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Paul Brady on teaching Bob Dylan a new guitar riff

BY Becca Inglis

18th Apr 2023 Celebrities

Paul Brady on teaching Bob Dylan a new guitar riff

Paul Brady is an Irish music legend whose career has seen him cross paths with everyone from Bob Dylan to Tina Turner. He looks back on a life in folk and pop

Paul Brady's childhood memories

My earliest memory was the song “Now Is the Hour”, which was a big hit for Vera Lynn shortly after the war. Bing Crosby recorded that in the Fifties, and that might have been the version that I heard, because a lot of big singers at the time recorded the song.

According to my father, it's the first tune they heard me la la-ing to when I was 18 months old.

My mum and dad were both primary school teachers. My father was trained in the Republic of Ireland's system and my mother was trained in the north. My father was a Sligo man and my mother was born in County Tyrone.

When they got married, they wanted both to work, so they had to find a town on the border of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. That's why we settled in the town of Strabane.

"It was kind of a dual existence. You were living with two different cultures really, socially, artistically, and politically"

My mother taught in the north of Ireland, in a school three miles south of the town, and my father used to cycle across the bridge every morning to his school in Lyford in the Republic of Ireland.

It was kind of a dual existence. You were living with two different cultures really, socially, artistically, and politically. It was a good experience to have both. I think people who live along the border do benefit from two different views of the world.

I was sent to piano lessons when I was about five or six. Usually at the piano lessons, you learn how to play the scales and read a bit of simple music. But I very quickly realised that it wasn't the music I wanted to play.

The music I wanted to play was what I was hearing on the radio in the house—Radio Luxembourg was the big pop station. I started to try and play the tunes I heard on the radio myself. I kind of taught myself by ear how to play the piano.

Paul Brady holding guitar as childPaul Brady taught himself to play pop music on the guitar and piano

How he discovered folk music

My mother was the eldest of nine children and they were spread out all over counties Tyrone and Fermanagh, so we would go visit them several times a year.

We would all call in to my Uncle Bernard in Irvinestown, and he played the fiddle. I wasn't much educated in Irish traditional folk music at the time. I was still more or less listening to pop radio. But I always loved being in his company, when he would take out the fiddle and play a few tunes.

It made me feel I was part of a bigger tradition that I hadn't realised until I heard him play.

I didn't play in a formal situation until I came to Dublin in the mid-Sixties to go to college. It was the time of the big British blues boom, where you had Spencer Davis' band, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck in the Yardbirds—all that was really coming on to the air.

I went to a rhythm and blues concert, and I was immediately struck by the knowledge that that's all I wanted to do—to be a musician.

I thought I'd be a teacher like my parents, and maybe play music for fun in the summer holidays. But when I got to Dublin, I knew that I didn't want to continue studying. I just wanted to join a band.

Playing with The Johnstons

The Johnstons started off in the late Sixties in Ireland and in 1969, we moved to London. That was the height of folk revival in the UK, where you had bands like The Young Tradition, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, or folk artists like Billy Connolly, before he became a professional comedian.

The Johnstons had quite a profile on British radio. We did loads and loads of sessions for daily programmes like Jimmy Young, Terry Wogan, even John Peel. But then we decided we’d try and break America, so we moved to New York around 1970.

Things started to go pear shaped in America for The Johnstons. It was the first big energy crisis and the vinyl that records were made from at the time was in very short supply, because it needed a fossil fuel to be made. Record companies started dropping acts and not signing new acts.

We found ourselves stuck in America trying to get a record deal. That eventually led to the breakup of the group The Johnstons.

Paul Brady with The Johnstons 1967

Paul Brady first found fame with The Johnstons, an Irish folk band he played with through the 1960s

One of the legendary Irish traditional musicians, Willie Clancy, died [in 1973], and his funeral became a mecca for every traditional musician in the country.

His civil funeral took place in a village in the southwest of Ireland, in County Clare, in the village called Miltown Malbay. It was one of these situations where you met hundreds of people we hadn't seen in a long while. It was a very moving occasion.

Right after, we were all in a pub playing music. This lady, Mary Elliot came into the room with a friend of hers from Dublin. They were music fans, and Mary had just delivered her thesis for her master's degree that afternoon, so she was well ready to rock.

"I fancied her straight away. In the space of a week, I'd fallen in love with her"

I fancied her straightaway, and we got together that evening and spent some lovely time together. In the space of a week, I'd fallen in love with her.

I found myself then having to go back to America, to The Johnstons, and there followed a nine-month period where we were separated. We wrote to each other all the time.

Eventually, I left the band and came back to Ireland, and we were still in love. We got married in 1975, and we're still together.

Making it in pop music

One day, I was driving home, and I heard this song on the radio. It was Gerry Rafferty, a song called “Baker Street”. This was the first time I'd ever heard the song.

I knew Gerry Rafferty because he was in a folk group with Billy Connolly and Tom Harvey called The Humblebums. “Baker Street” was a huge leap forward stylistically, lyrically, and in every other way, and it was like a eureka moment for me.

At that point, I decided to say farewell to traditional folk music and see if I could become a songwriter.

I made a record in 1981 called Hard Station. That surprised a lot of people, because I was known as a traditional folk artist. People go, “Where did this come out of?” To be honest, I don't know myself. It came out of a part of me that I'd never really explored before.

Paul Brady and Tina TurnerAfter transitioning to a solo pop career, Paul Brady found success as a songwriter for artists like Tina Turner

Around 1982, I got my first cover by the American band Santana. They recorded one of the songs off Hard Station. Shortly after that, other artists started getting interested in the songs I was writing.

My manager, Ed Bicknell, was friendly with an Australian manager, Roger Davies. Tina Turner at that stage was at a low ebb in her career. She had had a long slide down the pole of success throughout the Seventies. Roger believed in her very strongly and decided he wanted to bring her back for a revival.

Ed Bicknell also managed Dire Straits, so Roger was asking Ed if any of his artists had songs that could suit Tina. He had one great song that Mark Knopfler had written called “Private Dancer”, and he had another song which I had just written called “Steel Claw”.

Tina loved them both. That was how I got Tina Turner to record “Steel Claw”.

I was in Dublin minding my own business, when I got a call from my agent to say that Bob Dylan was coming on a big European tour. He was playing Wembley Stadium, and he wanted to meet me. So I flew over to London and met Bob backstage and went into his mobile dressing room.

He asked, how did I play the song “The Lakes of Pontchartrain”? I use quite a lot of unorthodox guitar tunings, which a lot of folk artists at the time were doing, so I asked him if I could borrow his guitar and if he'd mind if I retuned it?

"The last thing I expected that morning was to be moving Bob Dylan's fingers around his guitar"

He said, “Go ahead,” so I did that. And he said, “Well, show me how to do it.”

I ended up taking his fingers and said, “Well, you put them like that on the neck of the guitar, and then you do this here.” The last thing I expected that morning was to be moving Bob Dylan's fingers around his guitar. It was a thrill.

Family life

I have two kids: a daughter, Sarah, who was born in 1977, and my son, Colm, was born in 1979. He lives in New Zealand with his family and Sarah lives in Epsom. We have five grandchildren.

New Zealand's a long way away, I have to confess. We couldn't go there from 2020, because New Zealand was one of the hardest countries to get into. We went out on January 4 this year and came back on February 7, and that was the first time we'd seen them in a long time.

The older I get, the more I think that family really is where it's at. I've had success and I'm comfortable, but to me, the main thing is family. It's hard to not have any of your family living in Ireland. But that's the way it is, and we're not the only ones in that boat.

Ireland has always been a country that people have emigrated from. I remember what it must have been like over 100 years ago. It was called the American wake, because when people left Ireland for America in the late 19th century, you never saw them again. It was like a death.

We're much more fortunate these days that they have lots of ways to communicate. We're not complaining too much.

Crazy Dreams, published by Merrion Press, is out now

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