Shirley Douglas: Singer and guitarist who helped lead the skiffle boom


British pop fans were surprised in 1957 when Nancy Whiskey left the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group at the height of its fame. Her replacement was Shirley Douglas, a charming soprano with a particular talent for romantic ballads.

Douglas's parents were both musicians. Her father, Charlie, led a dance band in Bournemouth and he was intrigued by a report in the newspaper which contained his fish and chips. It described how the concert violinist, Fritz Kreisler, was impressed with a singer he heard busking in Dublin, Lily McEvoy. Charlie checked her out and they ended up getting married. Shirley was born in 1939 – and by the 1950s, they were touring Ireland as the Douglas-McEvoy Trio.

In 1957 the Soho-based Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group had an international hit with "Freight Train". Their singer, Nancy Whiskey, was unmarried and pregnant – and she thought that she had better leave the group rather than risk humiliation. The variety club singer Micky Andrews told McDevitt about Douglas, who had appeared with him in Belfast. She had an audition in Manchester and then joined them for a week's variety in Liverpool.

Her first television show with the group, Now the Hop Fields, was broadcast in the rain from Kent. When they appeared on the Isle of Wight, the singer Michael Holliday persuaded them to close the show. Little did they realise they would miss the last ferry – and they returned to the mainland in an open fishing boat. Another night, in Hawick, the show ended late and they were locked out of their digs and forced to spend the night in police cells.

The group toured the UK with The Treniers and appeared on a BBC concert from the Royal Albert Hall, but the skiffle craze was short-lived and McDevitt renamed the group Chas McDevitt, Shirley Douglas and the Freight Train Boys. They arrived at one show to find that the promoter had carried out to the letter McDevitt's instructions about print size for promotional material. The poster read: "Chas McDevitt 100 per cent, Shirley Douglas 50 per cent and the Freight Train Boys 25 per cent".

From 1959, McDevitt and Douglas were playing electric instruments and during that year, she published The Shirley Douglas Easy Guide to Rhythm and Blues for Bass Guitar. Both John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) and John Entwistle (The Who) have acknowledged their debt to this manual.

McDevitt played football with the Showbiz XI, which included Sean Connery and Billy Wright, and in April 1959 they arranged a fixture for a Sunday morning so that all the players could attend McDevitt and Douglas's wedding at St Patrick's Church in Soho. One of the players, Tony Dalli, sang at the wedding.

Douglas's first record with McDevitt was the film theme "Across the Bridge", and they followed it with an attractive folk song written by Bobby Darin, "Real Love". They also recorded "Dream Talk" (1960) and "Mommy Out De Light" (1961). The pair wrote "How Long Is Forever" for Cliff Richard and "Move Over Tiger" for Vince Taylor. They worked as a support act for Chubby Checker, The Beatles and The Dave Clark Five and they released the albums Sixteen Big Folk Hits (1963), Sixteen English Folk Songs (1966) and Old New Borrowed and Blue (1972).

Their daughter, Kerry, was born in 1969. The marriage ended in 1975 and Douglas released a solo album, Heart on the Loose, with several of her own songs. She still performed, but mostly produced amateur dramatics. She moved to Spain for the weather, looked after stray animals and, from time to time, would perform with McDevitt and their daughter.

Kathleen Barbara Marie Douglas (Shirley Douglas), singer and guitarist: born Athlone, Ireland 1939; married 1959 Chas McDevitt (divorced 1975; one daughter); died Benissa, Spain 15 January 2013.

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