The story of the Smokey Mountain Ramblers started when Jerzy Kryzanowski (better known in Ireland as George Kaye) came to Ireland, having spent time around the folk clubs of England. Instead, he found himself doing the pub scene and formed the Mitchell County Ramblers with Clive Collins. It was late 1967 and George had decided it was time to go home when he was approached by Galway’s Des Kelly of the famous Capitol Showband. Des saw the trend of country music coming to the showband scene before anyone else had a chance to react. George went home for a holiday at Christmas and returned to join a new type of band. Naming them the Smokey Mountain Ramblers, Des wanted something totally different, not like Big Tom or Larry Cunningham (both of whom were more „country n‘ Irish“).
The original lineup of the band included: George Kaye on fiddle, Dave Kearney (RIP) on guitar and Martin Johnson (RIP) on bass (both formerly of The Movement), Paul Kenny (RIP-drums), and John Cook (guitar and dobro). The band hit the road in early 1968 and soon released their first single, „Ballad of Amelia Earhart.“ Although the band garnered a lot of attention, their strong bluegrass influence did not catch on with dancers who were used to hearing the „country and Irish“ music of Big Tom and Larry Cunningham. Early on, John Cook, who worked with Aer Lingus in his day job, found life on the road too demanding and decided to leave and was replaced by Lennie Power on guitar.
As the band’s single, Amelia Earhart was winding down, Des decided the band needed a singing front man. In the October 19th, 1968 issue of Spotlight, a small article announced Pat Ely was joining the band as its new lead singer. Pat had previously been with the Savoy Swing 7. In fact, Pat, Tommy Higgins (keyboards) and Bernie Fallon (drums) had all been with the Savoy Swing Seven, who had recently dropped the Savoy off the name and had become simply the Swing Seven who were being managed by Eamonn Hughes. Paul Kenny (RIP-drums) went to the Cotton Mills Boys. Things were not going well for the Swing 7 when Des Kelly contacted the boys looking for musicians to round out the Smokeys.
Pat’s addition to the band paid off with immediate success when his first single, The Little Folk, made it to number 13 in the Irish charts. In April, the band appeared alongside American star Hank Locklin at the Danny Pearse Tribute Concert in Dublin. The country boom was in full swing and the Smokeys were one of the first bands to climb to the top of the new genre.
In November, 1969, the band had a scare when George Kaye collapsed on stage in Donegal. He was off the road and hospitalized for several weeks in Dublin, but thankfully was not seriously ill. During 1970, the band continued to consolidate its position as one of the top five country bands in the country, appearing on the cover of Spotlight magazine. The band also released its first album, The Smokeys, in 1970.
In August, 1970, the Smokeys were hit by its first serious lineup change when founding member George Kaye decided to return to England and left the band. In an article in Spotlight, co-manager Johnny Kelly reported that he would be replaced with a sax player, giving the band more versatility in their music. However a few weeks later, Johnny’s brother Des Kelly responded to the crisis by announcing the Smokeys would be featuring two sax players in the future and would be featuring Cajun music in their updated programme. Joe McIntyre (Swingtime Aces and Johnny Flynn Band) and Tony Cannon replaced George and the band was now an eight piece.
As an aside, when George Kaye left the band and went to England, he formed a group there called White Lightning in the Nottingham area. In May, 1971, George returned to Ireland and brought several group members with him including his brother Thaddeus Krzyzanowski (RIP – guitar), and Terry Foster (banjo). They formed a band called Real Country by adding to their ranks Bernie Fallon, (who left the Smokeys and was replaced by Alfie Merrigan), Joe Murray (lead vocals and keyboards from the Firehouse), Vinnie Baker (guitar also from the Firehouse) and Shea Cribben (bass from the Riviera Showband who broke up a few months earlier).
An article in Spotlight dated October 7, 1971 reported that Eileen Reid, former lead singer with the Cadets was joining the band, which was going to drop the name Real Country and become the George Kaye band featuring Eileen Reid. In the end, Eileen formed a band called The 2nd Sound and George opted not to play with the new outfit, instead forming a four piece bluegrass band which played acoustic music. The band (pictured below) was George Kaye and the Bluegrass Roadshow. The band featured George (fiddle), Thad (RIP – guitar), Bernie Fallon (RIP – string bass) and Terry Foster (banjo).
Vinny Baker writes to tell us the band didn’t last for more than two years, they released one single and eventually included Jimmy Day and Eileen Reid in its ranks for about a year. By then, George had left to rejoin Pat Ely in the Rocky Tops. Thaddeus and Terry returned to England, but sadly Thaddeus was killed in an airplane crash a few years later. Vinny left in 1971 and Joe Murray joined the Smokeys before ending up with Margo’s Country Folk.
Meanwhile back at the Smokey’s ranch, the months after George’s departure would result in massive changes to the band’s lineup. The Capitol, one of the top 60’s showbands on the circuit were on their last legs. They had been struggling for a couple of years and as the summer season ended, the time came for them to fold. In an article in the November 4, 1971 issue of Spotlight, Des Kelly announced that three members of the Capitol would be joining the band: Bram McCarthy (RIP – trumpet), Tony O’Leary (vocals), and Mike Dalton (bass). They would be joining Pat Ely, Joe McIntyre (sax), Dave Kearney (RIP – guitar) and Alfie Merrigan (drums). Departing would be Tommy Higgins, Martin Johnson (RIP), and Tony Cannon. The revamped lineup of the band was pictured on Pascal Mooney’s „London Calling“ page in the November 18, 1971 issue of Spotlight. The band included newcomers Jimmy Murray (guitar), Tony O’Leary (vocals), Bram McCarthy (RIP – trumpet), Alfie Merrigan (drums) and Mike Dalton (bass). Dave Kearney left the band at this time as well.
Tony O’Leary had first come to national prominence when he sang in the 1970 National Song which was won by Dana singing Ireland’s first Eurovision winner, All Kinds of Everything. From there he had joined the Capitol as they wound down and then was picked to front the Smokeys. (After the break up of the Smokeys, he would go on to front the Gallowglass Ceili Band.)
Many thanks to Irish Showbands for featuring this story and to Tommy Higgins for his help in completing this story.
Smokeys 40th Reunion Tour – October 2012
Over 40 years after their successful run on the ballroom circuit, 2012 saw the Smokeys reunite for a tour of the Irish dance circuit. Featuring original members Pat Ely, George Kaye and Tommy Higgins, the band played a series of dates augmented by former country showband musicians. The new lineup included (left to right): Francie Lenehan (guitar – Cotton Mill Boys, Ranchers, among others), Tom Jamieson (drums – pictured is Gene Berrill (RIP) who did not play on the tour as he was receiving cancer treatments), Pat Ely (vocals), George Kaye (fiddle and vocals), Liam Gilmartin (acoustic guitar and vocals – Jargon, Ray Lynam Band), Tommy Higgins (keyboards) and Gerry Gallagher (bass and vocals – Magic Band and Kim Newport Band). Vinnie Baker (RIP) had originally signed up to do the tour but decided not to do it in the end.