Alex Burns, The Witnesses, Elvis Presley and the early days of Belfast rock ‘n’ roll

1969-bahamas-elvis-with-the-witnesses-show-bandSome 30 years I was working at a company in Sydney.  I used to talk regularly with co-workers in the warehouse about rock ‘n’ roll – and as many of my peers were a bit older than me, I soaked in their stories and knowledge. I was always an eager student of rock ‘n’ roll history, and they were happy to oblige.

I remember one chap called Barry would often emphasise to me that the 60s was his generation, not mine. It defined him. Barry used to go to Surf City and would often emphasise, “It’s MY generation”. I was respectful.  I loved his stories of seeing the Easybeats early on. Barry also was into Dr. Demento, Turkish VHS movies and was a breeder of fancy rats. Nuff said.

One day however, I was having coffee with Alex Burns, and he was again telling me how he used to play jazz guitar in a band called The Witnesses in Belfast, before he migrated to Australia.  As each day turned into the next, over many months Alex would impart stories about the Belfast showband scene of the early 60’s, and the infancy of rock n roll.  One day, Alex said to me, “Did I tell you about the time I played with Elvis?” He then proceeded to take out his wallet – and produced two colour photos of himself some 20 years prior –and with Elvis sure enough. “This was taken in the Bahamas in 1969. We were the house band aboard a cruise ship – and Elvis was holidaying in the Bahamas”.  That he had played with Presley obviously meant a lot to him – as he carried these photos around in his wallet. “The Witnesses also played with the Stones, Freddie Starr – many others”, Alex said. Looking back, I regret not picking Alex’s brain for more detail. As months turned into years – I forgot all about Alex Burns until recently.

20200414_161210In October 1969, Elvis flies to Los Angeles, then continues on to Hawaii accompanied by Priscilla and his entourage. They return to LA and plan to continue their vacation in Europe. The idea is dropped when The Colonel argues that Elvis’ European fans will be insulted if he travels there as a tourist before performing either in England or on the continent. Although Elvis puts up a brave front at first, plans are quickly switched to go to the Bahamas where the Colonel has contacts and he says, they will enjoy the gambling.

It turns out that Belfast’s Witnesses showband were probably the only Irish showband to welcome Elvis Presley to their show. The King and his entourage, including his wife Priscilla attended their Christmas Show at The Paradise Island Hotel in The Bahamas in 1969, took a bow when introduced to the audience by bandleader and compere Harry ‘Trixie’ Hamilton and later told the lads that he had enjoyed the show. He bought drinks for the band and joined them onstage.

The  Witnesses Showband owe their start to a different band, The Dave Glover Showband. Formed in the mid 50’s, in 1963 nearly the whole of the Dave Glover outfit quit to form a new band. Alex Burns (guitar), Gerry Rice (sax), Trixie Hamilton (bass), Andy Wilson (trombone), Joe Clarke (vocals) George Mullan (Trumpet), Harry Mitchell (Piano/Vocals), and Joe Clarke (Vocals). When Harry Mitchell left he was replaced by Italian born vocalist, Tony Morelli.

Italian-born Morelli was a former choirboy who had come from the Northern Comets Showband. His father had been a member of Glenn Millar’s Big Band in the USA. Colm Wilkinson has since gone on to be one of the world’s biggest stars of stage-musicals having starred in shows such as ‘Les Miserables’ and ‘Phantom Of The Opera’.

The band made a huge impact on the British club and cabaret scene and while resident at The Talk Of The North in Manchester, were supported by acts who later went on to become famous, such as Gerry Dorsey (Englebert Humperdinck) and comedian Freddie Starr. In 1964, they traveled to America for a five-week tour where they appeared in venues in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. While in the U.S.A. they had the pleasure of meeting stars like Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa and Sammy Davis Jnr.

Alex emigrated to Australia after quitting the band in 1970. He passed away in  2018 at the age of 84.

The Witnesses – Discography – Singles

Take Good Care of Her / Each Time You Cross My Mind (Tony Morelli)
Emerald Records – MD 1010 – 1964
Two Little Orphans / Nobody’s Child (Tony Morelli)
Emerald Records – MD 1011 – 1965
Haunted House / Remember Me (I’m The One)
Emerald Records – MD 1016 – 1965
The Jarvey Was A Leprechaun / Johnny McEldoo
Emerald Records – MD 1026 – 1966
Love Is No Excuse / What I Done
Emerald Records – MD 1052 – 1966
Remember Me (I’m The One) / Nobody’s Child
Emerald Records – MD 1082 – August, 1967

Note: Many thanks to https://www.elvispresleymusic.com.au/ for the additional information about Elvis, and also to Irish-Showbands.com which does a superb job in archiving the entire history of Irish showbands. The information on The Witnessess was found here https://www.irish-showbands.com/Bands/witnesses.htm

 

 

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