LARRY Kearns, the "creative, inspiring and humorous" force behind legendary folk band the Oldham Tinkers, has died aged 73.
Larry, who formed the hugely popular group in a pub with his brother Gerry and old school pal John Howarth in 1965, lost his short battle with cancer surrounded by his family in Dr Kershaw's Hospice, on Saturday.
Despite stepping back from performing at bigger venues after suffering from Dupuytren's contracture - a hand deformity - around 20 years ago, his creative influence was still an integral part of the band which marked its 50th anniversary last year, headlining Oldham Carnival and Saddleworth Folk Festival.
Among the highlights in his prolific folk career - in which his witty, colloquial and sometimes political and compassionate lyrics attracted fans from far and wide - The Oldham Tinkers played at the Queen's Silver Jubilee Royal Gala Performance at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, in 1977.
As they were lining up to meet the Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh alongside the cast of "Coronation Street", actress Jean Alexander, who played Hilda Ogden, asked Larry to hold her hand because she was so nervous. He agreed but when he turned to obliged he discovered she had fainted and was on the floor!
The Duke then asked the band which of them "had the twisted thinking to write a song about a ferret". Referring to Larry's "John Willie's Ferret" song, his brother Gerry said he had to own up.
As well as vocals, Larry, from Moorside, played mandolin and whistle but, says Gerry, he was the driving force behind the group and embodied the Oldham Tinkers.
"Larry had a strong influence on the ethos of the group, presenting us on stage and directing the group's character," said Gerry.
"He could be extremely witty and told a good story. He wrote some brilliant songs about Oldham such as 'In Our Town', 'The Owl of Oldham', 'Elsie Bell' and 'The Lark' as well the 'John Willie' songs."
In the first verse of "Skiing Owdham Style" he wrote: "You can keep yer slopes at Aviemore an' yer Alps of Eastern France, To yer winter sports in Austria we wouldn't go given the chance.
"Where do the Oldham top knobs go to gain their winter thrill?
"Oh they don their togs an' they point their clogs to the ski slopes on Counthill."
He also loved writing songs based on the ditties he would sing as a child living in the streets of post-war Oldham.
Such was the popularity and reputation of the Oldham Tinkers in the Seventies and Eighties they recorded background music for several plays written by Colin Welland of "Chariots of Fire" fame. They also performed for radio and TV on many occasions.
An LP they recorded in 1968 with fellow folk singers including Harry Boardman, from Failsworth, and Mike Harding became their label Topic Records' biggest ever selling album.
Despite bowing out of performing with the band, in recent years he was instrumental in running a folk song session at the Royal Oak, in Oldham, using his "characteristic style and influence" to help and encourage fans of the musical genre.
"He didn't really have any interest in performing on big stages after developing Dupuytren's contracture and although he had an operation it came back," added Gerry (69), from Mossley.
"He still sang though and performed in pubs and in front of family and was still involved behind the scenes.
"His place was taken by our sound man Dave Howard but Larry really was irreplaceable."
Larry - whose real name was Bernard but he became known by his nickname after a teacher labelled him "happy Larry" at school - was also renowned for his passion for rugby league and rugby union and was a much-loved teacher at St Anselm's School which later became St Augustine of Canterbury RC High School.
During his teaching training at Hopwood Hall College he spent a year working at a school in France where he learned to speak fluent French.
He coached Oldham's schoolboy rugby league team for many years and became a useful translator for visiting French teams.
His son Daniel said: "My dad will be missed dearly by all the family.
"He had numerous interests and passions, a notable one being rugby, league and union, where he needed no invitation to share an encyclopaedic knowledge of players past and present.
"However, it was music that stimulated him most, filling a void and enabling him to combine his love of storytelling and poetry.
"We would like to think he will live on in his songs, songs that will hopefully be enjoyed by generations to come, in the folk way."
Larry also leaves wife Nadia and children Joseph, Stephen, Ruth and Luke and grandchildren Anya, Oliver, Freya and Iris.
A funeral mass will be led by Father Eugene Dolan at St Edward's Church, Lees, on Wednesday, June 8, at 10am.
The Oldham Tinkers are going ahead with a performance at Oldham Coliseum on Saturday.
Reporter: Gillian Potts
Date online: 02 June 2016
This article was featured in the Oldham Evening Chronicle.
Reporter: MARTYN TORR
Date online: 18 March 2014
Martyn meets... the fabulous Oldham Tinkers
FIRST the good news: The Oldham Tinkers and are alive and well and rehearsing for a sell-out concert at the Coliseum in April.
April 9, to be exact — I promised to be in the audience and buy the guys a pint after the show, so I hope I can get tickets.
When I say “the guys”, I mean Gerry Kearns and John Howarth, still singing together 49 years on — and Dave Howard, who has been the third Tinker for 20 years (prior to which he was the band’s sound engineer).
An accomplished mandolin player in his own right, Dave stepped in when Larry Kearns, Gerry’s brother and one of the original Tinkers, had to take a lesser role after surgery restricted his ability to play - but not his creative juices, which continue to flow.
In fact Larry wrote most of the original lyrics to the classic Tinker songs; music that has underpinned the act for decades.
And now the other good news: the boys are planning a jubilee concert next year, to mark their 50 years together. That will be something special, though they don’t know where it will happen.
I suggested the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester - a fitting venue that would highlight their unique talents. I think my idea fell on deaf ears. They were very polite, though...
We were chatting in the bar at the Waggon in Uppermill about the life and times of an Oldham institution.
This was the first time I had spoken to any of them, though I have often watched them perform and delighted in the sheer joy of their shows. I suspect after a couple of hours of chat I had merely scratched the surface. Someone ought to chronicle their life and times.
The facts: three lads from Oldham (okay, John is 70 and Gerry 67) — because they remain impish and mischievous on and off stage. They are what they are, talented, amusing and exceptional company.
They chuckle at memories, their faces creased in genuine smiles as they recount the times they would rush out to sing every night, before families and commitments got in the way.
Have I mentioned the word “celebrity”? Neither John, who lives in Royton, nor Gerry, in Mossley, would ever admit to such a thing.
It’s a shame Larry is out of the loop these days, because his personality had a huge influence on the band.
He is Gerry’s older brother — 70 now, same as John. They started off singing in pubs as the Brothers Kearns, having picked up a love of music from their Irish heritage and their Dublin-born father Benny.
“Larry acquired a banjo,” recalled Gerry. “I had some piano lessons and, yes, our dad supported us and encouraged us to perform,” said Gerry.
They were happily doing their own thing while in a parallel career so was John, also of Irish ancestry. The two institutions met in the Highfield and Park pub in Waterloo Street and they formed a trio.
And the name? “We used to sing a song called the Jolly Tinker,” said John. “One night I suggested we call ourselves the Tinkers. We couldn’t, because it was already registered, but they allowed the Oldham Tinkers,” said John.
John recalled their first recording for Topic Records — reminded by Gerry that they had gone to London, recorded all the tracks and returned in a day - unthinkable in these high-tech days. Wistfully they looked at some of the songs listed on the cover of “Deep Lancashire”.
They were encouraged by good friend and fellow musician Harry Boardman, who had been the first to suggest the Tinkers concentrate on folk music.
“The LP did really well,” noted John. So did they make lots of cash?
“No, we just got a fee, like any other gig. It was shattering when we found out how many copies had been sold. But we were never motivated by money, we just wanted to sing and perform.”
Still, it wasn’t a mistake they repeated.
This was when Larry and Gerry were teachers and John was working for the NHS as a state-registered nurse.
And boy, did they perform. Oldhamers will recall them at the Grapes in Yorkshire Street, the Manor (now Hark to Topper) in Bow Street, the Lancashire Vaults in Manchester Street, the Sir Colin Campbell in Glodwick Road and the Oldham Hotel, recently demolished, where they had a four-year Sunday residency.
Memories came tumbling out: filling the Free Trade Hall on a Monday night, performing at Manchester’s Houldsworth Hall and the old Library Theatre for three successive nights. More and more recordings as The Oldham Tinkers, not compilations like the early works.
John and Gerry - and Larry in the old days, these days Dave - are far too modest and understated to put themselves up there with the greats.
John still performs every Monday at the Oddfellows in Middleton and Gerry — who put most of Larry’s lyrics to music — actually sang for me in the Waggon, effortlessly going through the words of of their songs.
They appeared on John Peel’s massively-popular radio show and were frequent guests on Rochdale fan Andy Kershaw’s Radio One programme. Their renewed fame on radio led to the reissue of their albums.
Playwrights Colin Welland and Henry Livings were devotees; Bernard Cribbins is a fan - he once collaborated with the boys on a play at Oldham’s Grange Arts Centre.
Did I mention there was more good news? Dave has been living in Ireland for the past decade, which meant the lads have been selective about their gigs. Now he’s living in Bury, which could mean more gigs.
So let’s all look forward to the jubilee gig. That should be a riot.
If there can be such a thing as an understated riot.