Joe Dolan was as big a star overseas as he was in Ireland, scoring hit records across Europe and beyond. But it was the old Soviet Union, in the dying days of communism, that provided arguably his greatest triumph. In 1978 he became the first pop performer to make a major tour of the USSR, where despite the ban on western music, locals already knew all his hits, writes Michael Quinn.
Joseph Dolan (1939–2007) of Mullingar, County Westmeath, was for over forty years one of Ireland’s best-known pop singers. Known to all as ‘Joe’, such was the exhilarating nature of his on-stage performances that the veracity of the promotional phrase coined later by his manager, Seamus Casey, ‘There’s no show like a Joe show’, was happily accepted by the adoring fans who flocked to his shows.
In 1960, Dolan first joined his older brother, Ben, and other local musicians to form the Drifters showband, and to set about perfecting and combining his powerful and high-pitched voice with an Elvis Presley-style stage act. Ben, the band’s leader, soon realised that his younger brother was a crowd-pleaser and ‘more and more’ moved him centre stage in the band’s performances.
In the 1960s, Joe Dolan and the Drifters were among the top performing and record-selling Irish artists at home and in Britain.
They featured regularly on the popular station, Radio Luxembourg, and Joe’s appearance on the BBC’s Top of the Pops, led to a succession of chart hits, including Make Me An Island (1969) and Good Looking Woman (1970).
Following the steady decline of the showband scene in Ireland in the 1960s, the Drifters refocused their appeal by collaborating with an Italian songwriter, Roberto Danova, and co-writer Peter Yellowstone, to cultivate a ‘Europop idiom’. This strategy paid dividends with Europe-wide chart hits that included Sweet Little Rock and Roller (1974) and Lady in Blue (1975) – the latter selling five million copies across the continent, without entering either Irish or British charts.
Dolan increasingly recorded versions of his songs in a number of major European languages and toured extensively.