Category: Archive

George Derrane passes away at 70

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

One such musician was George Derrane, a Boston-born banjoist, electric guitarist, and tenor saxophonist who succumbed to cancer at age 70 in a Quincy, Mass., hospital on July 30.
Two and a half years younger than his brother, renowned button accordionist Joe Derrane, George Derrane studied banjo with a commitment comparable to that of his famous sibling on the accordion. George took lessons from a professional instructor who once played banjo on the Radio Keith Orpheum (RKO) vaudeville circuit, and his dexterity on the instrument was quickly apparent to all.
“George became an outstanding banjo player,” his brother Joe said. “He was very disciplined and could sight-read anything put in front of him. He knew his positions, chords, rhythm, and melody. We did a number of duet concert performances together in Chicago and Boston. He was thoroughly at home playing in solo and/or group settings.”
Two such groups were studio-bound creations of Copley label founder Justus O’Byrne DeWitt during the 1950s. They were the Irish All Stars, comprising George Derrane on banjo, his brother Joe on accordion, Joe’s own teacher Jerry O’Brien on accordion, and either John Connors or Hermeline German on piano, and the All Star Ceili Band, featuring the two Derrane brothers, O’Brien, Connors, and occasionally Clare flute-piccolo player Frank Neylon.
The 78-rpm recordings made by those two bands for the Copley label offer a steadily danceable brand of Irish and Irish-American music tailored to the then thriving ballroom scene along and near Dudley Street in Roxbury, Mass. George Derrane’s strong, unflaggingly precise style of banjo playing can be heard to great advantage on such Irish All Stars’ tracks as “Chase Me, Charlie/The Hundred Pipers,” “The Irish Washerwoman,” “Mrs. McLeod,” and especially “Mullingar Races/Sheehan’s,” where his banjo and the accordions of Joe Derrane and Jerry O’Brien are faultlessly in sync.
“His favorite reel was ‘The Girl Who Broke My Heart,’ and his presentation of that tune was absolutely stunning,” Joe Derrane said of his brother. “Unfortunately, he never got to record it.”
Limerick-born Mick Moloney, one of the finest banjoists Irish traditional music has ever produced and a noted scholar of Irish American culture, had this to say about George Derrane on banjo: “He was very technically accomplished, with great rhythm and drive in his playing along with fluid ornamentation. Had he stayed with it, he could have ended up being one of the best banjo players in the history of the instrument.”
From banjo, George switched to electric guitar, for which he developed a passion not uncommon in that nascent era of guitar-oriented popular music. He played mostly rhythm accompaniment, and the limitations of that role soon prompted another switch, to tenor saxophone.
Other bands for which George Derrane performed were led by Johnny Powell, Billy Caples, and Martin Flaherty. “During this period, all his playing was in the legendary Dudley Street ballroom scene and in the hectic wedding/function trade evolving from those ballrooms,” Joe Derrane said. “George finished his playing career on tenor sax around the mid-1960s. The demise of that ballroom scene had left him, like so many others, with no place to play.”
For two decades, George Derrane worked as an accountant for the Sobin Chemical Company in South Boston, and he also logged another 20 years or so as an accountant for the State of Massachusetts.
I met George Derrane socially on a few occasions. At a wedding reception for his nephew, he confided to me how proud he was of his older brother’s mid-1990s comeback to Irish traditional music and Irish-style button accordion. “He’s playing better than ever,” George told me. “I suppose we have you to blame.”
I told him no. It was Joe alone who woodshedded until his fingers ached in order to attain that level of brilliance again.
After some probing on my part, George confessed that he had taken out his old banjo, mothballed for decades, to see if he could still play it. The spark that lit his older brother’s return to Irish music had momentarily inspired him.
It didn’t matter if he couldn’t coax a tune out of it, and he never said if he could or not. I think it was enough for him just to try, to feel that sensation again of handling an instrument he once breathed in like oxygen. Like so many of us, he kept something he didn’t use because he wasn’t quite through with it yet, at least not emotionally.
For George Derrane, the banjo represented another time, another place, another life. It must have brought back memories, and it certainly symbolized the indisputable value of what he had achieved musically so many years ago.
His distinctive banjo playing can be heard on the All Star Ceili Band’s “Traditional Irish Dance Music” (Rego cassette, 1992), six tracks on Joe Derrane and Jerry O’Brien’s “Irish Accordion Masters” (Rego CD, 1995), and two tracks on “Irish American Music of the 50’s” (Rego multi-artist compilation CD, 1992).
With the late Anne (n

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