Frank O’Farrell Obituary
Pioneering Irish musician Frank O’Farrell passed away in late October in New York. Born in Dublin in 1945 within close walking distance of national stadium Croke Park, Frank was the eldest of eight children born to Michael and Margaret (nee Doyle) O’Farrell. His father was a carpenter by trade as well as a talented fiddle player who toured with showbands throughout Ireland in the 1930s and 40s. When Frank was 13 in 1958, his father decided to move his young family to London to seek opportunity. This move proved difficult for the young Dubliner, and he experienced hostility and discrimination at school frequently simply for being Irish. But he learned to be a fighter, and his “Fighting Irish” spirit remained with him for his entire life.
Rock and roll was exploding in the UK in the 1950’s, and like many kids at the time Frank picked up a guitar as a teenager. With an adventurous spirit and desire to see the world, he joined the British Army in 1962 at the age of 17 and was stationed in Hamburg during the same period that the Beatles spent time in the city before they became household names. He spent 4 years in Germany learning fluent German along the way and honing his craft as a guitarist when not performing his duties as an army radio operator for the Royal Signals.
Frank returned to England in 1966, heading back to London in the height of the swinging 60s. By then The Beatles, Rolling Stones and a plethora of British bands were dominating the global musical landscape. An ambitious musician himself, he began gigging in pubs and clubs around the city and developed a reputation as an impressive example of what became known as a “one-man band.” He would sing, play guitar, and the harmonica through most songs. He also pioneered the use of early drum machines, using his left foot to control the beats and fills of the rhythm section, and his right foot to control a number of different effects on his guitar. In later years, he would use his right foot to control synths connected to his digital guitar to expand his sound even further. He also played the bassline on songs as he simultaneously strummed the guitar chords.
This wildly impressive “full band” sound was embellished by a charismatic, humorous and magnetic personality. He would sprinkle multiple dirty jokes and stories of his escapades throughout his sets each night, entrancing his audiences and developing a cult following. A perfectionist about musicianship, Frank integrated and worked with a number of bands through his early career, but in reality, he was more of a spectacle as a solo artist. His sets would often continue for up to 6 hours for nearly four decades, and his encyclopedic knowledge of hundreds of songs ensured each performance was unique.
Frank released his debut album “Tryin’ To Live It Down,” in 1975. With Irish, country and rock influences, it included a number of original songs, including the title track and was well received. In 1980, he wrote one of his better known recordings about the loss of his relationship with his estranged young son “I Used to Rock You”. It gained radio airplay and created a more expansive fan base.
Looking for musical inspiration, Frank set his sights on America. He arrived in New York City for the first time in February 1982. He was 37. New York would remain his home for the next 35 years. He quickly developed a new US fan base for his performances and stagecraft. In early 1985 he met a talented 27-year-old vocalist called Raphaelle Ward. Like Frank, she also hailed from the greater Dublin area and had recently emigrated to New York. They started performing together and became romantically involved. Naming their band Erin’s Pride, they quickly became one of the most popular Irish musical acts in the North-Eastern United States. Both charismatic and talented singers, they had great chemistry on stage. Expanding the band to sometimes 5 pieces, they remained extremely popular in Irish music circles for well over a decade, releasing five successful albums between 1986 and 1997 and headlined Irish festivals up and down the East Coast from Boston to Florida.
Erin’s Pride peaked in commercial popularity in 1988 with the release of their hit album “When New York Was Irish”. That album went on to sell over 100,000 records. The band sold well north of 300,000 albums independently through their career with four other albums: “Here in America,” (1986); “For You,” (1990); “It’s Our Anniversary” (1993); and “May the Road Rise to Meet You” (1997) before parting ways in 1998 shortly after the release of their fifth and final album.
Soon after, Raphaelle returned to Ireland and Frank continued performing as the Frank O’Farrell Band for a further 5 years. Sadly, he developed a debilitating heart condition in 2003, retreating to Long Island and retired from touring. But he did continue to appear as a guest vocalist for a number of bands up until his final years. After a 14-year struggle with his condition, O’Farrell died from heart failure on October 30th 2017. He was 72.
Buried in Commack, New York, Frank is survived by his only child Dylan, daughter-in-law Jenesse, and grandchildren Finnbar & Suzanne O’Farrell. They live just outside of San Francisco in California. He is also survived by siblings Marie McDonagh in Roscommon, and Ronald & Canice O’Farrell of Ipswich, England and their families. Frank's memory, like his music, is forever in their hearts and souls.