Henry Wymbs looks back on the life and career of the young Belfast girl who became one of the most popular singers of her generation whose record of having five hits in the Top Twenty in the same week has never been equalled.
To the younger generation in Britain, Ruby Murray is Cockney rhyming slang for a good old-fashioned curry, and fans of the TV show Only Fools and Horses will be well acquainted with the name. Curry lovers may wonder who or where the name came from.
Those of us of a certain age will have no difficulty in identifying one of the most popular singers of her generation. Ruby Murray was Ireland’s first pop superstar, setting a record of five singles in the UK Top Twenty simultaneously – an amazing record which lasted until the emergence of Madonna in later decades.
Ruby Murray was born on the 29th March 1935 to a Scottish father and Irish mother into a working-class family who lived off the Donegal Road in Belfast. She was a precocious youngster and her talent as a singer was evident from a very early age. When only weeks old Ruby underwent a major operation that was to have a profound impact not just on her health but also on her future singing career.
I was fortunate to speak to Ruby from her home in Devon some years ago. Though suffering from ill health at the time, she was still the sweet, shy, modest and charming lady who attracted mass hysteria in the fifties, like that of the Beatles in the sixties.
Ruby explained to me about her family background in Belfast.
“I come from a Protestant tradition, and one of my best friends was Ronnie Carroll who had a number two hit record in the British Top Twenty in 1963 with the song Roses are Red.
“We were both born in Belfast and although from very different backgrounds, we met up when we were about fifteen. In the forties, my father Dan was an entrepreneur and much involved in arranging entertainment in one of the top venues in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Hall in Belfast. I had an operation to clear up swollen glands when I was a very young child, which left me with hoarseness and a huskiness that later effected my voice.
“I first appeared on TV at the age of twelve, and had been singing in variety concerts across Northern Ireland and Scotland, but at this time the laws governing child entertainers were very strict and I had to return to school until I was fourteen. I was getting paid and my father collected the fees.
“I remember entering a public speaking competition run by a young farmers association in the late forties and winning many singing competitions. This gave me some confidence, which I suppose helped a little in later life.”
Ronnie Carroll, whom I got to know through my work with the BBC, had great affection and love for Ruby and told me:
“My own singing career coincided with hers and she made the breakthrough in the UK in the mid-fifties. Her first single Heartbeat reached the UK charts at number 2 in 1954 and the following year with a song Softly, Softly she reached the number one spot. This was a year in which she achieved the rare feat of having five singles in the top twenty at the same time.
“The fifties was the decade in which she suddenly gained in confidence, technique and her own unique stage ideas. Her first appearance on the show prompted the record producer Ray Martin to give her a recording contract with Columbia Records and offered her a record deal. I know that Frank Sinatra once commented on Ruby’s fine singing voice”
Ruby first travelled to Britain in the early fifties and says:
“I went to London and joined a touring show called ‘Yankee Doodle Blarney’ where producer Richard Afton, who had seen me perform before, offered me a job as resident singer on BBC television series Quite Contrary, replacing the popular singer Joan Regan who was about to leave to engage in other musical productions. I was still in my teens and had to develop my own style. He certainly took a chance with me and I wasn’t going to let him down.”
Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own