The Piano Man

Trevor Harper.
Trevor Harper.

Gordon Harper is just as in love with playing the piano at the age of 78 as he was when his hands first glided across the black and white ivory keys when he was 15 years-old.

Gordon spent most of his life living and working in London, Birmingham and Stevenage but decided to return home two years ago . Gordon can often be found behind the piano in Bennigan’s bar in John Street, conducting a singalong.

Vivien Lee.

Vivien Lee.

“I am a bit of a romantic and I am every bit as in love with the piano now as I was when I first started playing in my aunt Sarah’s house in Carrigans many years ago,” he said smiling.

Gordon was born in the old town land of Tyboe, near Donemana in 1934 but his father got a job working in a flax mill near Eglinton so Gordon and the rest of the family moved when he was two years-old.

Gordon, the second youngest of 11 children, has five brothers and five sisters. All of Gordon’s brothers have passed away but three of his sisters are still living.

“Growing up in Eglinton was lovely. There was such a lovely community in the village. We had a family doctor, we all knew the local police constable and if any of the neighbours ever needed any little jobs done, I was always at hand.”

The trophy with which Trevor Harper.

The trophy with which Trevor Harper.

Gordon recalled how one of the jobs he often helped out with involved holding a cow’s tail whilst a neighbour milked the cow.

“The people next door to us kept some farm animals and they would often ask me to hold the cow’s tail while they got the milk. They also asked me to keep an eye on the chickens when they were laying eggs - I would have to make sure that the hens sat on the eggs and kept them warm. The only way I could do this was by physically holding the hen down on top of the egg,” he laughed.

Gordon was schooled in Eglinton but left education when he was 14 years-old and two years later he got a job working as a comis waiter in the old City Hotel in Foyle Street.

“I worked in the old City Hotel for two years and they were two of the best years of my life. I met some great people there and I developed such a great working relationship with my manager that when he left for England, myself and a few others left with him and moved to England to work.”

A few years before moving to England, Gordon started his love affair with the piano. Gordon’s mother, Isabella (nee Bradley), died when Gordon was young and as a result he spent a lot of time living with various aunts. His favourite aunt, was his aunt Sarah McElhinney from Carrigans.

“My aunt Sarah bought a piano for her son but he wasn’t interested in learning how to play. I, on the other hand, could not contain myself. I would play the piano in my aunt Sarah’s house every time I went there and she would put the old oil lamp on top of the piano so I could play long into the night.”

One of Gordon’s first jobs when he moved to England was working for a hotel in Staines, Middlesex; it was at the hotel that he earned his first bit of money as a pianist.

“It was a small hotel and I was working as a waiter there. One evening, I went into the saloon bar and started messing about the piano. The manager heard me playing and told me to come and see him after I finished my shift.

“The manager offered me 15 bob every night I played the piano and that’s where it all started,” he smiled.

Gordon spent most of the 1950s and all of the 60s living and working in London where he met several film and television stars including Vivien Leigh, Joan Crawford Marlene Dietrich and John Gielgud.

“London was an amazing place to live and work. You could walk any where and feel safe all of the time.

“I remember one time I was walking to work through Leicester Square and I saw this beautiful woman sitting on a bench. I recognised her straight away - it was Marlene Dietrich and she told me come and sit beside her.

“I also served Vivien Leigh when she was in for dinner and a few drinks with friends in 1953. I met her another few times over the years and one time when we were chatting in 1955 she turned to all of her friends and said about me ‘doesn’t he have the loveliest Irish lilting brogue,” he said proudly.

Gordon spent many years working in London but in the 1970s he moved to Birmingham where he got a full-time job working as a personnel manager for a rubber making factory.

The job at the rubber making factory kept Gordon busy throughout the week but when he finished work at 5p. every evening he went home, put on his finest suit and made his way to whichever club he had been booked to play that night.

“Birmingham was an amazing place to live and work. I really enjoyed my work as a personnel manager because I loved working with people and then I just loved working in the pubs and clubs at night. It was a great experience and I would urge any young musician to make sure that they have a day job.”

Gordon spent the best part of 20 years working as a personnel manager before he retired in the 1990s but he was still busy writing songs and music.

“I am not a singer but I love writing lyrics and music. My great friend Len Bailey, who still lives in Birmingham, helped me to get the music down on paper properly. Len is an amazing musician and I wouldn’t have been able to write the songs I have written without him.”

Gordon, who cites Cole Porter and Ella Fitzgerald as his major influences, moved back to Derry in 2010. He said that whilst the city has never looked better he still misses a lot of the places he used to frequent as a younger man.

“When I was growing up in Derry, the city had six picture houses, fish and chip shops and some of the best ice cream parlours - they are all gone now.

“I remember going to the Midland theatre with my friends to see many films and then we would go for some fish and chips afterwards.

“There also used to be a rumour in Derry that Gene Autry and Roy Rogers lived in St. Columb’s Hall because all they did was show Autry and Rogers films,” he said laughing.

“I also remember the Palace in Shipquay Street [where Ginos is now]. If you wanted one of the cheap seats you queued right around to where the Tower Museum is now and if you wanted the more expensive seats, you had to get into the queue in Shipquay Street - that’s the way it was back then.”

Gordon has been writing songs and music for years and earlier this year, his song ‘When You’re Round This Way Again’ took third prize at the 2012 Tipperary Conference of Peace in July.

“As I have told you before, I don’t sing so I got a singer called Terrence McCafferty to sing the song. I couldn’t believe it when we took third prize. There must have been 400 people in the concert venue and they liked my song - I was over the moon.”

Gordon said that due to the song’s peace connotations he would love to see if it could become part of Derry’s City of Culture celebrations next year.

“The song is all about remembering how things used to be, it’s about remembering friendships and I would be delighted if it could in some way be used during the City of Culture year.

“The day that Derry won the City of Culture title, I was sat in Guildhall Square with a piano - I played ‘Danny Boy’ 50 times that day - it was great fun.

“I want the man in the street, when he hears my songs, to be whistling the tune.

“I’d also like to do some sort of audition for my song and link up with up and coming local singers. We could get a few judges together and whoever they thought was the best could end up singing the song.”

When he’s not busy writing music and lyrics in his small study, Gordon can be found behind the piano in Bennigan’s bar.

“Joe Nelis runs Bennigans and if there’s a bit of a crowd in at night, Joe will call me up and ask me to come over and play a few songs. It’s always great fun and the people in the bar are just lovely.

“I live in the Waterside so the Peace Bridge is my life line. It enables me to get into town quite quick and I have met many people on the way who I would still keep in touch with. “Derry’s looking great at the minute and I am really excited at what the City of Culture year will bring - hopefully I can be part of that,” he smiled.

To contact Gordon, email him at: gordonharper1934@hotmail.co.uk.