Photographs by Alasdair McBroom

Belfast 89FM

A nondescript building near Belfast’s city hall is where I will be meeting him. Derek Halligan greets me with a smile and a friendly handshake. A warm welcome. Del, as he prefers to be called, leads me to what looks like an ad-hoc radio station. It is here where he spends his Sunday evenings DJ’ing for Belfast 89.3FM. His set for the evening is contained within the aluminium case he is carrying in his right hand – a banana in his left.

We have some time before his show begins so he goes back fifty years where he recalls standing on a chair in his grandmother’s parlour and singing songs. He also tells me of being chosen to perform solo in his school choir. Del spent time in his childhood with Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata and Ravel’s Bolero keeping him company. “Astonishing stuff,” he says. He loved how it made him feel and cannot describe how his love of music came to be.

“It’s been there too long…”, he says. “…it’s just so uplifting.” Most of us have our longings for beauty, for perfection. Del was lucky as he had found it at an early age.

"One of my favourite hobbies was listening to Radio Luxembourg under the bedclothes"

The Blues

A great influence on Del was the blues explosion in Belfast. It was the 1960s and it was the time for musicians. Del was being surrounded by great music and he wanted to contribute.

“Luigi Crum and the Kumbacks…”, I can feel the fondness in his words. The memory of his first band fills him with an almost forgotten happiness that Del readily welcomes back. He smiles, “…we wanted to be different”. He mentions John Mayall and Fats Domino as inspirations. I love music and Del still reveals my ignorance. Fats Domino I know, but John Mayall? Nope. Already Del is motivating me to find more sources of great music. Music is a way to speak to people. It is a form of communication. He wanted to express himself so he began gigging around Belfast.

Gigging

There’s a calmness about him when he tells me his gigging stories. He misses it and he also takes great pleasure in recalling them. Where others may seek to boast, Del remains humble about bumping in to John Mayall during a gig at the Maritime Club in Belfast.

“I had been talking to him during the interval and asked if he was going to play a particular tune…”, At that point, Del looks to the stage and sees John McVie and Peter Green getting ready for the second half of the gig. Before heading back on stage John tells Del, “Yeah, we usually finish with it”. An opportunity presents itself to Del. He is not going to miss his chance. It’s not long before the end of the gig comes and Del is waiting patiently.

Del’s gaze is locked on the old memory. He is back in the Maritime and it’s 1962. This was the night Peter Green, John McVie and John Mayall were the backing band for a fifteen-year-old Derek Halligan singing ‘Dust my broom’. “That was a good night”, Del remembers while still locked in thought.

“As soon as the opening chords started I made for the stage. I just grabbed the mic and got stuck in”.

Travel

Del wasn’t pushed in to music. He wasn’t forced to sing in the school choir. He chose to do it because he loves to perform. This love took him to London where he remembers gigging all around the city and becoming very familiar with the old Ford Transit vans the band used to transport their cases.

Music always came first for Del, but he has many passions. It was the mid-70s and Del was back in N. Ireland. This was around the time that the Lyric theatre in Belfast staged Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, which led to protests from a few shocked clergymen. By that time Del had already been cast and the role of Judas was Del’s first gig in theatre. A second love had been found and Del was just getting started. His performance on Superstar led to an acting career spanning over forty years.

It wasn’t long before he is back singing again. This led Del to Cyprus. Somewhere in the 80s Del joined the big bands and toured the island. Swing, show-tunes and a lot of sun. I find it difficult to disguise my jealousy. He spent six years in Cyprus until the Gulf war “put paid to that”. He returned home and quickly found himself at a loose end.

“There wasn’t much happening so I went to the States.” It was in Texas, sometime in the early 90s that Del formed a 7-piece band called “The Porch Quartet.” Del greatly enjoyed gigging in Texas and I ask him to relay a memory that stands out from his time there.

Before he begins he asks me to turn off my tape recorder which I agree to. I also agree not to reveal the details of the story, but to those reading let’s agree that being left alone in the Texan desert is not desirable.

Song Writing

There is a brief but comfortable silence and then I ask him, “Where would you be without music?”. I think the simplistic nature of the question throws him a little, but he thinks deeply about the answer and delivers it sincerely with a little chuckle –

“I have absolutely no idea…”. I can see Del imagining a life without music and strangely the image doesn’t make him unhappy or glum. It reaffirms his music career, it solidifies it. Del was supposed to be a musician and he always will be.

He tells me he has written over three hundred songs and I try to understand his creative process, but I don’t think he has one, not in the traditional sense. I think Del is different. His best songs usually “just come straight down”. Where from he doesn’t say, but the decision to create has already been made, he just writes it down.

Almost all the songs Del has written have been personal to him and there is a reason why he is a great songwriter. It’s the same reason why he has such a great taste in music. He is expressing himself. Some people paint, others go for a walk, Del creates great music. He can do this because of the events in his life, good and bad, have pushed him to transfer these experiences to song.

Rolling Stones

Del’s preferred bands and singers are from a time before pop music, before machines replaced humans. This was a time where it was only about the music, not the money and not the ego. We both agree that these times may be fading away.

I hope for levity, so I share a story with Del about Richard, or Rich as I call him. Rich is a friend and has never listened to the Rolling Stones. A genuine look of shock takes over Del’s face. He doesn’t believe me but I reaffirm (I chose to keep it secret that Rich may not even know who they are). I think I have revealed to Del something that he once thought impossible. The story makes us both think – who else hasn’t Rich listened to? He doesn’t linger on Rich’s lack of awareness as he would rather suggest his favourite tracks and Del understands it is never too late to begin a love of great music.

Smokestack Lightning - Howling WolfOh Carol - StonesSweet Thing - Van MorrisonVoodoo Chile - Jimi HendrixHappy Together - The TurtlesRhythm Of The Heat - Peter GabrielPastoral - BeethovenSpirit Voices - Paul SimonPilgrim Road - HalliganI Just Go - Boz Scaggs

Generation Gap

My time with Del is coming to an end and I find myself wishing he didn’t have to present a radio show in 15 minutes. He has been DJ’ing for a relatively short period of time and in that time he has received text messages from listeners stating how much they love his show. Some of these listeners are in their early twenties. He’s pleased to know that his love of music is being transferred over to the next generation.

Del’s quiet manner is understandable. He comes alive when he is performing. He saves himself for his music. He understands that music allows a person to reveal themselves, to display their hardships and to express their triumphs. His melodic life, his ups and downs, fed his songwriting as his recent track “Leave me Lonely” will attest to. And then sadness returns. Is the time of musicians like Del really fading away? Is Del one of the last of his kind?

With the interview over I feel a great urge to go home and listen to some of Del’s suggestions. Some I already love, some I am just being introduced to. I listen for quite some time and a question arrives. Where would the great musicians of the last fifty years be without Beethoven or Ravel? Things would be very different and then I realise something. Del is doing what all the greats did before: he his passing on his love for music to the next generation. With me he has succeeded. He has reminded me of what music can do. Things fade when people stop doing what they love. And Del will never stop.