joined Billy McFarland’s Showband.

“We were told that we could study ladies dressmaking or interior decorating so I opted for the lesser of two evils,” said Brown. “I could see some use for interior decorating but clothes have never interested me. I just wear them to cover myself.”

As a young boy, Brown loved football. He also loved music but knew that if he asked his parents for a piano, it would mean an end to football on the street as he would have to stay in and practice. (Listen to the autobiographical ‘Look What Jerry Lee Did To Me’). But his father did ask him if he would like one and he spent a hard-earned £200 on a new piano for his son.
“I have a feeling that my father really wanted the piano and used me as an excuse to buy it!” said Billy. He was still allowed to play football but it wasn’t long until he was skipping games so that he could spend more and more time practising on his new instrument.

It was while he was with the Billy McFarland Showband that he and some friends decided to form what was to become Ireland’s best-loved pop band of that decade, The Freshmen. The Ballymena-based band sought perfection in everything they did. Their stage outfits, their presentation, their performances and their music were a cut above everybody else. Their soaring harmonies were the best of any Irish band before or since. And Billy Brown was the director, arranger, producer and puppeteer.

Appearances on RTÉ’s ‘Showband Show’ and UTV’s ‘Pop Scene’, further raised the band’s profile and following minor success with their second single, ‘I Stand Alone’ (written by vocalist Derek Dean), they finally broke into the charts with the memorable ‘Papa Oom Mow Mow’.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own