The Johnstons, Adrienne, Lucy her younger sister and brother Michael started life in the early 60’s as a talented family singing group in Slane, County Meath in Ireland’s east midlands. Moulded in the folk style popular at the time, they sang Irish ballads and contemporary folk songs, Michael playing 12-string guitar and the girls singing harmonies. Offered a recording deal around 1965 on Pye records they had an unlikely stroke of fortune in that one of their first releases, a Ewan McColl song ‘The Travelling People’ went straight to the number one spot in the Irish pop charts setting them off on a whirlwind of touring, television, radio and more recording.
After a year or so and realising that they needed to develop musically, they recruited Mick Moloney from Limerick, a singer and instrumentalist whose influences stretched from the skiffle era heroes like Lonnie Donegan and Chas McDevitt, to the Clancy Brothers, to folk singer-songwriters like Pete Seeger and Ewan McColl.
Moloney also was beginning to become an Irish traditional music virtuoso and authority, an attractive asset to The Johnstons. With groups like Sean O’Riada’s Ceoltoiri Chualann, traditional music was beginning to come out of hibernation in Ireland in what was the genesis of what is now the huge worldwide Celtic music phenomenon. Moloney quickly established himself as the dominant musical force within the Johnstons.
At this time (1966) Paul Brady was in his R’n’ B phase while studying (supposedly) Irish and French at UCD in Dublin. Living in an apartment in a house in Ranelagh with some Derry boys, he heard the music from the room below where Moloney, Donal Lunny and Johnny Morrissey as the Emmet folk group rehearsed into the night. A friendship was struck up. Moloney and Brady were both at UCD, Lunny at the Art scool in Kildare St. Things were changing for Paul Brady. In a period of transition at college where he had quit the r’n’b band Rockhouse in a futile attempt to concentrate on studying, he was at a loose end musically. The huge crossover between music forms, folk, blues, soul, pop and traditional music which was the hallmark of the 60’s worldwide was beginning to hit Dublin. At after-pub parties, get-togethers, people were playing records of a guy called Bob Dylan. Heady times.
Paul drifted closer to folk music. Folk clubs were opening up throughout the city and before long he was back doing folk concerts in UCD or on stage in Harcourt St’s ’95’ club, The Coffee Kitchen, The Old Sheiling in Raheny or The Embankment Tallaght, this time singing acoustic blues, Leadbelly and Mississippi John Hurt, Mike Seeger and Hank Williams opening in bars for headlining acts like The Johnstons. Moloney and the Johnston girls noticed. It was inevitable that Moloney, who was getting frustrated with the musical limitations of group member Michael Johnston would want to make some changes. Paul Brady’s increasing interest and expertise in Irish folk music, (plus the fact that he lived upstairs!) made him an attractive alternative. The Johnston sisters, also wanted to develop.
After some familial soul searching and ‘negotiations’ Michael reluctantly left the band and Paul Brady began his career as a full time musician joining the band in the summer of ’67. Things quickly developed. The Johnstons success in Ireland snowballed bringing them to the notice of Transatlantic records, one of the successful new folk/ acoustic music labels in London. Visits were made, deals were signed and in 1968 the new look Johnstons released their first UK distributed album called simply The Johnstons known affectionately at the time as ‘the white album’. A year later they were the first act ever to release two albums on the same day, The Barleycorn and Give A Damn. Albums didn’t take a year to make or a fortune to produce in those days. The ‘two records’ idea was to show the two sides of the band.
The Barleycorn was an album of traditional songs and instrumentals while Give A Damn was entirely contemporary with fully arranged versions of songs by Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, Ewan McColl, Jacques Brel and closer to home, Jon Ledingham and Shay Healy.
The band moved to live in London in January 69 leaving behind Lucy who wanted to stay in Dublin and as a three-piece they based themselves in England for the next three years, appearing regularly on British television and radio and touring all over the UK. Frequent trips to Germany, Scandinavia and Holland followed. Eventually, on the back of a minor US hit with a cover version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ they went to the States where they appeared at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1971, played support to a young Bonnie Raitt in Tuft’s College Boston, did a couple of week long sessions at Gerde’s Folk City where Dylan had started off some years before and were the first act to open the legendary Bottom Line club in New York city.
Strains, however, were beginning to appear in the artistic direction of the band, Moloney favouring the traditional direction while Adrienne and Paul wanted to move into uncharted waters. Inevitably, Mick Moloney left around the end of ’71 and though talented English musician, Gavin Spencer, joined for a year or so, the band’s days were numbered and in 1973 things ground to a halt and they went their separate ways. The Johnstons made four other albums, Bitter Green, The Johnstons Sampler, Colours Of The Dawn and If I Sang My Song between 1969 and 1972 all of which were deleted later in the ’70‘s.
Recently, however some have been re-released on Essential records, a division of Castle Communications PLC. A hugely popular and influential band of the period, The Johnstons slipped into relative obscurity over the past two decades. Their influence remains however in that many of the songs they introduced to the 60’s folk world on record, The Lark In The Morning, The Lambs On The Green Hills, Fiddlers Green, Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore, The Curragh Of Kildare have become classics and are essential items in the repertoire of any self respecting Irish Ballad group from Vancouver to Tasmania.
Adrienne Johnston, the lead singer died tragically in 1981 having remained in USA after the band split. Mick Moloney went back to college eventually becoming head of the folklore dept at Penn State University PA and getting deeply involved in the development of Irish folk music in North America. He still plays regularly and makes records from time to time. Lucy Johnston is a well known and successful photographer in Dublin. Paul Brady has moved on a little bit too.