Aiken, Jim (1932–2007), music promoter and businessman, was one of seven or eight children born to Joseph Aiken and his wife Annie (née Fagan), and was raised on the family farm in Jonesborough, Co. Armagh, close to the border. After completing his secondary education, he studied for the catholic priesthood at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, where he organised Gaelic football and handball tournaments. Realising after four years that he lacked the necessary vocation, Aiken then graduated from St Joseph's Training College, Belfast, as a maths and physics teacher. He played football for Killeavy GAA club, and was a substitute for Armagh in the 1954 Ulster final, which Armagh lost to Cavan. From the late 1950s he taught maths and physics at Harding Street school, Belfast.
Occasionally working as a doorman at ballrooms in Belfast, Aiken noticed that major showband acts rarely visited the city, and decided to book the Royal Showband for New Year's Eve 1959. A sell-out show made him a £200 profit, amounting to about a third of his annual salary as a teacher. Aiken began promoting concerts to supplement his income and to buy a car, and gave up teaching in 1964 to focus on managing dance halls and promoting showbands. As well as managing the Plattermen and promoting other local showbands in the early 1960s, he booked significant international acts such as Engelbert Humperdinck, Frankie Vaughan, Tommy Roe, and Bill Haley and the Comets, to play in Belfast.
Aiken worked hard in cultivating relationships with performers. In 1967 he enticed Roy Orbison to Ireland; Orbison – whose sets never exceeded forty-five minutes – played at four venues in one night, and was driven around by Aiken. Orbison toured Ireland again in 1969, and was so shocked by what he saw of the Northern Ireland troubles that he invited Aiken and his family to come and live with him in Texas. The two men remained friends, Aiken acting as Orbison's European booking agent.
While many acts were wary of playing in the north as the troubles raged, Aiken sought to operate wherever possible, and worked hard to promote peace and tolerance, and to imbue a sense of normality in Northern Ireland. Integral to the music business in the Belfast of the 1970s, he lured many Irish and international acts to the city, including Charley Pride, Elton John and Neil Diamond. Aiken booked Led Zeppelin on their spring 1971 tour to play Belfast and Dublin in March, with the song 'Stairway to heaven' being debuted at the Belfast concert; these were the band's only appearances in Ireland. Aiken later admitted to losing his fee on a 3-to-1 favourite at the races, a love of which he never lost. His love of risk-taking had initially attracted him to the music business, and his ambition and vision crested a wave of ever-larger performances. He was the driving force behind the Irish concert circuit throughout the 1970s, promoting Van Morrison, Thin Lizzy, Christy Moore, Paul Brady, Rory Gallagher (qv), and the Chieftains, and was integral to the growth of the live music industry across Ireland.
At Slane Castle, Co. Meath, Aiken tested the water with Thin Lizzy in 1981, the first of a sequence of annual summer outdoor events at the venue that became an indelible experience for Irish rock music fans in the 1980s. In a major coup for Aiken (Ireland then being something of a backwater for major international acts), the Rolling Stones headlined the Slane concert in 1982. Subsequent Slane headliners included Bob Dylan (1984), Queen (1986), and David Bowie (1987). Bruce Springsteen's seminal Slane performance (1 June 1985) was the foundation of a long and fruitful relationship between the performer and the promoter, and a career highlight for both. Around 65,000 fans, each paying IR£15, attended the biggest Slane performance to that date, although Gardaí estimated that close to 100,000 attended due to massive ticket counterfeiting. Springsteen was the only act on the bill, the first European date of his 'Born in the USA' tour, earning a guaranteed IR£500,000 fee; Aiken invested IR£250,000 in the site.
Convincing the GAA, in which he remained involved after the end of his playing days, to allow Croke Park in Dublin to be used for open-air summer concerts, Aiken staged several major performances there, starting with Neil Diamond (1984), whom he had wooed for a decade on visits to the United States. U2 played Croke Park twice in 1985 (their first headline stadium shows), and again in 1987, with Simple Minds headlining in 1986.
Strongly committed to community and charity organisations, Aiken Promotions volunteered to manage the Self Aid concert held at the RDS, Dublin, on 17 May 1986, to raise awareness and funding for the Irish unemployed. From 1988, Aiken supported and invested in the cross-community Phoenix (West Belfast) Enterprise Trust, which supported business start-ups in deprived areas of the city. A founding investor in the establishment of the HMV music chain in Ireland in the early 1980s, Aiken was also heavily involved in Irish commercial radio ventures, investing in FM104 in Dublin and Red FM in Cork. He also had a stake in Ticketmaster Ireland, having co-founded its predecessor, the Ticket Shop, and he ran an insurance brokerage, Aiken and Co., with his brother Mick. He was a member of the board of the National Concert Hall (1986–96), and a board member of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (1994–7).
Aiken was Ireland's leading promoter of popular music performance across the island, progressing over his forty-year career from promoting showband and other popular acts, to involvement with jazz, world music, and classical performers. Some would argue that his apogee was the series of concerts that he mounted, with the support of the Northern Ireland secretary, Mo Mowlam (qv), at Stormont Castle in May 1998 to mark the Good Friday agreement; Elton John, Luciano Pavarotti, the Eagles, and Michael Flatley (whom Aiken promoted after Flatley's separation from Riverdance) all appeared on a custom-built stage adjacent to the statue of Edward Carson (qv).
Aiken was famed for literally getting his hands dirty, often helping to build and to unload stages, and was renowned for treating the media and venue and tour staff with courtesy and respect. He exhibited shrewd business acumen, and built his business relationships on honesty, commitment and integrity. Performers were conspicuously fond of Aiken, citing his warmth, devotion, integrity and even-handedness; his word was very much his bond, and he always fulfilled any commitment he made whatever the ensuing circumstances. Known to many as 'Gentleman Jim', he maintained friendships with many of the acts he promoted, while shunning the publicity and lifestyle of the music business, and evinced universal respect in a notoriously cutthroat and risky business. He was most proud of the 1985 Springsteen concert, and his only major regret was failing to bring Elvis Presley to Ireland, having repeatedly visited Presley (who never played outside of North America) in Las Vegas in the early 1970s.
Although normally media shy and reticent in public, Aiken commented shortly before his death on the propensity of U2 and other successful acts to avail of favourable offshore tax arrangements: 'I believe the ultimate charity donation is to pay your taxes in the country where you live' (Ir. Independent, 4 February 2007). A non-smoker and a non-drinker, Aiken was a devout catholic and committed family man, who anonymously supported much charity and voluntary work. He died 27 February 2007 from terminal pancreatic cancer at home in Belfast, and was survived by his wife of forty-six years, Anne, with whom he had four daughters and one son, Peter, who assumed the helm of Aiken Promotions. His remains were removed to St Brigid's church, Derryvolgie, Belfast, where he usually worshipped. Aiken was posthumously awarded the industry achievement award at the 2008 Meteor Irish Music Awards.