Carroll, Doc (1939–2005), singer and musician, was born Martin O'Carroll on 19 November 1939 in Tourmakeady, Co. Mayo, the third youngest of eight children of Frank O'Carroll, doctor, and his American wife, Catherine (née Collins). Aged three when his family moved from Tourmakeady to Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo, where his father practised, he attended Ballinrobe CBS and St Nathy's College in Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon. In primary school, a teacher nicknamed him 'Doc', a reference to his father's occupation. He displayed a precocious interest in and aptitude for music, learning to play the piano, guitar, banjo and accordion, and was a good singer. A fluent Irish speaker, he also enjoyed fishing and was a useful Gaelic footballer.
Intending to become a shipbound radio officer, he studied electrical engineering for three years in the Atlantic College in Dublin. However, he was distracted by the showband phenomenon that swept Ireland from the late 1950s. When attending showband concerts, he puzzled his friends by not dancing, preferring to sit and absorb the music. He played with the Pete Brown Showband from Kiltimagh, Co. Mayo, for two weeks on the Connacht circuit, and then with Sligo showband the Clefonaires on a two-week tour of Britain. Though he was close to completing his studies, these experiences convinced him to pursue his musical ambitions and quit college, dismaying his parents.
He joined three members of Pete Brown's showband – the Gill brothers, Vincent and Frank, and Brian Carr – to form the Royal Blues in autumn 1962. They approached businessman and promoter Andy Creighton to manage them and after auditions hired Shay O'Hara, Brendan Arnold, Don Flanagan and Bobby Smith to complete the eight-man lineup. As lead guitarist and supporting vocalist to O'Hara, Carroll was heavily influenced by Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Walker in his singing and guitar accompaniments. O'Hara sang ballads and country songs, while Carroll took over for the faster numbers.
Notably well-groomed and attired resplendently in their trademark blue uniforms, be it light blue, royal blue, or blue-and-white, the Royal Blues gave slick and professional performances, characterised by stylistic versatility, strong vocals, and a tremendously full musical backing, which soon established them as a big draw, particularly in Mayo, where they rapidly developed a devoted and loyal following. Though they branded themselves successfully as a Mayo band, only three members were from the county and four were from Dublin. This strategy of appealing to regional loyalties proved the mainstay of their subsequent longevity and provided them with a ready-made audience among the large community of Mayo emigrants based in Britain and the USA. In summer 1963 they toured the USA and returned every year for the next nine years.
During 1963–5 the Royal Blues crisscrossed Ireland, gradually building up a fan base, but without quite breaking into the top tier of the showband business. In February 1965 they released their first record, 'Love's gonna live here', a country-and-western number sung by O'Hara, which failed to make an impact. Their second record, an up-tempo cover of Fats Domino's 'Old man trouble', featured Carroll on vocals, and was released to little fanfare in December 1965. It entered the Irish top ten at no. 9 in January 1966, before suddenly leaping to no. 2 and then to no. 1, where it stayed for two weeks.
The band was both delighted and chagrined. Showbands viewed records as loss leaders for their live shows and, as was common practice, the Royal Blues had been buying their own record, hoping to get more airplay by keeping it in the top ten for as long as possible. They had not realised that the song was genuinely popular – too popular to enjoy a long duration in the charts. It was said that the draining of the Moy in Mayo became a critical issue because so many surplus 'Old man trouble' records were dumped in the river by locals determined that the Royal Blues would become the first band from the west of Ireland to reach no. 1.
This unexpected hit also owed much to the hard work put in over a long period. Carroll calculated that in forty-nine dancing nights available between Christmas 1965 and Ash Wednesday 1966, they played forty-two different venues. At this time, many showbands found they could best maintain their popularity, particularly among females, by basing themselves around a distinct, typically photogenic, frontman. Thus, Carroll gained top billing in the group, now known as Doc Carroll and the Royal Blues.
'Old man trouble' made the Royal Blues one of the premier showband attractions in Ireland: some 2,000 fans were locked out of their concert at the Seapoint in Galway in February 1966. In 1966–7, they had a further three top-ten records, two of which featured Carroll on lead vocals: 'Far away from you', an original somewhat reminiscent of 'Old man trouble', and Fats Domino's 'There goes my heart again'. For the remainder of the decade they appeared regularly on RTÉ and BBC programmes such as Pick of the pops, The showband show and The Go2 show. In 1967 they played at Carnegie Hall in New York, joining other Irish showband stars in a special concert. While touring America, they also appeared on a number of local television channels. Carroll could afford to buy a black Chevrolet, and along with the other band members chartered a plane to fly from Britain to see Mayo play in a Connacht final. A popular figure within the showband fraternity, he was a close friend of Joe Dolan (1939–2007).
However, showband record sales declined steeply after 1966, and the Royal Blues reverted to focusing on their live shows. Showbands remained popular but were increasingly viewed by musical sophisticates as outdated, vulgar and provincial. Ireland's leading music journal, Spotlight, had an ambiguous attitude towards a showband scene on which it was commercially reliant, and adopted a particularly jaundiced view of Doc Carroll and the Royal Blues for representing the genre at its most unreconstructed. Headed by the wholesome, cherubic and unashamedly religious Carroll, the band had no truck with the counter-cultural fetishisation of rebellion and artistic originality. During the mid 1960s, Carroll wrote about twenty songs but never used them, as he did not think they suited the band, and found that fans disliked original material, preferring faithful regurgitations of the latest chart hits.
Showbands such as the Royal Blues rooted Americanised popular music in a distinctively indigenous, even parochial, context, thereby mitigating the sense of displacement experienced by formerly insular communities (and also by Irish emigrants) suddenly exposed to globalised mass culture. The ambiguities inherent in this role, which manifested both an underlying dissatisfaction and a continued identification with traditional community life, were exemplified by Carroll, who relaxed offstage by working on his father-in-law's farm and by frequenting country pubs where he could enjoy elderly patrons' yarns.
In the late 1960s, many showbands focused either on pop or on the burgeoning country-and-western scene. Carroll resisted this trend, holding that the Royal Blues should maintain their versatility. In 1968, Shay O'Hara left the band owing to his discontent over this. A year later Creighton stood down as manager and two new singers were recruited, an overhaul that reinvigorated the band. They also released a country-and-western LP at the end of the year. The irritation this caused their more pop-oriented fans, who preferred faster material, served notice that they could not continue to straddle the widening divide between pop and country-and-western.
Carroll acknowledged this in early 1972 when he left the Royal Blues and formed a country-and-western band, Doc Carroll and the Nightrunners. The Nightrunners featured Tom Allen (later T. R. Dallas) and Tony Allen (later of Foster and Allen). Both Allens praised him as a mentor, as did future pop impresario Louis Walsh, who ran the Royal Blues fan club as a teenager in the late 1960s. By then the advent of the discotheque was undermining the showband scene and Carroll had less success with the Nightrunners. In 1975 he formed another band, the All Stars, who were more disco-oriented. He retired in 1979.
In 1983 Doc Carroll and the Royal Blues returned for what was ostensibly a once-off reunion concert, skilfully promoted as an exercise in nostalgia and widely publicised on RTÉ radio. Over 2,300 fans converged on Claremorris, Co. Mayo, for the event, which re-launched the Royal Blues, and Carroll in particular. They immediately commenced a tour of Ireland and in 1984 toured America for the first time in over a decade. This comeback was well timed, as the development of music lounges in hotels and pubs enabled showband stars to make a living on the cabaret circuit. Thereafter, Carroll continued as a solo attraction, periodically reuniting with the Royal Blues for further comeback shows, most notably at the Galteemore in Cricklewood, London, where they played in front of 4,000 people in 1987.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Carroll was busy on occasional tours of Ireland and England and experimented with a one-man show. In 1993 he committed himself to the English circuit, assembling a backing band of English musicians, and spending the next ten years performing at Irish clubs there. He completed fifteen tours of England per year, working four nights a week for thirty-three weeks of the year. In 2003 he refocused on Ireland and formed the Showband Stars with Big Chief, formerly of the Indians. He also recruited Donna McCaul, who went on to represent Ireland in the 2005 Eurovision Song Contest. Throughout he never deviated from sets composed mainly of 1950s and 1960s numbers, with those of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino all featuring prominently.
He released original material throughout the 1980s and 1990s, much of which had a Mayo theme, including 'The boys in red and green', which celebrated Mayo reaching the 1989 All-Ireland final. In 2003 he released a compilation album of singles, The best of Doc Carroll. Towards the end of his career, he acted as an unofficial advocate for the showband era and was critical of RTÉ for ignoring country-and-western and showband music, which became the preserve of local radio.
A keen sportsman, he enjoyed fishing, golf and horse riding, and during his 1960s heyday togged out for charity Gaelic football matches involving teams composed of showband stars and leading footballers. In 1967 he married Mary Moran of Athlone, Co. Westmeath; they lived in Athlone, latterly at Retreat Heights, and had two sons and two daughters. After an illness he died 1 May 2005 at St Vincent's hospital, Co. Dublin, and was buried in Athlone.