Relaxed, sincere and fatherly, described by Bruce Forsyth as "one of the warmest personalities I think we've ever had", Val Doonican offered reassurance to a generation who, in the 1960s and '70s may have felt that the world was moving a little too quickly and a little too noisily for them. Doonican was the definition of easy-listening, but his relaxed charm, disarming brogue and sense of humour, as well as his sincere, unpretentious style, made him one of the most likeable and least starry of television stars.
Despite the '60s pop music revolution which stalled the careers of many similar crooners, Doonican had 10 top 40 hits in that decade, beginning with the jaunty "Walk Tall" and continuing with "What Would I Be" and "Elusive Butterfly". He recorded more than 50 albums, selling millions. He was TV Personality of the Year in 1966; the following year he performed at the Royal Variety Show, and in 1968, Val Doonican Rocks, But Gently spent three weeks at No 1 in the UK albums chart.
Born in Waterford, the youngest of eight children, he formed his first singing group at the age of 10 – although he was often dubbed an Irish Perry Como, his inspirations were Burl Ives and Bing Crosby – and attended De La Salle College, but after the death of his father when he was 14, left and worked in a lumberyard making orange boxes. As well as putting food on the table, it afforded him his first guitar.
His first professional engagement was singing "We're Three Caballeros" at Waterford Fete. He spent six months as a drummer in a band, learning as he went along; he was sacked for blowing his nose during the set but reinstated because no one else owned any sticks. He then joined up with fellow musician Bruce Clarke to play on the seafront in Bray, Co Wicklow, which got the pair their first break, advertising Donnelly's Sausages on Radio Eireann to the tune of the "Mexican Hat Dance".
In 1951, he joined Irish quartet The Four Ramblers, a regular fixture on Workers' Playtime (for which their salaries were often augmented by gifts from the factories they broadcast from) and also starred in another radio hit of the day, The Riders of the Range. He went solo and landed a weekly radio show with the BBC Light Programme, specialising in Celtic ditties. "Nobody else would dream of singing these things", he recalled of songs such as "Delaney's Donkey" and "Paddy McGinty's Goat", and they did earn him criticism from some of his countrymen for perpetuating Irish stereotypes. But they also earned him a steady stream of cabaret and theatre engagements, if not, so far, a recording contract.
Doonican always claimed it took him 17 years to become an overnight success, and that success came when Val Parnell, ATV's Head of Light Entertainment, booked him to appear on Sunday Night at the London Palladium in 1963. The morning after the eight-minute spot the offers flooded in.
The BBC's Bill Cotton, always a first-class talent spotter, quickly signed him up for his own television show; it ran for 24 years, with up to 19m people tuning in to enjoy Doonican in one of his trademark sweaters (many of which were knitted by loving fans), crooning with celebrity guests, introducing new acts (Dave Allen was among those who got their break on the show), and singing his sign-off ballad from a rocking chair.
Christmas Eve editions of his television show were for many as much a part of Christmas as Morecambe and Wise, winsome entertainments that featured plenty of tuneful celebrity guests and which also got to showcase the modest Doonican's comic timing (the 1979 Christmas show, scripted by Barry Took, saw him and Magnus Magnusson joyfully and slickly spoofing the latter's quiz show, Mastermind).
He was a quick learner musically, and as well as playing tuba for Herbie Flowers and Jew's harp to James Galway's flute, he and Nashville musician Charlie McCoy once played harmonicas for a performance of the theme to the BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test, which ended up being used for the following week's edition of what was, in the 1970s, television's most earnest pop music show, and the last place one would have expected to find him. As well as music, he was a talented landscape painter, and his watercolours were regularly exhibited in Ireland.
Back in the days of The Four Ramblers, a gig supporting Anthony Newley (who encouraged him to go solo) introduced him to dancer Lynnette Rae. They married in the early 1960s and had two daughters, one of whom, Sarah, is a novelist. The couple holidayed in the same Spanish town every year for 25 years.
Perhaps he is best summed up by the song he recorded after his first single, "Walk Tall", had made the Top Three in 1964. Sadly, he reflected in 2011 that "The Special Years" was "a song about children growing up, and it's a song saying not to hurry, because there's plenty of time and so on. And if ever a lyric was more prevalent than ever before, it's that one, because young people now are teenagers and adults before they've had time to be children".
It was a sweet sentiment, and one which holds the clue as to why such an old-fashioned entertainer remained relevant for so many, for so long.
Michael Valentine Doonican, singer and television presenter: born Waterford, Ireland 3 February 1927; married Lynnette Rae (two daughters); died Beaconsfield 1 July 2015.Reuse content