Dolan, Joseph Francis Robert ('Joe') (1939–2007), pop singer, was born 16 October 1939 in the county hospital, Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, youngest of eight surviving children (five boys and three girls; another boy had died in early childhood) of Patrick Dolan (c.1890–1950) and his wife Ellen (née Brennan) (c.1892–1959). Both his parents were from comfortable farming backgrounds near Mullingar. His mother's family were dairy farmers in Walshestown. His father, from Portloman on the Lough Owel shore, opened a bicycle sales and repair shop in Mullingar in the 1910s; on the business's failing, in 1938 he secured work as a county council labourer and moved to Grange Cottages, a council housing scheme on the town's outskirts. Dolan received primary and secondary education locally at St Mary's CBS, and then attended the technical college in Mullingar. After working as a cleaner and delivery boy with the Westmeath Examiner, he apprenticed on the newspaper as a compositor (on a five-year term because he had finished school). Exposed in the family home to Irish field songs and ballads, Dolan took piano lessons locally, took up the guitar on discovering rock and roll, and indulged an enthusiasm for the mid-1950s skiffle craze popularised by Lonnie Donegan. He was introduced to the emerging Irish showband scene by his brother Ben (four years his senior), an apprentice carpenter and aspiring saxophonist.
Joe's '60s: showband idol
After obtaining intermittent paid work as pick-up or stand-in musicians with local bands, in January 1960 the two Dolan brothers launched their own six-piece showband, The Drifters, and performed regularly on the dancehall circuit in Mullingar and environs, with Joe playing guitar and sharing vocals with Ben and other band members. From the start, Ben was the bandleader and more adept musician, but Joe the crowd-pleasing showman. Immediately upon qualifying as a compositor in early 1962, Dolan quit his newspaper job to concentrate solely on his musical career, just as The Drifters turned fully professional. Several line-up changes were effected to secure musicians prepared to make a full-time commitment, and the numbers were augmented to a seven-piece (drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, sax, trumpet, trombone). A Mullingar teacher, Séamus Casey, gradually assumed the managerial functions previously fulfilled by Ben Dolan, and within the year formally joined the band as full-time manager with a share in the enterprise. Expanding their performance circuit throughout the midlands, The Drifters secured a major boost in summer 1962 by playing at regional heats of a national beauty contest sponsored by Quinn's Supermarkets. Noting the audience excitement whenever Joe took the vocals, Ben moved him more and more into the fronting role of lead singer. A key attraction of Joe's stage act was his hips-swivelling, pelvis-pumping, Elvis Presley imitation, sure to elicit ecstatic shrieks from the female larynx.
Contracting with Pye Records (one of the UK's three leading labels), in 1964 the band (henceforth billed as Joe Dolan and The Drifters) released their first single, 'The answer to everything', covering a 1961 Del Shannon B-side composed by Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard. The record reaching no. 4 in the Irish charts, dates were booked in dancehalls and ballrooms throughout Ireland, and larger audiences attracted. Emulating the contemporaneous success of The Beatles under the adroit management of Brian Epstein, Casey shrewdly fuelled a 'Driftermania', organising one of the first showband fan clubs (featuring newsletters, illustrated calendars and autographed photos), and placing a 'Drifter a month' column in Spotlight magazine in 1966; the profiles, targeting young female fans especially, lowered the age of each band member (Joe's was reported as 19), and falsely described the marital status of each as single (several were married). Amid a steady series of Irish chart hits, The Drifters secured their first Irish no. 1 with 'Pretty brown eyes' (1966), and their second with 'The house with the whitewashed gable' (1967). (The parochial attitude of the British recording industry that Irish acts appealed exclusively to Irish audiences precluded a UK release for any of their early recordings.)
Now numbered among the top several showband acts, The Drifters were distinguished by their shrewd song selection and imaginative arrangements (they largely eschewed covering contemporary chart hits for lesser-known B-sides and album tracks adaptable to their own distinctive sound) and Joe Dolan's unique vocal style and stagemanship. With a powerful but high-pitched voice (it 'never broke', he quipped (Ir. Times, 29 December 2007)), Dolan soared through the higher registers without breaking into falsetto. Besides embarking on the obligatory annual Lenten tours of Irish dancehalls in the UK, the band undertook two whistle-stop American tours in 1965 and 1967. Nonetheless, the showband scene was declining from its overheated, mid-1960s peak, imposing strains throughout the industry, and creating or exacerbating tensions within bands. In July 1968 The Drifters split; unhappy with the band's financial structure (the Dolans each commanded two shares, the others one apiece), and wishing to pursue a different musical direction and image, all five musicians apart from the Dolans departed to form The Times showband. Within six weeks, the Dolans and Casey (who remained with them as manager) recruited six new band members and resumed performing. (The newcomers included trumpeter Frankie McDonald, who, through many subsequent line-up changes, remained till Joe Dolan's death, becoming, after Ben Dolan, the longest-serving member of Joe's backing band.) Amid the changes, Joe abandoned the guitar and became solely the lead vocalist.
The following year (1969), Dolan suddenly attained international stardom. Shaftesbury Music, a leading British publisher, identifying him as a promising artist, extended him first option (in preference to the Welsh singer Tom Jones) on a new composition, 'Make me an island', by Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood, their hottest in-house song-writing team, which Dolan recorded in London with an orchestra of session musicians. Exploiting their stake in Radio Luxembourg to obtain saturation airplay, Shaftesbury thereby induced Pye to grant the disc a UK release. Remaining nineteen weeks in the UK charts, 'Make me an island' peaked at no. 3, making Dolan the first recording artist from southern Ireland to crack the British top five (a feat previously achieved by Van Morrison's Belfast-based band, Them), and securing him an appearance on BBC's Top of the pops (returning immediately thereafter to Dublin by chartered airplane for a late-night gig, Dolan was besieged by enthusiastic fans who tore to ribbons the new suit he had bought for the television performance). The record was an Irish chart hit for twenty-two weeks (the longest in Dolan's career), remaining at no. 2 for weeks on end, successively denied the no. 1 slot by the Beatles, Elvis Presley, and the Rolling Stones. An even bigger chart hit in Europe, the song reached no. 1 in fourteen countries, hurling Dolan into a hectic promotional schedule, combining European-wide media appearances with Drifters' gigs in Ireland. Dolan recorded versions of the song in Italian, Spanish and German (setting a precedent of multiple-language releases for many of his subsequent international hits). A video was shot for distribution throughout Europe of Dolan singing in a punt on a Belgian lake. The song won the Radio Luxembourg Award for 1969.
Dolan's next two singles were also Hammond–Hazlewood compositions. The romantic ballad 'Teresa' (1969) gave him his third Irish no. 1, but only made no. 20 in the UK. The more energetic 'Good looking woman' (1970) reached no. 4 in Ireland and no. 17 in Britain (and would rival 'Make me an island' as the most recognisable signature song of Dolan's subsequent career; both also became enduring staples of pub sing-songs and karaoke nights). In September 1970 Dolan was assaulted and severely beaten by several men in a Liverpool nightclub after a show, but resumed performing within weeks.
Joe's '70s: international stardom
With the Irish showband scene in continual decline, and his UK chart successes having introduced him to a British audience beyond that of the émigré Irish, Dolan performed with increasing frequency in Britain, in the burgeoning circuit of cabaret clubs and theatres. However, his recording career foundered with the departure of the Hammond–Hazlewood song-writing team to America. In October 1973 Dolan began a lengthy, fruitful association with Italian song-writer, musician and record producer Roberto Danova, who redirected Dolan's career by supplying him with material (much of it composed in collaboration with Peter Yellowstone) in a contemporary 'Euro pop' idiom. The trio's first collaboration, 'Sweet little rock and roller', was named the European Pop Jury single of the year for 1974. Their second, 'Lady in blue' (1975), entered neither the Irish nor British charts, but won gold records in five other countries, selling over five million copies throughout Europe (two million in France alone). A complex musical arrangement married to simple lyrics, the song exploited the full range of Dolan's voice, highlighting his phrasing technique, vibrato, and aptitude at melisma (singing a single syllable of text in several different notes successively, a rare technique at the time in popular singing save for soul artists rooted in the gospel tradition). The first of Danova's compositions for Dolan to incorporate a disco rhythm, the song became a dance-floor staple, with dance moves devised especially to accompany it.
For the next eight years Dolan recorded a string of international hit singles and albums, releasing different material at different times in different countries. His 1976 album was variously titled Crazy woman or Sister Mary, depending on which of the two eponymous singles had been a hit in a particular country. One of the tracks, 'Goodbye Venice, goodbye', a Danova composition in the 'plaintive key' of D minor, became in later decades Dolan's standard, sing-along show closer. (Dolan's preference for minor keys placed unusual demands on his accompanists, especially on session musicians unfamiliar with his style.) To promote the album, Dolan for the first time donned a white suit, the apparel that in time he adopted as a distinctive trademark. He had Irish no. 1 singles with 'I need you' (1977) and 'More and more' (1981) (the former his only UK top fifty single after 1970).
Dolan toured relentlessly in the many countries where he was popular, throughout Europe, the Middle East, Australia, Japan and South America, backed initially by hired local musicians, but in time by his own Irish-based band. (The 'Drifters' agnomen – never utilised outside Ireland – was gradually abandoned, supplanted when necessary by such formulations as 'The Joe Dolan Band'.) He headlined open-air pop festivals on several occasions in Israel, appearing before audiences numbering seventy to eighty thousand. Popular throughout communist eastern Europe (his recordings available at first only in smuggled copies or bootlegged versions), he was among the first western pop artists to tour the USSR (November–December 1978; Cliff Richard had appeared there two years previously). Backed by his own band, he played a six-week residency at the Silverbird casino and resort in Las Vegas (September–October 1980), assigned initially to the 2.00 a.m. 'graveyard' slot, but soon promoted owing to audience enthusiasm to the 'prime time' slot of 9.00 p.m. to midnight. After fulfilling a second six-week residency (January–February 1981), he turned down a six-month extension, weary of the stationary daily monotony. His frequent tours of South Africa increasingly aroused controversy, which intensified in the early 1980s when the UN and anti-apartheid organisations in South Africa and internationally sought to enforce the long-standing cultural boycott of the country by appealing directly to performing artists not to appear there. (Dolan claimed that he insisted upon working only with racially mixed crews and before racially mixed audiences, and to have withdrawn from engagements when such stipulations were transgressed.) After the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement in 1983 picketed his week-long run at Dublin's Gaiety theatre, Dolan fulfilled his impending South African engagements, but announced them to be his last.
Joe's '80s: the 'Joe show'
The passing of the disco heyday impacting adversely on his international record sales and attendances, and wearied by the rigours of overseas touring, from the early 1980s Dolan concentrated on his career within Ireland, where throughout the 1970s, suspicious of the sustainability of his wider stardom, he had conscientiously cultivated his fan base by regular gigging; after 1984 he rarely performed outside Ireland and Britain. Eschewing the old dancehall format of late-night, five-hour sets, he developed what became known as 'the Joe show': a two-hour performance before a seated audience in a theatre, concert hall, or hotel cabaret. Large swathes of his audience, especially in rural Ireland, were thus re-educated from an assumption that live music was meant to facilitate dancing (itself a lubricant to intersexual mingling) to a concert mentality of sitting and watching a live performer. In many rural areas, it was Dolan's appeal that induced development of the very venues for such a show. The promotional line (devised by Séamus Casey) that famously advertised Dolan's live appearances for the remainder of his career – 'There's no show like a Joe show' – largely understood as asserting a superlative, also conveyed a literal meaning: for much of his audience, the 'Joe show' was a novel experience, a new departure in entertainment.
Gyrating energetically and gesturing expressively, smiling broadly and perspiring profusely – 'he flicks the honest moisture over the audience in benevolent benison, and they love it' (Ir. Times, 7 November 1984), Dolan was an enthusiastic, flamboyant, highly charged live performer, attired entirely in white, down to his monogrammed tie (which by stages he would loosen, remove, then ceremoniously bestow to an enraptured fan). Even critics unimpressed by his image and musical material could marvel at the power and range of his voice. The Irish Times jazz critic George Hodnett described the 'sub-operatic' character of Dolan's performance style, balanced between the operatic and the popular, and his 'dramatic, Italianate' vocals (ibid., 14 July 1986; 9 September 1988). Thick set in physique, snaggle-toothed, with a blunt nose set in a broad, heavy-featured face, Dolan in physical appearance was always an unlikely pop idol. A major factor of his appeal was the intimate rapport he established with his audience, both on and off stage; he lingered hours after gigs to chat with fans, and had an exhaustive memory for names and faces.
Playing one-night stands, short runs, and extended residencies, Dolan also pioneered the package-deal concert: an all-in hotel deal comprising accommodation, meals and a show, and sometimes including transport (CIÉ trains being chartered for the latter). Performing some 250 shows annually by the latter 1980s, Dolan was largely perceived as a niche heritage act, appealing to an aging (mainly female) fan base nostalgic for the music of their youth. A Joe Dolan Cabaret Spectacular on the Isle of Man over the October 1990 bank holiday weekend exceeded expectations: Dolan's performances were extended over five nights, and, 'in a scenario that suggests a Fellini film' (Ir. Independent, 27 October 1990), four ferries and five jets were chartered to convey patrons to the extravaganza; the event was repeated in 1991.
Joe's '90s: indie reinvention
In the early 1990s Dolan launched his own label, Gable Records, and with his brother Ben and Séamus Casey set up a company, JBS Music, to oversee his business affairs. To obviate transportation costs to sessions elsewhere, Dolan opened a recording studio in Mullingar in 1992. A nephew, Adrian Dolan, the bassist in Joe's band, now produced many of his recordings; another nephew, Ray Dolan, joined the band on percussion. A video release, This is Joe Dolan (1995), included concert footage recorded in the county hall in Mullingar and excerpts from an interview.
In an unlikely collaboration typifying his endearing capacity for self-deprecation, Dolan recorded novelty covers of two of his biggest hits with Dustin the Turkey, an irreverent, wisecracking, tone-deaf hand puppet who starred on RTÉ children's television (voiced by Johnny Morrison, son of an old Mullingar friend of Dolan), while also attracting a cult following of older viewers. 'Make me an island' appeared on Dustin's debut album, Not just a pretty face (1994), and 'Good looking woman' on the album Faith of our feathers (1997); the latter, also released as a single, became Dolan's sixth Irish no. 1. Dolan was thus the only recording artist to have top ten hits in the Irish charts in each of the four decades from the 1960s to the 1990s. The attendant media exposure was astutely exploited in collaboration with EMI records to facilitate the most audacious reinvention of Dolan's long career. The album Joe's 90s (1998) comprised covers of contemporary indie Britpop bands, including Pulp, Suede and Radiohead, and of such older alternative artists as Neil Young and Elvis Costello, and was notable for high production values, original arrangements, and the power of Dolan's interpretations; a cover of Blur's 'The universal' was released as a single and entered the Irish charts. A similarly themed album, 21st century Joe (1999), included covers of David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, REM, Talking Heads ('Psycho killer'), U2, Oasis and The Clash. Slotting into a 1990s genre of aging, middle-of-the-road artists covering harder material than previously in their careers, Dolan's reinvention predated the genre's most successful exemplar, Tom Jones's Reload (1999). Critically acclaimed, thrust back into the mainstream of Irish popular music, Dolan retained his traditional audience while also playing such cutting-edge venues as Dublin's Vicar Street. His New Year's Eve concert marking the putative millennium in 1999 was broadcast live by RTÉ television from Killarney's Gleneagle Hotel.
Another concept album, Home grown (2003), covered material by a range of Irish artists, including Phil Lynott (qv), Van Morrison, Christy Moore, the Frank and Walters, The Divine Comedy and Mundy. His last studio album, Let there be love (2007), comprising songs from the swing era, was recorded with a backing band of jazz musicians. The foremost domestic and international star to emerge from the Irish showband scene, Dolan throughout his career released over twenty albums, and placed thirty-three singles in the Irish charts, more than any other Irish artist; a thirty-fourth entered the charts posthumously in 2008.
Genuinely affable and unassuming, 'a man of great inclusive charm' (Casey, xii), Dolan was extremely popular among support bands and session musicians, whom he invariably treated with courtesy and respect. Donating generously and often anonymously to charity – he spontaneously would give money to clerical friends 'for the poor', and to church refurbishment funds throughout Ireland – he was a patron of special needs charities, most notably St Brigid's Special School, Mullingar. He opened a bar and lounge with his brother Ben on Dominick Street, Mullingar, in May 1978. In the early 1980s he moved into a house in Foxrock, Dublin, while also maintaining a residence in Mullingar. He had a great passion for golf; frequent partners from the music industry included Paddy Reilly and Luke Kelly (qv) of The Dubliners.
Unmarried, Dolan fiercely guarded the privacy of his personal life. Throughout his career there were rumours and innuendo regarding his sexual orientation, much of it deeply malicious given the homophobia that prevailed over most of the period. In June 1968 he placed an advertisement in Spotlight magazine offering a £500 reward for information leading to the successful prosecution of persons spreading 'false and malicious' rumours about 'imaginary happenings' with which he was allegedly associated; he subsequently elaborated that the alleged happenings were 'of an unsavoury nature' reflecting adversely on his 'moral character'. Queried in the last year of his life about his sexuality by an interviewing journalist, Dolan bristled at the impertinence of the question. His official biography identifies a long-term female friend, Isabella Fogarty, whom he met in 1977, dated from the early 1980s, and with whom he later shared his home.
Plagued by ill health in his last years, while in hospital for a hip replacement operation in late 2004 (the removed hip sold on eBay for €1,000, donated to Irish Autism Action), Dolan was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, and endured a prolonged recuperation. Resuming his performing and recording in early 2006, he suffered frequent fatigue and heavy nosebleeds attributed to a low blood platelet count, necessitating intermittent blood transfusions; the underlying cause was not identified. Stricken with pleurisy in mid 2007, he postponed scheduled performances for a month. On the first gig of his resumed tour, at the Abbeyleix Manor Hotel, Co. Laois (27 September 2007), he abandoned the show after the fourth number. In and out of hospital for the next two months, he fell seriously ill at his Dublin home on Christmas night, and suffered a cerebral haemorrhage in ambulance en route to the Mater Private Hospital, where he died 26 December 2007. Some ten thousand mourners, including worthies from the spheres of politics and entertainment, paid their respects at the removal and funeral from the Roman catholic cathedral of Christ the King, Mullingar, to Walshestown cemetery.
A life-size, bronze statue of Dolan in characteristic stage pose, unveiled in Market Square, Mullingar (December 2008), has become a mecca for fans, and the Joe Dolan Bridge on the Mullingar ring road was opened in September 2010. At intervals from 2008 Ben Dolan staged a 'Joe Dolan reunion show', with the Dolan Band performing live before a video-projected backdrop of Joe in performance. Another tribute format, 'My brother Joe: the story of Joe Dolan', was launched in 2014, featuring Ben, the Dolan Band, and members of the extended Dolan family.