Shay Duffin

We were a cabaret duo, with a focus on Irish ballads, comedy patter, and musical parodies. We called ourselves the Dublin Rogues. Ben Kopelow, our agent in Vancouver, chose the name for us. He dressed us up in green corduroy pants, white sweaters and tweed caps, and had us performing at every corporate banquet job that called for an Irish tenor to hit the high notes of “Danny Boy” and “Macushla.” Duffin was the Irish tenor. He didn’t always hit the high notes but the crowds loved him anyway. I played piano. I also sang bass harmony, and strummed a little on acoustic guitar.

We first performed together  at a Burnaby restaurant called Little Black Sambo’s Pancake House. At least, that’s what the place was called when I first arrived in Vancouver in November 1966. A sign on the outside of the restaurant depicted a caricature of a curly-haired black child. The B.C. Association for the Advancement of Coloured People complained, the owner removed the offending sign, and changed the name to the less offensive Sambo’s Family Restaurant.

The customers at Sambo’s didn’t have much interest in Irish folk music. Although Duffin was getting some airplay on Vancouver radio stations with a self-produced recording of an old IRA marching song called “Off to Dublin in the Green,” he discovered that the Sambo’s customers preferred listening to popular vocal selections from the musicals The Fantasticks and The Sound of Music. He sang “Try to Remember” and “Climb Every Mountain.” I played “A Walk in the Black Forest” and “Lara’s Theme” from Dr. Zhivago. The customers applauded and the restaurant management was happy.

Duffin was keen to work full-time in show business. An upholsterer from Dublin who claimed to have once installed leather padding on a toilet seat in Princess Margaret’s Kensington Palace apartment—you could never tell if Duffin, an inveterate teller of tall tales, was making these things up—he did bit parts in movies and television shows shot in Vancouver, sold boxes of his 45-rpm singles on consignment at the Bay, and did his Irish tenor routine at golf club dinners and trade fairs.

The chance to quit our day jobs came in June 1967. A Vancouver impresario named Fran Dowie heard Duffin and me performing at Sambo’s and booked us for a two-month summer gig at the Palace Grand Theatre in Dawson City. Duffin was to be the emcee, telling jokes, and doing some solo singing on stage. I would be in the pit, playing piano accompaniment as musical director. A second piano would be pushed out on stage when we did our ten-minute Dublin Rogues routine. By this time, Duffin and I had released our first album of Irish ballads, Off to Dublin in the Green, on the RCA Camden label.

The Dawson gig gave Duffin and me a great opportunity to expand our musical repertoire and create a tight show. Every night after the Palace Grand Theatre show we went over to the Westminster Hotel to play music in the bar until closing time. By the time we left Dawson we had developed enough Irish material to fill four one-hour sets without repeating ourselves. We quietly retired “Try to Remember” and the hits of The Sound of Music from our program, and in their place offered renditions of “The Garden Where the Praties Grow,” “Johnnie, I Hardly Knew Ye,” and “The Boston Burglar.” We drew simultaneously from the repertoires of the great Irish tenor John McCormack and the popular Irish folk group The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. That made it difficult for the music industry to pigeonhole us. We moved between the genteel Victorian drawing-room style of musical performance later depicted in the John Huston movie The Dead, and the raucous style of pub singing that one associates with the rhythm of clinking bottles and tapping feet. How do you categorize a hybrid like that? One minute we were all decanted port and pianos draped in brocade. The next, we were doing percussion with spoons (“stolen only from the finest restaurants,” quipped Duffin) and encouraging the crowd to shout out the words, “Fine girl, you are!” The record company and the radio stations called us a folk act. But we viewed ourselves as supper-club entertainment, as a Vegas-type act that should be featured on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Needless to say, we never made it onto Ed Sullivan. We never had a hit record to get us there. Instead, we went on the road, playing nightclubs in Ontario and Atlantic Canada until we got bored of touring. At that point, Duffin and I discussed the possibility of putting together a theatrical show based on the life of the booze-loving Irish playwright Brendan Behan, with Duffin impersonating Behan and me providing on-stage accordion accompaniment. But that would have taken goodness-knows how long to research and write, with no guarantee of getting any workshop money or production commitments when the show was ready for staging. It seemed too much of a gamble to me. I opted out of the project before it began. Duffin, to his credit, took the idea and ran with it. He developed the concept as a one-man show and later performed it to critical and audience acclaim throughout Canada and the United States. “Mr. Duffin, if not Behan, has given us a memorable evening,” said The New York Times.

I went into journalism after quitting the road, and Duffin carved out a successful career for himself in television and movies. He played the ring announcer in Raging Bull, a horse trainer in Seabiscuit and the bar owner in the early scenes of Titanic. We didn’t remain in touch over the years, but I admired his success from afar.

He died this morning in Los Angeles, of complications following recent heart surgery. I will miss him.

[Excerpted from my memoirs, to be published next year by RMB Books]


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