herald

Monday 20 August 2018

Duke’s fond tribute to a singing gem

RUBY and the Duke made for a perfect fit. With his dreadlocks, eyeliner, irresistible persona and a stage style influenced by vaudeville and music hall, Belfast-based singer Duke Special certainly stands out from the crowd. There's no one else quite like him around.

In the Belfast of the 1950s, there was no one else around quite like Ruby Murray who, for five glowing years was one of Britain's biggest pop stars. During a single week in 1955, Murray -- who died, largely forgotten, in 1996 -- had five singles in the top 20, while popularity polls placed her above Shirley Bassey and Petula Clark, both huge stars at the time.

In this affectionate, poignant documentary, directed by Michael Beattie, Duke Special -- aided by Murray's family and celebrity admirers as diverse as Phil Coulter, broadcaster Paul Gambaccini and movie composer David Holmes (another Belfast boy) -- traced her rapid rise to stardom and brutally swift decline when the pop music landscape felt the seismic shock of rock and roll.

At 12, Murray was enchanting locals by standing on tables singing in pubs. By 14, when child labour laws were more lax than they are now, she was touring with older performers.

Murray had a voice as clear as a silver bell and sounded more like Doris Day than a young woman from working-class Belfast. Even her name, noted singer Bryan Kennedy, sounded American.

A string of hit records and regular performances on TV swiftly propelled her to stardom. She played the London Palladium, the light entertainment Mecca of the 1950s, with Norman Wisdom and shared the Royal Command Performance bill with American superstar Johnny Ray.

Murray's stardom was all the more remarkable because she wasn't what you'd call comfortable in her performing skin. She was physically awkward on stage, never knowing how to walk gracefully or what to do with her hands, and cripplingly shy off it. But once she opened her mouth and sang, her voice eclipsed everything else.

But when Bill Haley's Rock Around the Clock came blaring out of transistor radios in 1959, it rocked Murray's popularity. A year later Elvis Presley exploded onto the scene, effectively sounding the death knell for Murray's kind of music.

The more Murray's star dimmed, the harder she toured and the heavier she drank. Her long, loving marriage to Bernie Burgess, a singer she'd met on the touring circuit, ended in 1977. Burgess wept as he recalled the toll the drink took on her in the years after they'd split. Happily, they were reconciled as friends and he was a regular visitor to the nursing home she lived in before her death from liver disease.

Murray's was ultimately a sad tale but this was a lovely film, as gentle as the young Ruby's voice.

We already knew that Piers Morgan's first show for CNN was going to be bad. We'd been alerted by the rotten reviews coming from the American media yesterday. Quite how bad, though, was a revelation.

The man Tony Blair privately called "a slug" (a terrible insult to slugs, I feel) was at his most slug-like while interviewing Oprah Winfrey. With Morgan nauseatingly fawning and obsequious from the outset, this made his encounter with Cheryl Cole seem like Frost/Nixon.

"There are only two people I would never swear in front of," he smarmed, "Her Majesty the Queen and Oprah Winfrey. You are the queen of America."

"Why, thank you," replied the most pompous, self-important woman on the planet (albeit also one of the most charitable). Utterly revolting.

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