The Johnstons

By Nicholas Wall

The Johnstons – a talented family group of singers started singing in their father, Marty’s, pub in Slane, Co.Meath in the early sixties. They consisted of Adrienne, her younger sister Lucy and brother Michael. They sang Irish ballads and popular folk songs of the time which went down very well with the customers. Michael played a twelve string guitar and the girls sang harmonies. Sometimes the pub piano was in use.

Word soon spread about this group and they did a few gigs in the Dublin area. They then, after only a few weeks together as a group, came to national prominence by winning the first Wexford Ballad Competition in February 1966. They won £100 and a slot on the Late Late Show. Luci was then only sixteen and still attending school. From this they were offered a recording deal by Pye Records and had one of their first releases, a cover version of Ewen McCall’s “The Travelling People” reach number one spot in the Irish pop charts setting them off on a whirlwind of touring, television and more recording.

Later that year Michael reluctantly left the group and the girls were joined by Paul Brady and Mick Maloney. The Johnstons were influenced by American singers like The Mamas And The Papas and Joni Mitchell. Their popularity increased in Ireland and in 1968 they signed with the UK’s premier folk label Transatlantic, on which they released six albums in five years. They were the first act ever to release two albums on the same day, The Barleycorn and Give a Damn.

With this success they decided to relocate to London in 1969. Lucy didn’t like the idea and stayed in Dublin leaving sister Adrienne as the sole original Johnston. Here they enjoyed wider success and remained there for three years appearing regularly on British television and radio and touring all over the U.K. Many 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 America where their first gig was with Joan Baez on Boston Common in front of twenty thousand people. They played at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1971 from which they received favourable reviews in the American media. Amongst other gigs they did a couple of week long sessions at Gerde’s Folk City where Dylan had started off some years before and The Johnstons were the first act to open the legendary Bottom Line Club in New York city.

Mick Maloney left the group in 1971 leaving the Johnstons as a duo comprising of Adrienne Johnston and Paul Brady to record the final album “If I Sang My Song” in 1972. The album was made up of all original material written by Paul, Adrienne and her husband, American songwriter Chris McCloud who had taken on the role of producer. After Paul went his own way Adrienne recorded one solo album Adrienne Johnston of the Johnstons in 1975 and then returned to Ireland and rejoined Lucy for some TV work here.

Adrienne Johnston returned to the States where she died tragically in 1981. Mick Maloney went back to college and became head of the folklore dept. at Penn State University and got deeply involved in the development of Irish folk music in North America. Lucy Johnstone is a well known and successful photographer in Dublin. Paul Brady became a major songwriter and solo artist. Michael Johnstone stayed at home to run the family business.