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  The Story of The Freshmen 


Though they featured the classic showband line-up and they played for dancers in ballrooms throughout Ireland, the 'showband' tag didn’t sit lightly on the shoulders of The Freshmen from Ballymena.

More than most bands, they epitomised the divide between urban and rural Ireland, drawing their biggest crowds in cities like Cork, Galway and Waterford. They wrote and performed their own original material, and were noted for their brilliant vocal harmonies. The Freshmen evolved from two bands in the Ballymena area, the Billy McFarland Showband and the John Mitchell Showband. Some of the younger members of both bands were unfulfilled, musically, and were getting restless. Billy Brown (keyboards/saxophone), Maurice Henry (saxophone), Torry McGahey (bass) and two others decided to leave McFarland and start their own band.


However, drummer Johnny Murphy was offered a job with an established band, The Plattermen, so Davy McKnight, a friend of Torry McGahey’s, was enlisted on drums. Meanwhile, guitarist Damien McIlroy and trombonist Sean Mahon had left the John Mitchell band to join the new outfit. A talented vocalist from Ballymena, Barney McKeown completed the line-up and The Freshmen were ready to rock ‘n’ roll!  In August 1962, in the Plaza Ballroom in Larne, The Freshmen played their first gig on a journey which, within a few years, would take them to the very top of the showband heap.

McKeown soon left the band however, and was replaced by a young singer from Limerick, who had a unique voice. Tommy Drennan, who had been known as a talented boy-soprano, travelled north and tried to settle in with The Freshmen. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, one of which was loneliness for his hometown, Drennan returned to Limerick after a short time and carved out a career for himself as frontman with The Monarchs.


For the third time in as many years, The Freshmen had to find a lead vocalist. This time they turned to Derek McMenamin, a young student teacher who looked like he could turn the girls’ heads! He also happened to have a powerful deep voice, which can be heard to great effect on the opening bars of their biggest hit, “Papa Oom Mow Mow”, which was their interpretation of a song which had been a hit in the U.S.A. for a black vocal group, The Rivingtons. Having adopted the stage-name Derek Dean, the new singer’s presence allowed Brown to concentrate on music and arrangements and The Freshmen went from strength to strength.

By this time, Peter Dempsey, “a man from the motor-trade”, had taken over the reins as the band’s manager. Dempsey had numerous contacts all over Ireland, and his expertise opened new doors to The Freshmen.  They released a single in 1964, “She’s The One You Love / I Love My Little Girl”.  The B-side was an original written by Brown and McElroy. Because of the similarity of their name to a prominent American group, their record label Mercury suggested that they should use the name “Six Of One”. This only succeeded in confusion, and the record “bombed”.


Appearances on RTE’s “Showband Show” and UTV’s “Pop Scene”, further raised the band’s profile and following minor success with their second single, an original written by Dean,  “I Stand Alone” backed by “Gone Away”, they finally broke into the charts with the memorable “Papa Oom Mow Mow” followed by another single, “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena (Go Granny Go)” which had been a hit for surfers Jan & Dean in the U.S.A. Because of their vocal strength, the “surfing-sound” of Jan & Dean and The Beach Boys suited The Freshmen to a tee. They began to be known for their note-perfect renditions of Beach Boys songs more than anything else, and this in fact became a hindrance, overshadowing their excellent original numbers. They played support to The Beach Boys at their Dublin and Belfast concerts in 1967 and released a ground-breaking L.P. “Movin’ On” in 1968. This collection included three originals from the pens of Brown, McElroy and McKnight as well as a song by Danny Ellis and another by Phil Coulter and Bill Martin.

Always innovative, The Freshmen staged a “Peace Concert” in Dublin in 1970, a live performance of their second L.P. “Peace On Earth” on the CBS label. Narrator on both projects was the renowned actor Micheál MacLiammóir. Early in the ‘70s however, cracks began to show in what up to now had been an incredibly cohesive unit, and Brown decided to leave and form his own band. He was replaced by Ivan Laybourne from The Newmen, a young band managed by Damien McIlroy.  The Newmen had recorded one of McElroy’s songs, Holiday Girl”, and even today, it is regarded as one of the best Irish singles of that decade.


Guitarist Tiger Taylor, drummer Lindsay Lunney and saxophonist Ray Donnan joined The Freshmen for their final few years and Billy Brown returned to the fold.  Their third album "Now And Then" was released during this period.

Musical genius, environmentalist, artist, writer and arranger Billy Brown passed away in June 1999, aged just 56. His legacy, and that of his colleagues is one that Irish people can be very proud of ~ The Freshmen, a band that broke the showband mould.

© francis kennedy 2007



Band Members
Damien McElroy - guitar
Torry McGahey - bass
Barney McKeown - vocals
Maurice Henry - sax
Seán Mahon - trumpet/trombone
Billy Brown - keyboards/sax
David McKnight - drums
Tommy Drennan - vocals
Derek Dean - vocals
Tiger Taylor - guitar
Ivan Laybourne - keyboards
Lindsay Lunny - drums
Ray Donnan - sax

Peter Dempsey
Oliver Barry