Gilbert - The Boxing Ring King

Source: Jackie

Writer: Dick Tatham

Date: 1974

"I've got news for you all..."

He remembers perking up with interest as his Mum came into the room saying those words.  He crowded round her with his brothers and sisters...

"We're going to live in England.  Your Dad's taken a job in Swindon..."

Gilbert O'Sullivan recalls he heard the news with mixed feelings.  It was 1958 and he was eleven years old.  He had lived all those years in Waterford - the town in Southern Ireland famed for its glassware.

He belonged to a large Catholic family.  He had spent many a pleasurable hour wandering along the banks of the river which ran through the town, and had came to know and love the surrounding countryside.

He was happy as he was.  One part of him didn't want to leave.  Yet another part thought it would be exciting to try something new.  Who knew what fate might bring in England?

His real name was Ray...Raymond Edward O'Sullivan...Today the star who is Gilbert looks back on that important move the family made 16 years ago...

"My Dad worked in the slaughterhouse of a meat factory in Waterford.  My Mum ran a sweet shop.  Home was a council house in the Cork Road".

"The Swindon job came up because Dad's firm also had a factory there.  Dad asked for the move because the money would be a lot better in Swindon."

Gilbert went to St. Joseph's Comprehensive in Swindon.  His best subject by far was art.  He began to think he might make a career in it.

He was also finding himself increasingly interested in pop music.

As for silent movies, he had been fascinated by them for a long time.  Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the Keystone Cops being his favourites.

He was a bright athletic lad - already showing skills as a boxer.

All seemed well in his world - he was really happy with his two sisters and three brothers.

But in 1960, not all that long after they had settled into their new home, a shadow fell on the O'Sullivan family.

Gilbert's father became ill.  For a time he struggled on at work.  When he had to give up and it was obvious he wasn't getting any better, it became clear there was something seriously wrong.

"My Mother had to take a job.  She worked terribly hard to bring us up well."

He found himself increasingly keen and successful as a boxer...His skill took him beyond the school and into public amateur contests - of which he was to have nearly 50.

"My best year", he recalls, "was between the ages of 14 and 15.  I got as far as the quarter-finals of the Amateur Boxing association junior championships."

"I forget where the fights in my section were held.  Possibly somewhere in Wales.  I know I had hopes of making the semis and finals at the Albert Hall.  But I ran up against a really tough bloke and was stopped in the second round."

Gilbert's Mum wasn't slow to notice his interest in music.  She decided it was a good idea for him to learn piano.  She bought an old upright for 5 and put it in the front room.  She arranged for Gilbert to have lessons.  They didn't last long.

"The trouble," Gilbert recalls, "was that the teacher would show me scales and then play a piece of music - telling me to take it home and learn it.

"I'd turn up the following week and play the piece.  But I hadn't needed to bother about the notes.  I'd simply remembered what she had played and went over it again by ear.

"When the teacher latched on, she was very nice about it.  She told Mum lessons were a waste of money.  So I carried on playing by ear.

"Then Mum bought me a guitar for Christmas.  She sent me to a classical teacher in Swindon.  I'm left-handed and she tried to make me play right-handed.  It didn't work out.

"In any case, classical pieces weren't my taste in music.  I was more interested in pop tunes like "FBI" and "Man Of Mystery"."

What fired Gilbert's zest for music far more powerfully than anything before was the burst to fame of the Beatles early in 1963.  They were young.  They were fresh and down-to-earth in outlook.

A captivated Gilbert not only bought their discs but began to compile a scrapbook of Beatles photos and press cuttings.

Meanwhile his painting and drawing had won him a place at Swindon Art College.  He started there in September 1963.  His aim: to be a graphic designer.

"The great thing about the Beatles," he recalls, "was they inspired so many people to form groups.  I hadn't been long at art college when I decided to try and form one."

"But could I get other blokes to join me?  And if I did, would we be a flop with audiences?  I just had to find out."