A Star Is Born
Michael Valentine Doonican was born on 3rd
February 1927, the youngest of eight children. He became known as Val because,
growing up in Waterford on the South East Coast of Ireland, there were too many
Michaels, Mikes and Mickeys around for him to be instantly identifiable.
Val often talks about the great happiness of his
childhood – his ‘Special Years’. However, his family were poor and he
shared a room with his three brothers: his four sisters slept on the other side
of a partition wall and his parents in the living room. When Val was still
young, one of his sisters contracted TB, forcing her to move into their
parents’ room, and Val’s father to move into a shed at the end of the
garden. This eccentric arrangement continued until Val was fourteen, when his
father died, but enabled him to spend a great deal of ‘quality time’ with
Many of the young Mr Doonican’s favourite
moments arose from long country walks with his father, who would walk down the
road, book in hand whilst the young Val foraged in the hedgerows, occasionally
returning to his father’s side in order to take a sweet from his pocket. They
would pick watercress to make sandwiches and boil up baby potatoes, making the
most delicious meals Val had tasted. However, there were also darker times
waiting for his father to leave the pub barely able to stand and having lavished
most of his weekly wage packet on alcohol. In fact, despite working in many bars
and nightclubs, Val remained virtually teetotal until middle age.
When Val was fourteen, his world was shattered by
his father’s death from cancer of the throat and mouth. Val felt unable to
attend the funeral, and shortly afterwards felt compelled to leave school in
order to help support the family. He had been a reasonable scholar, but left
without qualifications and had to take a job assembling crates at the orange box
factory where his father and older brothers had worked – something which he
says would almost certainly have disappointed his father greatly.
However, Val had been writing and arranging music
from a very young age, harmonising his friends’ versions of the songs they saw
performed on film by the likes of Gene Autry. Among other achievements, Val took
part in Waterford’s first ever television broadcast, together with his
faithful guitar. His first ‘professional’ engagement came with his friend
Mickey Brennan at the Waterford Fete – singing ‘We’re Three Caballeros!’
Almost inevitably, it would now seem, Val met up with another musician, Bruce
Clarke, and left the factory to tour Ireland with Bruce in a caravan. Val,
though, was earning his keep by playing house-keeper.
Eventually, Val joined a band, this time as
drummer, despite never having played drums before! He stayed with the
band for six months, despite being sacked for blowing his nose during a set and
reinstated almost instantly because no-one else owned any drum sticks. From the
drums, Val found a job – again with Bruce Clarke – playing guitar and
performing general duties on the seafront in Bray, County Wicklow. It was here
that he and Bruce were spotted by Niall Boden (an Irish Terry Wogan of the
time!!!) and, with a bass player, given work on Radio Eierann advertising
Donnelly’s Sausages to the tune of the Mexican Hat Dance… a plug that he is still
singing to this day!
Seventeen Years To Become an
In 1951, still touring Ireland with Bruce
Clarke’s band, Val was approached by representatives of the Four Ramblers and
invited to join them in England, where they are best remembered for ‘Riders of
the Range’ on BBC Radio. They also presented Workers’ Playtime, their
salaries augmented by gifts from the factories whence the broadcast was being
made. Looking forward to his first free products, Val found that his 'Playtime'
debut was in a corset factory! It is not recorded whether he made use of
the proffered samples on this occasion!!
His time with the Four Ramblers introduced Val to
the joys of golf, honed his professional singing skills and arrangements, and
led to the tour that was to revolutionise his life…
Val had bought himself an amplifier for his guitar, into which had gone most of his savings. Making a case to protect the amplifier, he used an old theatre poster advertising one Lynnette Rae, at the time more famous than Val, who was re-building her career after an operation for throat cancer (ironically, the disease that had killed his father). Having used her as his amp’s guardian angel, Val finally met Lynnette when both she and the Ramblers supported the late Anthony Newley on tour. For the first time in his life, Val fell in love. He and Lynn married in the early 1960s, and are the parents to two grown-up daughters, Sarah and Fiona.
Whilst on that particular tour, Anthony Newley held a birthday party. All the acts had to perform, but not in their usual roles. Thus, singers did impressions and comedy turns, with Lynn regaling the audience as an impressionist. The Four Ramblers did not have another ‘turn’ and Val stepped forward, guitar in hand, and perched on a stool and singing a couple of ballads and ‘Paddy McGinty’s Goat.’ At the end of his performance, Anthony Newley suggested that his solo spot was more commercially marketable than the Ramblers act and urged Val to ‘go solo’.
Thus, he left the group and started a more lonely
professional life as Val Doonican – solo singer.
And The Rest Is History
Val secured a radio programme on Wednesdays with
the BBC ‘Light Programme’ – the precursor to Radio 2, and embarrassed the
announcers terribly with some of his song titles (well, you try announcing the
next song as ‘Quit Kickin’ My Dog Around’ with a straight face). This led
to him linking his own material at a time when regional accents were almost
unknown at the BBC. However, Val’s surname was still not known to his
listeners - the powers-that-be in Broadcasting House having decided that the
general public would never remember a complicated surname like Doonican!
Val continued to play cabaret and occasional
theatre gigs but despite being a regular radio personality, no recording
contracts were forthcoming for him. He was spotted at a concert by Val Parnell,
who at that time arranged the acts for ‘Sunday Night at the London
Palladium’, booked onto the show and performed an eight minute spot that, he
says, changed his life. By the Monday, there were recording contracts and TV
show offers flooding his manager’s office. Truly, as Val has said many
times, he was 'an overnight success after seventeen years.'
Val has gone on to record over fifty albums,
sales of which register in the millions, and he has fans all over the world. He
charted many times with both singles and albums, appearing on ‘Top of the
Pops’ to sing hits such as ‘Walk
Tall’, ‘The Special
Years’, ‘What Would I Be’, and ‘Elusive Butterfly’. His TV shows
ran for twenty four years, from humble beginnings opposite ‘Coronation
Street’ on Thursday nights, which he says enabled him to iron out the mistakes
without the pressure of a large audience, to being the mainstay of the Saturday
night TV schedules for many years. Val’s Christmas Eve shows became a national
institution and are fondly remembered even by those who would not consider
themselves to be fans.
These days Val still
tours, but as he told the web site during his interview,
he is fortunate enough to be able to pick and choose his concerts. He does not
undertake television work as the market for the lavish music shows no longer
exists and, as he says, how could he top the marvellous time he had doing what
he loved musically: Val presenting a game show would not have the same appeal to
Val is now a grandfather of two, and the father of a successful novelist, his elder daughter Sarah having scored some success in that field. He divides his time between his homes in Buckinghamshire and Spain, and is enjoying the fruits of his years of work.