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The Freshmen

The Freshmen were among the more successful examples of what was known in Ireland and England as a show band -- ensembles of usually a little more than half-a-dozen players, pounding out dance-friendly renditions of contemporary rock & roll and, even more so, R&B and soul. In the United States, such groups as Bill Deal & the Rhondels made names for themselves in places like Virginia Beach and Myrtle Beach, SC, and, in the case of Deal and company, even got to record some great sides (and every once in a while, the real article, such as Maurice Williams, would also ply their trade in such locales). In Ireland, however, such bands were a social institution in the early-to mid-'60s. The Freshmen came together in 1962, with Billy Brown (tenor sax, keyboards, arranger), Maurice Henry (tenor sax), and Torry McGahey (bass) -- late of a group called the Billy McFarland Showband -- joined up with Damien McElroy (lead guitar), Sean Mahon (trumpet, trombone), and Davey McKnight (drums), with Derek Dean eventually taking the vocalist spot. The Ballymena-based band did the ballroom of County Antrim and points south, knocking out audiences with their covers of Stax/Volt singles and then-current songs by the Beatles and the Beach Boys, among others. Their ability to harmonize made it a given that their repertory would encompass the latter group, as well as Jan & Dean, Jay & the Americans, the Association, the Fifth Dimension, and the Four Seasons. Although they'd gotten to do a one-off single (as the Six of One) for the Top Rank label, their real shot at a lasting legacy came when they were signed by Pye Records in the spring of 1964. The result was a string of hit singles, including "La Yonka," "So This Is Love," and "Cara Mia," between 1965 and 1967 -- by then, the band's reputation was such that they received the greatest honor of their careers, playing support gigs to the Beach Boys at two shows, in Dublin and Belfast, along that group's spring 1967 tour of Ireland. By this time, their sound was decidedly retro, amid the flowering of the psychedelic era, but to the audiences they cultivated it mattered not one whit -- their version of "Papa Oom Mow Mow" made the Irish Top Ten in December of 1967, although the following year they did cut a prime example of sunshine pop entitled, appropriately, "Look at the Sunshine." The band continued scoring hits into 1970 with "Just to See You Smile" and "Halfway to Where," by which time they'd also achieved the singular accomplishment in their field of recording an LP, Movin' On. On a handful of occasions, they recorded as Billy Brown & the Freshmen and Derek Dean & the Freshmen. The group left Pye soon after and jumped to CBS Records, through which they enjoyed a further string of hits, culminating with "Cinderella," their highest charting single at Number Three in Ireland at the end of the 1970s. The band finally called it quits in September of 1980, the year following that success. The Freshmen briefly reunited in the early 1980s, but weren't heard from otherwise until 2001, when Castle Records issued When Summer Comes as part of its Ripples sunshine pop series. ~ Bruce Eder

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