Belfast’s forgotten troubadour – Ernie Graham

by NJ McGarrigle

In the 1960s he befriended Jimi Hendrix and worked with him in the studio, toured with Pink Floyd, and played Glastonbury Festival in 1971. That same year he produced a sublime debut solo album, which remains something of a hidden gem, even in the easily-accessible treasure chest of today’s digital music.

You might think this sounds like a charmed CV for a lad born in Belfast, but for Ernie Graham, the phrase ‘the luck of the Irish’ was probably a bittersweet one during his lifetime – he always seemed an outstretched, despairing arm away from catching the bus to fame.

Ernie passed away in London on April 27 2001, aged only 54. Having spent the latter years of his life working for British Rail and on the Orient Express, he had long left the music scene behind him after the frustration of never seeing his train come in. However, his sole eponymous LP should ensure his legacy as one of Ulster’s finest rock ‘n’ roll sons; his fleeting moment in the sun offers us a glimpse of his brilliant musical instinct.

Luckily, a friend tipped me off about the album a couple of years ago. Knowing how much I loved Little Feat and The Band, he said I should check out Ernie Graham, a guy who was in ’60s Belfast psychedelic-blues group Eire Apparent. I duly went digging but found original copies of the album hard to find – and if you did manage to track one down, they were in the region of £100. Frustrated, I checked that great liberator of music, YouTube, and found a playlist of the entire LP. The album’s easy going spirit and laid-back grooves struck a note with me right away; Ernie was from Belfast but he wore his folk and Americana influences happily on his sleeve; delivering vocals with a lazy grace and reminding me that great music can sometimes be the simplest.

What’s more important is that this fine album is now available on CD from Hux records in London (with a couple of bonus tracks, including the Phil Lynott-penned ‘Romeo and the Lonely Girl’ and detailed liner notes). The price is soft on the wallet too.

The opening track ‘Sebastian’ sounds like it could have come from some lost Dylan bootleg, whereas ‘For A Little While’ could easily be the kid brother of ‘The Man In Me’ from the Minnesota song-smith’s 1970 LP ‘New Morning’. Right across ‘Ernie Graham’ there are influences from The Band (check the sloping vibes of ‘So Lonely’ and ‘Don’t Want Me Around’) to Grateful Dead (the harmonies on ‘The Girl That Turned The Lever’ could have come from their ‘American Beauty/Workingman’s Dead’ era). On one track Ernie even adopts a kind of Captain Beefheart-lite vocal on the R&B shuffler ‘Blues to Snowy’.

The entire LP has such a relaxed, low-slung loveliness to it, which may have had plenty to do with Ernie’s way of working in the studio.

He liked a drink, as Stiff Records producer Larry Wallis remembered: “A wonderful chap… (His attitude was) ‘Hey, we’re recording! Right what do we need? Guitar, plectrum, two bottles of whiskey, some Coca-Cola!’ Ernie had his bar; there he was out by the vocal mic, loosening up. One time, when the level had dropped in the bottle, he decided to sit down to record the vocal and unfortunately he chose a high stool. Well he went off that twice! It’s pretty disconcerting to be sat at a mixing desk and to look up and see hovering in mid-air a glass of whiskey and Coke and no Ernie!”

Ernie found potency in this album: listening to it does conjure up ideas of sipping glasses of chilled rum and Coke with good friends on a lazy summer evening: the music is tinged with a warm haze. One track that sits slightly incongruously on the album is the one penned for his hometown, ‘Belfast’. With its fiddle, Celtic-tinged rock and angry lyrics, it juts out from the overall spirit of the LP. On first listen the tune makes one cringe slightly from its earnestness, but it grows on you. After a visit home for Christmas in 1970, Ernie probably felt the need to reference what was happening to the place. The Troubles gripping it by the throat; it’s a lament for a torn town.

The standout tracks are ‘For A Little While’, the feelgood ‘The Girl That Turned the Lever’ with its flourish of accordion melody throughout, and the haunting, otherworldly melancholy of ‘Sea Fever’. Ernie wrote the latter song while suffering from depression: ‘I was going through a very low period to be honest. I read somewhere that drowning was a pleasant way to die. It’s something to do with the water shutting off the air to the brain and as a result the brain gets incredibly high.’

But the album doesn’t sink the heart, it lifts it: open-road rhythms, sing-along choruses, and the joy of the ‘la la las’ sprinkled throughout.

What will make the album stand up for years to come, I think, is it’s beautiful paradox of free spirited music matched with introverted and, in true Belfast style, straight-talking lyrics. For Ernie sings about lost and unrequited love, getting burned, regrets, rejection, looking back down the road, separation, emotional detachment and so on. Yet the music never strays into Leonard Cohen lugubriousness and a lot of credit for this must go to the players (Brinsley Schwarz) that backed him when they cut the album rather quickly in ‘71.

Anyone with music in their heart will find joy and comfort in this album. Because here is a guy who is playing his soul out just for you – and if you are up or down, Ernie has a tune to sort you out.

The LP is like meeting up with an old friend in one of the finer Belfast pubs: you’re sure to feel better after the company. Music journalist Phil McMullen has an interesting take on the album: ‘I never met Ernie Graham, yet I felt I knew him. His music wove itself into the tapestry of my life; I’d fall in love, lose a friend or encounter some life-changing experience. And each time, the Ernie Graham LP would be found at the front of the record pile beside the stereo. I even came to believe the way the album faced guided my providence, the front cover (Ernie smoking) suggesting a period of reflection and the smiling face on the back encouraging me to shake off the demons and have a good time. It wasn’t as mysterious as that though; the record popped up so much because it is such a fine one.’

When I went back to the LP recently, I could not stop playing ‘For A Little While’ over and over again: a song about the crazy possibilities of romance: encountering a fleeting love, which disappears in front of your eyes before it has even started. I had a similar experience recently and was a bit annoyed and disappointed by it. But when those ‘la la las’ came in, all I could do was sing along, for I knew exactly what Ernie was saying. Life can sometimes frustrate, women will come and go, but the music will always remain. Just like Ernie Graham.

*This article originally appeared in ‘The Irish News’ newspaper.