Where do you sit in the City Hotel waiting to meet somebody if you’re Phil Coulter?
Looking around the main lobby, busy on this Wednesday afternoon, you realise - probably not here. A famous son of Derry probably wouldn’t get a lot of peace, between people wanting a pic or telling how they used to meet his aunt in Wellworths.
Phil is in the seating area on the way to the restaurant, with his back to the partition. First impressions - ‘Phil Coulter! I used to meet your aunt . .’. He’s on the phone but stretches out a hand. People talk about personalities being different ‘in real life’ and Phil seems not as thin in the face, not as tall. He’s relaxed and in good shape.
“I just turned 70 and the wife is on to me about retirement,” he says, but he doesn’t look or act like a man about to retire. In fact, this get-together is about his upcoming concert in the Millennium Forum soon, and there’s a big gig with the Ulster Orchestra pencilled in for Ebrington next year.
City of Culture year in Derry would be unthinkable without Phil Coulter. For about fifty years now this son of the city has been a significant player in the music scene, songwriter, producer, performer. And an astute business man, always conscious that music is a business.
As he jokes later, his music industry pals tell him he’s in the anthem business - Ireland’s Call, and of course the song which captured a slice of a city’s history, The Town I Loved So Well. Not to mention the albums that were the soundtrack of a thousand Irish hotels for years - Classic Tranquillity and Sea of Tranquillity.
Phil is dressed ‘smart casual’, dark jacket, shirt, light-coloured trousers - good for meeting a President or for going to the Rocking Chair to see Gay McIntyre.
“Willie Barrett and John O’Driscoll, old mates, took me there last night. Gay can still get that special tone on the alto sax. With a bit more drive, he could have made it on a world stage.”
Phil might be here to promote a concert, but he seems willing to follow up any subject under the sun. He’s enthusiastic about the bluegrass music he hears on his visits to see his 22 year-old son, on a soccer scholarship at the University of East Tennessee. He talks about Barney McKenna’s funeral, and the years with the Dubliners. Billy Connolly visiting him in Buncrana - “Billy and Pamela Stephenson were being followed by the press and were supposed to be in hiding in their North African lovenest. Were they sh**e, we were having pints and playing darts in Billtheloos.”
70 or not, Phil is still a driven man and proud of it, still has the competitive streak.
“Having a lot of mouths to feed and the fear of failure - that will keep getting you up in the morning. You’re only as good as your last song or your last gig.”
No let up
Phil has plenty of projects on the boil to show he has no intention of letting up. There’s the link-up with Mary Byrne, the former Tesco shopworker who shot to stardom on the X-Factor in 2010. There’s his continuing close involvement with Celtic Thunder, who’ve been a massive success in the US and gave Derry’s Damian McGinty the springboard to launch what Coulter calls his ‘A list’ career in Glee. And there’s his own touring, with his latest jaunt across the North.
Although Phil Coulter says he’s not really one for looking back over his career, there’s no doubt that hitting the 70 mark has caused more than usual reflection on what’s been a remarkable life. And a theme of this latest show, ‘Phil Coulter - celebrating 45 years of music’, which comes to the Forum on Sunday night.
Phil says he’ll have to oblige with the classics, from ‘The Town’ to the remarkable ‘Scorn Not His Simplicity’, but he has also hunted out archive material.
It starts with ‘Puppet on a String’, the song which really launched him as a songwriter when Sandy Shaw won the Eurovision with it in 1967 - “that was in black and white, imagine, I couldn’t believe that!” From the following year there’s Cliff Richard and ‘Congratulations’, the song which led the show marking 50 years of Eurovision. Then there’s the worldwide teen sensation of the 70s, the Bay City Rollers. And on it goes - through the Dubliners and tributes from the likes of Connolly and Van the Man.
Sharing the stage with Phil at the Forum will be his wife Geraldine Brannigan, who he points out had an international singing career before he ever got a name for performing on stage. And, talent-spotting as ever, Phil also brings along a young woman he believes has a great future - Chloe Coyle from Castlederg, the All Ireland Talent Show winner at just 13 year-old in March 2010. Tyrone musician Plunkett McGartland, a regular collaborator with Coulter, is also in the show.
Special guests on the night will be the Foyle and Londonderry College choir.
It’s easy to pass an hour with Phil Coulter, who still seems to have the thirst for music, performing and life in general, as well as those decades of success which have taken him across the world and given him so many memorable experiences. He’s a born entertainer, as stories about ‘great nights’ in these parts illustrate, and, despite his many interests, you can tell it’s still important to him that when he does take to the road, people still turn out to see him.
It’s a long time since he left Derry to go to Queen’s - he now lives near Bray in County Wicklow - but he remains a Derryman and can expect a hometown reception once again at the Forum on Sunday night.