Willie Deery, the impresario behind the night of musical nostalgia at Derry’s Millennium Forum next Sunday night, is a man of many talents.
Not only is he the guiding force behind “The Way Back Then” variety concert, he is also a successful businessman, an acclaimed playwright and the author of a number of best-selling books.
His history of Springtown Camp - where he was born and reared - and his chronicle of Derry’s dancehalls have both been big hits with local readers.
Willie says he enjoyed a “blissful” childhood growing up in Springtown Camp which, just years before, had been occupied by hundreds of US servicemen.
“To me, as a child, Springtown Camp felt like heaven,” he recalled this week. “It was just one big adventure park.
“We were fenced in by an eight foot high chain link fence, with one entrance to Buncrana Road and one to Northland Road. Cars in the camp were as rare as hen’s teeth, so we were free to roam about and play every children’s game invented - and all in complete safety.”
“We were blissfully unaware of the stigma that went with living there and we didn’t realise until we were much older the pressures endured by our parents.”
Leaving school aged 15, Willie got a job as an apprentice bricklayer with Sammy Quigley, the foreman for a Belfast contractor which was just finishing building the houses at Maybrook Park. He went on to serve most of his time with Frank Connor Builders and, then, in 1980, he started his own small building firm and remained self-employed until retiring in the summer of 2013.
Turning to one of his many other talents - entertainment promoter - Willie recalls that he first caught the bug as a 14-year-old when he attended his first variety show at St Columb’s Hall.
“I can remember every moment of it to this very day,” he says. “It was one of the original variety concerts promoted by Fr. - now Bishop - Daly. Joe Brown and the Bruvvers were the main act and I was in awe of him. I remember thinking at the time, ‘I can’t believe I am only a few yards away from Joe Brown’.
The place was packed to the rafters. In fact, we couldn’t get a seat and had to stand at the side of the hall. We didn’t mind as we were so excited to see such a star in the flesh.
“Way back then, the variety concerts organised by Bishop Daly were the main attraction in Derry and people looked forward to them each week. They were sold out, week after week, with mega stars like Jim Reeves and Chubby Checker on the bill.
“It’s a little known fact that Bishop Daly came within a whisker of getting The Beatles for one of his shows. “
Little wonder then, given the amazing memories associated with these original shows, that Willie has decided t0 take a trip down memory lane with a series of nostalgia variety concerts.
“ Next Sunday’s concert is the second - the first one went down a storm and I expect this one to be just as successful,” he says.
“ One of the performers, Majella Brady who was on stage in the old St Columb’s Hall shows, will be back in Derry and on stage, once again, after almost 40 years.”
Willie is no stranger to promoting concerts and has, over the years, brought stars such as Don Williams, Glen Campbell, Kris Kristofferson, David Essex and Shakin’ Stevens to Derry.
“I have to say that most were nice to work with but there was the odd exception and some scary moments before the curtain went up,” he says.
“ Glen Campbell was my favourite person - he was a gentleman with no airs or graces. He asked what he should do for an encore and we suggested he go on with a Derry City scarf and sing ‘Danny Boy’. He did just that and brought the house down.”
In 1986 - the 20th anniversary of the closure of Springtown Camp - Willie helped organise a camp reunion: and what a success that turned out to be.
“ The word spread like wildfire and the dance was sold out in a matter of days with hundreds unable to obtain tickets,” he recalls. “Ex- residents of the camp came from all over Europe to attend the function which was held in the old Stardust. The following year we extended it to a full weekend of celebration and, again, it sold out in days.
“We also had a display of old photographs of former residents and the crowds thronged to it with steady queues all day long. It was a tremendous success.”
Turning to next Sunday’s concert at the Millennium Forum (September 14), Willie says he’s really looking forward to what he believes will be a “night of pure local nostalgia.”
“It’s an opportunity for people to take a trip down memory lane to the never to be forgotten days of the Irish showbands. To an era when at least six local dances were in full swing with dancing offered on an almost night basis. It’ll be great fun and I known people will really enjoy it.”
Compere for the evening will be BBC Radio Foyle’s Sean Coyle.
Tickets are priced at £10 and can be obtained from the Millennium Forum (Tel: 028 71 264455) or booked online at www.millenniumforum.co.uk