(Post by Paul Fitzpatrick, of London – February 2021)
I’ve always had a curious relationship with Billy Connolly.
Not that we’ve ever met.
I call it Christopher Columbus syndrome – You find an artist, hear a song or read a book that hardly anyone else knows about, you become an early adopter and spread the word, and before you know it everyone loves them – with people even asking you if you’ve heard of them!
It drives you mad because you’re obviously the one that DISCOVERED THEM, and if it wasn’t for you unearthing their great talent and spreading the word, they’d be nowhere (without you!).
In some instances you can even begin to resent their newfound fame – they’re getting greedy or they’re overreaching or they’re forgetting where they come from, or some other daft notion.
Welcome to my relationship with Billy Connolly.
The first time I heard Connolly utter a word was on the Pavilion stage in February 1974.
There was a buzz around the relative unknown who had sold out several nights at the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow, something only Sydney Devine (Scotland’s answer to Elvis) could do back then.
My pal Barry Smart suggested we get tickets and despite the fact we were both 15 part of the plan was to find a pub and go for the full Friday night Glasgow experience.
We duly found a wee working mans pub round the corner from the venue, and foraged for a seat out of view. Being a Friday the pub was busy with artisans finishing their shifts for the weekend.
We must have stood out like sore thumbs.
I think Barry braved the first approach to the bar and I was amazed but delighted when he came back with 2 halves of lager and 2 vodka and oranges’.
A ‘hawf and a hawf’ was the working mans tipple, so who were we to challenge the established order of things.
The drinks were downed pretty quickly, and our confidence grew as we enjoyed a few more bevvy’s before floating off down the road to the Pavilion Theatre in good spirits.
Stand-up comedy in the 70’s was dominated by middle aged men who wore suits and bow ties and told gags about their mother in law or minorities or Germans bombing their chip shops.
Billy Connolly was different though he was younger, he spoke our language and looked like a welder on acid.
A bit like listening to the first side of Led Zeppelin IV for the first time, Connolly literally took our breath away.
I had never laughed so long or so hard before, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t since, although Jerry Sadowitz has come close a couple of times.
Connolly was loud, gallus, hilarious and the audience loved him because his stories were relatable, he was one of us.
I remember hearing the Crucifixion sketch for the first time that night, it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard, he was irreverent and didn’t give two hoots about poking fun at religion or sectarian taboos or bodily functions or the establishment, no topic was off limits to the Big Yin.
It was a memorable evening; from the nervous bus-journey into town wondering if we’d get huckled for underage drinking, to the journey home, fish supper in hand, trying to recount all the jokes and patter and remembering we had to be up early as we were both playing football for the school the following morning.
We were so smitten by Connolly that we spent the next couple of weeks spreading the gospel, telling everyone we knew how great he was, mostly to blank faces…. no one had heard of him.
His career started to take off after a live album of the Pavilion material was released and within a year Connolly had sold out an unprecedented 12 nights at the Glasgow Apollo, and appeared on Parkinson for the first of his record breaking 15 appearances.
The guy was everywhere and also showed off his acting chops by appearing in a powerful Peter McDougall TV play called ‘Just Another Saturday’ which was about West of Scotland culture, beliefs and sectarianism.
Showing that his popularity wasn’t confined to Scotland, Connolly headlined a London gig for the first time
There’s a picture that was taken in 1975 by Ronnie Anderson, a well known Glasgow newspaper photographer, that is my favourite Connolly portrait.
The occasion was an after-party in The Dorchester for the first of Billy’s sell out shows at the London Palladium in 1975, and it features – Billy, Alex Harvey, Jimmy Reid the shop steward, Hamish Stuart from AWB, Frankie Miller and Jimmy Dewar (a musician from Stone the Crows and Robin Trower Band).
A motley crew of 6 Glaswegians toasting their mate’s success in a foreign land.
It was an archetypal rags to riches story, the guy had gone from zero to hero in the space of 18 months, but it was around this point that I started to think the Big Yin was overreaching.
The catalyst was probably when Connolly appeared on TOTP with a number one single, a parody of Tammy Wynette’s Divorce.
A parody single? That was for Benny Hill and Rolf Harris but not for the Big Yin!
I’d also noticed that his accent had started to soften, replacing his harsh Glasgow brogue with a ‘Lulu style’ mid-Atlantic inflection.
Of course, I look back now and understand that he wasn’t over-reaching, he was just ‘reaching out’ to a wider audience. The guy was a welder turned folk singer turned comedian, he had no idea how long this gravy train was going to run for.
He was simply making the most of his opportunities
As Connolly got bigger so did his global reach, hanging out with Hollywood celebs and Royalty and appearing in big budget movies and hosting TV specials.
There was a point where he seemed to be everyone’s favourite comedian, but he probably wasn’t mine anymore.
I had discovered American stand-up, guys like Richard Pryor, Steve Martin and Bill Hicks, and I liked the cut of their jib.
I still liked Billy and I would go the odd gig, but comparing his newer, more mainstream material to his earlier stuff was like comparing Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” to “Superstition”.
There’s no doubt that Connolly has had a fantastic career, he’s adored by millions and he is and always has been a wonderful ambassador for Scotland.
As he’s got older, I think he’s got back to being a bit more irreverent and a bit more outspoken, and that’s the Billy I like.
I’ve loved stand-up comedy since I was 15 thanks to the Big Yin, he was my first and one of the best.