SYDNEY DEVINE 40 Years Performing at the Pavilion Theatre Glasgow

Earlier this month (November 7th & 8th), Sydney Devine graced the stage at the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow for the fortieth consecutive year, creating an entertainment record all of his own. Dressed in an immaculately tailored ruby red suit with white braiding, red shirt, white boots and a red rhinestone belt, Sydney sang to a packed auditorium of devoted fans. As has been my custom for many a year, I was sitting in the front section of the stalls for the first show, unusually a Friday night, rather than the Thursday evening I was expecting. Possibly this is a little nod toward the fact that the star of the show turns 75 on January the 11th next year! Anyway, as always everyone had a thoroughly good evening being entertained by a singer sometimes affectionately known as Steak ‘n’ Kidney.

Looking great ifor his Silver anniversary 26/11/99. Image credit abmj
Looking great for his Silver anniversary 26/11/99. Image credit abmj

Sydney Devine (his own name although it does have an exotic showbiz ring to it) has been treading the boards since he was in short trousers. Long before his voice broke and before he left school, Sydney had been “discovered” so to speak. Born in Mayfield Cottage in Bellside Cleland to a large family, his mother “Old Nellie” taught him to whistle. Around the age of ten or eleven Sydney’s ability to mimic bird calls was written about in a local newspaper, and the story was picked up by a national. From that he was invited to the BBC Radio Scotland studio in Glasgow, to perform alongside Ronnie Ronald on the song If I Were a Blackbird (Sydney was the blackbird). Another invite to sing at the BBC studio came about a year later when Syd was around twelve, who by then was already on the touring talent show circuit Go As You Please. The head of BBC Radio Scotland Kathleen Garscadden “Auntie Kathleen”, having given Sydney his first break then invited him to represent Scotland, in a four home nations TV show called All Your Own. As a result, a 13 year old Cleland boy headed to London (with his Mum as chaperone) to perform “live” on the fledgling medium of TV. This broadcast was seen by the legendary Scottish performer Robert Wilson, who then paid the Devine household a personal visit and offered to be a voice coach to Sydney and to find him a song to record onto vinyl. Shortly after this visit Sydney Devine had cut his first record with Betty Fitchett’s Wedding /Lunan Bay. He appeared on vinyl again (as a blackbird) accompanying Robert Wilson in Cottage by the Lea. Although Sydney cannot remember receiving any money for his recordings, he did well on the touring talent circuit although much of his earnings went on stage costumes and travel. The novelty payment of two packs of chewing gum (sweet rationing still in place) came from working in Stopher’s Dundee shows and then Sydney joined Annie Muir’s Concert Party in Carluke. So most weekends Sydney was performing the length and breadth of Lanarkshire (a large urban sprawl in Central Scotland) that included doing several Old Folks’ Treats shows. All this was going on whilst Sydney was still a schoolboy, so the seeds had been sown for an entertainment career long before the school gates closed. A job in a tailors shop beckoned, when news came that he had won the role of Micah Dow in Wild Grows the Heather, staged in the West End of London. Fifteen year old Sydney Devine was on his way earning £28 a week in 1955! The show lasted about twenty weeks and the juvenile role music had to be re-written, after Sydney’s voice broke mid-song during a performance about six weeks through the run. When the role ended Sydney and his chaperone Mum returned home to Cleland, where the teenager had to let nature take its course and allow his voice to settle.

Still rockin' in tartan 26/10/99. Image credit abmj
Still rockin’ in tartan 26/10/99. Image credit abmj

This was the era of the embryonic sound of rock n’ roll and Syd was not immune to its lure, so he took up the guitar, let his voice settle and created a skiffle band. He then entered a competition to find “Scotland’s Tommy Steele” and came second to the more raucous sounding Alex Harvey. After the competition tour was completed (like the X-Factor road show I guess but more low key), Sydney joined the very Scottish Robert Wilson’s White Heather Group in 1959 and toured with them for the next decade. His appearance as “The Tartan Rocker” singing Elvis songs must have gone down particularly well on the American Army bases in Germany. Apparently one night the REAL Elvis was in the audience listening. Undoubtedly Elvis Presley has had a bit of an influence on Sydney over the years, as anyone attending his concerts can testify. He is heralded onto the stage to the strains of Also Sprach Zarathustra and has worn the “white-spangled rhinestone jumpsuit” on occasion too.

Ode to Elvis March 1990. Image credit abmj
Ode to Elvis March 1990. Image credit abmj

With the untimely death of Robert Wilson in 1964 Sydney suddenly found himself a solo artist in every sense, even though the White Heather Group continued. He didn’t have the security anymore and during his time with Robert Wilson he hadn’t appeared on any TV or radio shows, having seemingly been blacklisted. A decision to tour the working men’s’ clubs was quickly put on hold, when a serious car accident put Sydney out of action. Oddly as a result of this experience, his indomitable wife Shirley found herself making a great success of running a bed & breakfast establishment. This gave the income security the Devine family needed to allow a healed Sydney to ply his trade south of the border. The working men’s clubs are a tough audience but Sydney managed to survive. I think a lot of fans who travel from England and Wales for the Pavilion concerts, remember his work ethic and talent from those days. A tour with Andy Stewart around the end of 1969/the start of 1970 found Sydney in South Africa. Offered the chance to do an album there he laid down over twenty songs. The resulting album eventually found its way to a Glasgow Woolworths store, where a young Miss Devine (no relation) got the album played. From there on in, it was the slow burn to career success.

Belting out a song 10/11/2001. Image credit abmj
Belting out a song 10/11/2001. Image credit abmj

As a wee girl from Cleland in the early seventies, I was delighted and amazed to discover Sydney Devine came from my home village. And I knew his mammy “Old Nellie” the woman with the fur coat I’d see at the bus stop going to bingo. The big revelation came one day whilst standing at the bus stop outside Bessie Allen’s grocery store. I was about 4 years old and had just learned all the words to all the songs from an album called “Cryin Time”. “Old Nellie” was chuffed when I gave her a wee compilation rendition of Old Shep, Cryin Time, Two Little Orphans and Come Home Rolling Stone. Then my mammy dropped the bombshell of who “Old Nellie” really was, and I felt like I’d met the Queen Mum. From that day on I never passed Syd’s mother without saying hello, asking how she & the bingo was and of course how Sydney/Shirley and the family were. When “Old Nellie” passed away I wrote to Sydney (c/o the Pavilion) for the first time to express my sympathy to him. I mentioned I was going to be sitting in the stalls Row C 1 & 2 at his next show and hoped to get a photo. At that concert it seemed he made a particular effort to come to my side of the stage and I got some lovely snaps, as well as a wee thank-you from the stage for the lovely letter. I was thrilled at this unexpected acknowledgement. Over the years (since earning my own income) I have attended Sydney’s shows faithfully, with the exception of a period of about 4-5 years when illness just would not allow it. One year I decided to write to Syd again saying how sad I was to be missing his show because I was poorly, and I wondered if he had done any videos I could buy from a catalogue. A catalogue duly arrived in the post with a wee note (in his writing) scrawled on it wishing me well, and hoping there was something I could get to cheer me up until my next concert. I still have the videos I bought and treasure them. My greatest joy was when Sydney granted me an interview in 2006 for my hospital radio show. Little did either of us know at that time, Sydney would require life saving emergency surgery the following year whilst in Spain. I think the operation happened in the October and he still appeared on stage at the Pavilion in the November. He was completely wiped out by the performance, yet still seen all the fans who stayed behind after the show. I distinctly remember being with two ladies (whom I’d previously met at shows) at the end of the queue. I had given them a CD copy of my interview and he signed the cover for them. We were all so concerned about Sydney we waited to see him into the car taking him home. In conversation as we waited, he had mentioned that his wife Shirley had refused to attend the show “to watch him die on stage”, and that she would be relieved to see him walk through the door. An absolute trooper who didn’t want to let his fans down!!!

And so to today and the Sydney Devine 40th Anniversary Show which had the usual format in the first half, band, comedian & singer. Starting the show was Sydney’s band Legend followed by comedian Eddie Devine (no relation) and singer June McCreadie. Extra fizz was added by singer/violinist Simone Welsh, who gave a scintillating rendition of the Scottish folk tune “Crabbit Shona” something I’d never heard before. Then in the second half came Sydney who can make every eye-brow raise, hip wiggle and pose speak volumes. The must-haves were there Maggie, Tiny Bubbles and The Answer to Everything along with many more as he didn’t stop singing until ten to eleven, having come on stage at ten past nine. As a sweat soaked de-jacketed Sydney Devine draped with the Scottish flag ended the show with Scotland Forever, I was overwhelmed by a powerful sense of belonging and that these were “my people”. There is a distinctive look about Syd’s audience who are the salt of the earth, the sort of folk whose faces tell the story of the realities of a working-class life that hasn’t always been kind. During shows the fans are quite literally one body and one voice accompanying Sydney. I make no apology if that sounds religious or spiritual because I guess for “Devineites” it is that kind of experience.

Two Cleland natives together. November 2013. Image credit abmj
Two Cleland natives together. November 2013. Image credit abmj

Sydney Devine is a curious phenomenon in Scotland who seems to conjure up feelings of either love or loathing in equal measure, there never seems to be a half way opinion on the Scots entertainer with the three octave range (a bit like Celine Dion). I am proud to call myself a lifelong fan of Sydney Devine, for without him I would not possess the sheer breadth of musical knowledge that I have. His music has given me much joy and I’ve looked forward to every one of his 24 concerts I’ve attended. So in closing I’d just like to say “thank you for the music Sydney, you are absolutely Devine, from Angela with love xxx”.

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SEABISCUIT & ARKLE: Parallels Between Two “Once In A Generation” Horses

Although there are some glaring differences between Seabiscuit and Arkle, the similarities in my opinion, far outweigh them. Each lived to be a similar age; Seabiscuit foaled 1933 died May 17th 1947, Arkle foaled 1957 died May 31st 1970; and raced in era-defining periods of time. Seabiscuit FLAT RACED during the depression years of 1930s America, whilst Arkle ran in STEEPLE-CHASE (jump) events throughout the UK and Ireland during the Swinging Sixties. Both horses’ exploits on the field held audiences captive, with millions in the US listening on radio to hear Seabiscuit news, and the medium of TV allowing the British public a chance to witness Arkle in full flight. Such was their popularity each horse could be described as the “Peoples Champion” of their day, making front page news and receiving get well messages from adoring fans from far and wide, after suffering serious injury. Seabiscuit managed a comeback to finally win the only accolade to elude him, but although Arkle recovered from injury a comeback never happened. Their career statistics are part of horse-racing folklore and both have been immortalised with a statue. Seabiscuit stands proudly at the Santa Anita Racetrack in California and Arkle at Cheltenham, the scenes of their greatest achievements. In fact more statues have been erected in their honour over the last decade, showing the reverence held for them both to this day. Earlier this year (2014) Arkle had a full-sized statue unveiled in his native Ireland, whilst Seabiscuit is honoured at Ridgewood Ranch where he lived and also in Alberta the home state of George Woolf.

Seabiscuit. Image Credit
Seabiscuit. Image Credit

Three Essential Ingredients: Owner, Trainer & Jockey

Both horses calibre of racing pedigree was never in question with Seabiscuit coming from mare Swing On and sired by Hard Tack, whilst Arkle was born from mare Bright Cherry sired by Archive. However that potential of latent talent endowed from good DNA stock needs to be nurtured. A combination of benevolent owner, an intuitive trainer and an instinctive jockey are also required to get the best from a horse.

Crooked legged and undersized Seabiscuit was initially trained by Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons who deemed the horse lazy. As a consequence of being unfairly labelled, the horse was raced heavily and whipped without mercy in his early years. In 1935 a juvenile Seabiscuit ran 35 low budget races and in 1936 his tally was only marginally smaller with 23 races run. With only fleeting success “The Biscuit” was offloaded in a claiming race to Charles Howard who probably got the bargain of the century at the time. The horse had found his benevolent owner who employed the intuitive Tom Smith as trainer. For the remainder of his career Seabiscuit came under the instinctive careful handling of Red Pollard as jockey. When Pollard was injured George Woolf took the reins in the Race of the Century against War Admiral. More lightly raced in his later years Seabiscuit bloomed to win 33 of his 89 career starts over six years and in the process broke several track records with his pace.

Watch the Seabiscuit v. War Admiral Duel known as the Race of the Century (held 1st November 1938) here.

In complete contrast to the American horse, Irish born Arkle (reasonable-sized and sleek limbed) enjoyed the care and attention of breeder Mary Baker at the Bally McColl Stud until the age of three. He was sold at sales for 1150 guineas, and the yet un-named horse came under the ownership of Anne the Duchess of Westminster. Whereas Seabiscuit ran 35 races in his FIRST SEASON Arkle ran a CAREER TOTAL of 35 races winning 27 of them, some with unbelievable winning margins (Sandown 1965 Gallagher Gold Cup by 20 lengths) and several involving track records. Pat Taaffe was the jockey who coaxed the best out of Arkle and trainer Tom Dreaper who nurtured the talent.

Arkle in full flight. Image credit
Arkle in full flight. Image credit

Great Weights, Great Wins and Terrible Injury

It was clear to the racing authorities that both horses were in a class of their own and as a result each was handicapped harshly. Both Seabiscuit and Arkle had to carry significantly heavier weights than their opponents and yet both still managed to win races with relative ease. Arkle’s supremacy even caused the rules of handicapping to be changed in the UK, and he set a Timeform Record with a rating of 212.

You can watch Arkle’s race of the century-his 1964 Cheltenham Gold Cup win here.

The Irish steeple-chaser won several top ranking events, but probably the three Cheltenham Gold Cup wins of 1964. 65 and 1966 are considered the most prestigious. Seabiscuit ran in the Santa Anita Handicap three times and really should have won them all. His big race was constantly dogged by unfortunate incidents. In 1937 the American bay colt had all but secured victory but was beaten by a nose at the photo finish. Jockey Red Pollard had eased off on the reins and literally didn’t see Rosemont gain toward the finish, because Pollard was blind in one eye! The following year Pollard was injured and George Woolf took the reins, with Seabiscuit giving as much as 30 pounds to his rivals. Victory at the wire (a bobbing head duel) went to Stagehand in 1938, and then in 1939 little more than two weeks before the big race, Seabiscuit suffered a ruptured left front suspensory ligament. Tom Smith tenderly nursed Seabiscuit back to health, and Red Pollard dragged his battered body back to a semblance of fitness. The scene was set for “The Biscuit” to make a comeback and he finally won that elusive Santa Anita Handicap title in 1940 aged seven with Pollard on board.

You can watch Seabiscuit & Red Pollard win the Santa Anita Handicap of 1940 here.

Seabiscuit had suffered his tendon injury mid race and yet still managed to come second in it. In a similar fashion Arkle suffered a broken pedal bone in his hoof in the King George VI Chase of 1966 at Kempton and ran on bravely to finish second, but Arkle never managed a career comeback.

Geographical & Equine Rivals

Seabiscuit represented the West Coast of the USA and his greatest rival was War Admiral from the East Coast. The only time they met was in the two horse Race of the Century in 1938 where it was said Seabiscuit broke War Admiral’s heart.

“I saw something in the Admiral’s eyes that was pitiful. He looked all broken up. Horses, mister, can have crushed hearts just like humans”. George Woolf quote in Laura Hillenbrand book Seabiscuit Three Men And A Racehorse.

Arkle represented Ireland and his big rival was English horse Mill House. They would race each other several times with Arkle being victorious in all but one of their meetings. Again it was generally felt that Arkle broke Mill House’s heart as well.

Interestingly both horses had stable rivals that could have been their equal. Arkle’s stable mate was Flyingbolt and it is said they only met once on the training ground, and never on the competitive race track. In Seabiscuit’s case his stable rival was Kayak II and they were regular sparring partners in morning workouts. When Seabiscuit was injured just before the 1939 Santa Anita Handicap, Kayak II took his place and won it. The following year Kayak II was close behind in second place to the victorious Seabiscuit.

Once In a Generation

Both horses were certainly individuals imbued with great courage, stamina, grit, talent, and possessed an amazing accelerator. Each displayed a quirky personality; I mean who could forget Arkle ploughing through a fence for example in his third Gold Cup win of 1966. Seabiscuit was decidedly temperamental at times but considering his early career and how he was treated it is not surprising. The racing style of both Seabiscuit and Arkle meant that they almost seemed to “toy with their opponents, teasing them to catch up” and yet NEITHER would be pushed around. Both established race records that stand to this day and considering the prize money they won, BOTH would literally have been worth their weight in gold. With their equine charisma and superstardom in their own day, Seabiscuit and Arkle can most certainly be attributed with that rare accolade of being a “once in a generation horse”.