Kelehan, John William ('Noel') (1935–2012), musician, conductor, composer and arranger, was born on 26 December 1935 in the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street, Dublin, son of Patrick Kelehan, a railway fireman and engine driver, of 6 Great Western Avenue, Phibsborough, Dublin, and Elizabeth Kelehan (née Haughton). Educated at local schools, he was a bright student, especially adept at Irish and Latin, and graduated aged seventeen with an honours leaving certificate. His musical talents being evident from an early age and encouraged by his parents, he took piano lessons with a neighbourhood teacher from age seven, abandoning them in his mid teens to concentrate on his formal studies. On leaving school, he worked in a maternal uncle's drapery business through the 1950s; finding the work an unbearable drudgery, he determined to explore what career opportunities might become available by cultivating his aptitude for music. Enrolling in Dublin's Municipal School of Music (MSM), Chatham Street, he took courses in piano, harmony and theory, while playing in dance and jazz bands in such venues as hotel lounges and tennis and rugby clubs. After a promising Radio Éireann (RÉ) debut in 1955, he secured frequent freelance work with the station as a piano accompanist, and did a radio series with vocalist Tommy Nolan (father of the Nolan Sisters).
From an early age, Kelehan's great musical love was jazz, inspired initially by 78-rpm recordings of British pianist George Shearing. Later influences were Oscar Peterson, heard on Voice of America broadcasts, and the more introspective style of Bill Evans, sometime collaborator of Miles Davis. Kelehan formed (c. 1960) and fronted a quintet, the Jazz Heralds, described latterly as Dublin's first be-bop group, a marginal style in the Ireland of the period, even in jazz circles. Gigging in Dublin and environs with a fluid line-up into the late 1960s, the Heralds helped cultivate a cult Irish following for modern jazz.
After learning basic music theory at the MSM, Kelehan over many years taught himself, diligently and painstakingly, to compose and arrange. The opening of Telefis Éireann (31 December 1961) created an abundance of new employment for musicians; owing to the range of his musical capacities, Kelehan secured steady freelance employment at the station, not only as a musician, but also as composer and arranger, which, combined with live gigging and session work, allowed him to become a full-time, professional musician. As musical director for the first season of Telefís Éireann's Late late show (1962–3), he commenced a lengthy association with the popular and long-running talk show.
Kelehan spent seven months in New York (1963–4), hoping to break into the jazz scene there, playing upstate with a band in the Irish resort belt in the Catskills, and with a ballroom band in Manhattan, while continuing his assiduous private musical studies. With insufficient earnings to allow his wife and young family to join him, and the lure of ample work in Dublin, he returned home to resume his busy freelance career. Besides working regularly on RTÉ television and radio, he composed and arranged music for theatrical productions, and was employed variously as musician, composer, arranger, conductor (another self-taught skill) and producer in commercial recording sessions; he assembled session musicians to augment or replace dubiously competent showband musicians, and worked with such prominent artists as Butch Moore (qv), Brendan Bowyer (b. 1938) and Sean Dunphy (qv). He composed soundtracks for several short films, including An t'oileanach a d'fhill (Return of the islander) (1970; dir. James Mulkerns), which received a certificate of merit at the Cork Film Festival.
Continuing to perform as a live jazz pianist (he is rated with Jim Doherty as Ireland's two finest), Kelehan formed a trio with guitarist Louis Stewart (qv) and bassist Jimmy McKay that played in a mellow, sophisticated style during a residency at Dublin's Intercontinental Hotel (mid 1960s). A subsequent, more up-beat trio, with Martin Walsh (bass) and Ian McGarry (drums), had a Shelbourne Hotel residency for several years around 1970. From the mid 1960s, the Noel Kelehan Big Band, an eighteen-piece precision jazz ensemble, played weekly sessions in the Olympic Ballroom and occasional concerts; though operating at a financial loss, the big-band format allowed Kelehan hone his skills by writing intricate arrangements. The band recorded an album, The golden heritage of Irish music (1971), comprising Kelehan's arrangements of traditional airs 'brought up to date' and original compositions in an Irish idiom.
Kelehan's most noteworthy jazz ensemble was the Noel Kelehan Quintet (1976–81), with John Wadham (qv) (drums), Frank Hess (bass), Keith Donald (saxophones) and Mike Nolan (trumpet and flugelhorn), which played to a small but devoted following during a weekly residency in the Killiney Court Hotel, Co. Dublin. Their style influenced by the legendary Miles Davis quintets of the late 1950s, and the post-bop styles of John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock, the group recorded an LP produced by Kelehan, Ozone (1979), one of the first jazz albums by Irish musicians, and one of the few credited to an Irish jazz combo (as opposed to an individual artist); the six tracks included three Kelehan compositions and an arrangement of the traditional air 'The castle of Dromore'. (Long a collector's item, the album was reissued on CD and for digital streaming and download in 2014.) The fivesome reformed in 1992 as Ozone, which Kelehan departed within two years under the pressure of other commitments.
His credits included performances at the Cork Jazz Festival, concert and festival appearances with such international artists as Zoot Sims, Gerry Mulligan, Ronnie Scott and Maynard Ferguson, and a body of work with Irish jazz singer Honor Heffernan, including live piano accompaniment, arranger on recordings, and radio broadcasts. In 1999 he played in a nine-piece ensemble that performed a tribute concert at Whelan's of Wexford Street marking the centenary of Duke Ellington.
In 1973 Kelehan became a contracted RTÉ employee as a radio producer and staff conductor; three years later he was also appointed staff arranger. Fulfilling a broad remit, he composed music for both radio and television, including the theme tunes for dozens of programmes, and arranged and conducted popular music, light orchestral music, and jazz, for both live and pre-recorded broadcast. He arranged the musical accompaniment for singers appearing on entertainment programmes, frequently conducted the RTÉ Light Orchestra (from 1977 the RTÉ Concert Orchestra), and worked on programmes with such familiar personalities as Hal Roach (qv), Mike Murphy and Pat Kenny. He composed the soundtracks for television films and documentaries, and for drama series, including Bracken (1980–82). Away from RTÉ, he conducted studio orchestras for two albums of suites composed by Shaun Davey, The Brendan voyage (1980) and The pilgrim (1983), and arranged the string accompaniment on the title track of U2's The unforgettable fire (1984), an album marking a new direction for the band.
Commissioned by RTÉ, Kelehan composed and arranged 'Cuchulain's lament' (1963), a short piece for jazz piano and symphony orchestra in a 'Celtic blues' style, which was chosen for a programme of jazz produced by the European Broadcasting Union for screening throughout the continent. In September 2016 the piece was revived in the National Concert Hall, Dublin, for the concert series 'Composing the island: a century of music in Ireland'. Kelehan's three-movement jazz suite 'Ulysses', inspired by episodes from the novel by James Joyce (qv), was performed for broadcast by the Belgian State Radio Orchestra as part of Ireland's contribution to the Munich Festival of Light Music in 1965, and by Kelehan's big band in a 1967 Dublin concert. Two RTÉ commissions of the 1980s were 'Suite for chamber orchestra', premiered with Louis Stewart as soloist on guitar, and 'Three pieces for percussion ensemble and symphony orchestra', first performed by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland at the 1984 Dublin Festival of Twentieth-Century Music.
The most prolific and successful conductor in the history of the Eurovision song contest, Kelehan conducted the Eurovision orchestra for twenty-four Irish entries, including five of Ireland's seven winning entries (1980, 1987, 1992, 1993, 1996). He was conductor on numerous occasions in the national song contest, in which the country's Eurovision entry was chosen, beginning in 1965, the year Ireland first competed in the Eurovision (he arranged the Irish entry, sung by Butch Moore, but RTÉ declined to send a conductor to the Naples finals). After conducting Ireland's entry in the competition finals for the first time in 1966, and for the three years thereafter, he refused to conduct the 1970 entry over a dispute with RTÉ regarding his fee (the station's offer was substantially less than his weekly freelance earnings in Dublin), and thus was absent from the podium in Amsterdam when Dana (Rosemary Scallon) became the first Irish Eurovision winner. From the late 1970s he conducted the Irish entry near annually, with but few interruptions, as part of his contractual functions with RTÉ.
Kelehan was music director of the Eurovision festival five times, in years that Ireland hosted the event as the previous year's winner (1981, 1988, 1993, 1994, 1995). In this capacity, five times during the 1990s he conducted the entries of countries that declined to send their own conductors. His grand total of conducting twenty-nine Eurovision entries is another festival record. In 1994, when the winning Irish entry, 'Rock and roll kids', was performed without orchestral accompaniment, Kelehan conducted the runner-up, for Poland. (Over the years, he conducted three Irish runners-up.) Ill health prevented his participation when Ireland hosted the 1997 festival. When he conducted the Irish entry in 1998, the last year that a live orchestra was present at the Eurovision festival, he was presented with a certificate of outstanding achievement. His personal favourite among the Eurovision entries he conducted was 'In your eyes', the 1993 winner, sung by Niamh Kavanagh.
Warm, witty and personable, remembered as 'tremendous company', Kelehan was beloved by friends and colleagues, above all by fellow musicians. His conversation peppered with jive idioms favoured by 1950s American jazzmen, he addressed all and sundry as 'Dad'. A consummate professional – patient, punctual and well prepared – for whom mastery of his craft took precedence over self-promotion or ego-gratification, he was respectful to the music and musicians across the diverse genres in which he worked, holding that there were only two kind of music: the well played and the badly played. His attention to detail was total; Eurovision contestants spoke of the reassurance of his presence as they took the stage, knowing that 'nothing had been left to chance' (Sunday Independent, 12 February 2012).
Kelehan and his wife Mary had two sons and one daughter, and resided on Anne Devlin Road, Rathfarnham. After retiring from RTÉ in 2000, he returned to freelance arranging and conducting, and continued a professional relationship begun in the 1990s with crooner Daniel O'Donnell, for whom he arranged several albums and conducted on television programmes and a USA tour. Chronically ill for many years with bronchiectasis, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2008, but retained the capacity to read music and play piano, changing key at will. He died on 6 February 2012 at Hampstead Hospital, Whitehall, Dublin. At his funeral mass in the church of the Holy Spirit, Ballyroan, Rathfarnham, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra played his arrangement of Stephen Sondheim's 'Send in the clowns'. The burial was at Kilmashogue cemetery.