Billy Neely


Billy Neely (W. L. Corkill-Callin)

When this young artist's first record was issued on H.M.V. Last October, his beautiful tone and interesting choice of items caused great public interest. I think it will have to be agreed that in B10096 (Durante: Vergin tutt' amore and Marcello Ill Mio bel foco) we have THE FINEST EXAMPLE OF THE WORK OF A BOY SOPRANO THAT THE GRAMOPHONE HAS YET GIVEN US and as I write these words I have in mind the world-famous recording by Ernest Lough of Hear my Prayer. ...Gramophone Record, August 1951 (Moore Orr)

I can give high marks to Master Billy Neely for his singing of Peter Warlock’s The First Mercy and Gerald Moore’s arrangement of The Coventry Carol. He has essayed two difficult songs and acquitted himself very well indeed. And I think the singer would be among the first to say how much he was helped by Gerald Moore’s so careful and so sympathetic accompaniment. ...Gramophone, November 1951

NEELY3~1-sm.jpg (7844 bytes)I had almost given up all hope of ever finding the great Billy Neely whom I knew had recorded some really fine records in the early 1950s. Then, following an appeal in the Royal School of Church Music magazine, Church Music Quarterly, I received a letter from Dr. Harry Grindle who had been Master of the Choristers at St. Anne's Cathedral, Belfast from 1964 to 1975. He told me that Billy Neely had been a chorister there in the late 1940s when Capt. C.J. Brennan was organist; and he put me in touch with an old friend, Mr. Bill Adair who had known Billy Neely well in his youth. It was through him that I obtained the address of William Corkill-Callin who had sung as the boy soprano, Billy Neely. Mr. Adair explained that Billy had first been a pupil of Nan Shaw, a respected vocal trainer in Belfast. He had then become a pupil of Arthur E. Martin, a well-known trainer of boys' voices. It was Martin who really put him through his paces and was responsible for his later training. This led to his working with Havelock Nelson and the B.B.C as well as concert work in Belfast, around the Province, and in London.

It was then that I received a letter from Billy Corkill-Callin in France to say how surprised and delighted both he and his wife were to know that we were interested in featuring him on
The Better Land Volume Two. After a lot of searching through attics, Mrs. Corkill-Callin found all of Billy's recordings, carefully preserved on tape or direct disc together with scrap books so lovingly kept, charting his career as a boy soprano which he had put behind him so long ago.

Billy and his wife came to see me in London in early October 1999 bringing with them the precious recordings which we can now all enjoy for the first time. In fact, Billy told me that he himself had not heard them for over thirty years. 'I had forgotten how much I really enjoyed singing until we sat down and heard them last night: we were both in tears by the end of the tape'.

The recordings supplied by Billy represent just a fraction of his vast repertoire as a boy soprano.

It all started in 1946 when he joined St. Anne's Cathedral choir. In November 1948, at the age of thirteen, Billy won the Broadhead Trophy for boy sopranos at the famous Blackpool Music Festival. He was the first and only Ulster competitor from the Province, beating sixty-six boys from all over England, Scotland and the Isle of Man. The adjudicator, Miss Helen Henschel (the daughter of Sir. George Hehschel the baritone and friend of Brahms) said she had never heard such a beautiful voice. Interviewed afterwards by the Daily Record, Billy said that he preferred singing to anything else.

At school he would rather have mathematics than any other subject and that his hobbies included cricket and rugby.

The reference to mathematics is ringed in pencil by Billy, and I wonder if this represents an example of journalistic exaggeration!

In March 1949, he again came first at Blackpool gaining 177 out of a possible 200 marks. Master Joseph Dorian of Dumbartonshire came a close second. As soon as they knew the result, the two boys congratulated each other, picked up their coats and cases and hurried to catch the night boat to Belfast where they were competing the next day.

Billy had been a regular contributor to Northern Ireland Children's Hour for some years. At the age of thirteen he played the lead in the Children's Hour pantomime, Jack and Jill, which went out from the Belfast Station on December 18th 1948. He was very busy broadcasting during the whole of the following two years. By 1949 he had his own slot on the wireless. In September of that year, his picture appeared in the Radio Times to accompany the listing which announced that Master Billy Neely, fourteen-year-old boy soprano would sing in a programme with the imaginative title of
SONGS sung by Billy Neely (boy soprano). The songs included The Fairy Tree by Vincent O'Brien; The Violet and Alleluia by Mozart; Five Eyes by Armstrong Gibbs; and Cherry Ripe arranged by Liza Lehmann. We are very fortunate to have a direct disc recording of Cherry Ripe, which we believe to have been taken from this broadcast in 1949.

Billy was sponsored in a number of concerts by the Northern Ireland Tenor, James Johnston. Christmas 1949 was a busy time and he broadcast from the Ritz Belfast on December 20th with Norman Hawkins, baritone, Eddie Pearl at the piano, the Ulster Singers, directed by John Vine, and Joseph Seal at the organ.

Also that week he was soprano soloist in 'A Rendering of the 'Messiah'.' His next big engagement was in London when he took to the concert platform early in the new year of 1950. En-route to London with James Johnston and Arthur Martin, who was organist at the Albert Hall, Shankill Road, Billy sang in St. Thomas' Church, Manchester. It was during this visit to London that he recorded several titles including Arensky's Six Children's Songs at Abbey Road for H.M.V. with Gerald Moore at the piano. He was also introduced to the famous soprano, Elana Gerhardt who later taught him much about Lieder singing.

Upon his return to Belfast he broadcast again, this time for Radio Eireann with the baritone, Arthur Martin. He was soon back in London, and on May 20th was the guest of Henry Hall in his famous Guest Night programme. The items broadcast live included Let the bright Seraphim from Samson by Handel. He also recorded more discs for H.M.V. -again with Gerald Moore at the piano. This time, upon his return to Belfast, he was described as Ireland's highest paid boy singer.

'He has travelled thousands of miles with his music case under his arm, and has been introduced to half-a-dozen leading musical figures in London. Two weeks ago he appeared in Henry Hall's Guest Night and when he returned home a call went round to "bring the boy back". So they are bringing the boy back. He is to have a further appearance with Henry Hall. And a singing contract which will occupy Billy in Belfast (singing at the King's Hall, Belfast every night for two weeks in September) will net him close on £100 in fees

James Johnston says Billy has a voice of remarkable clarity and that his singing of songs in Italian and German stamps him as an artist of brilliant promise.'
...Sunday Press.

A few months previously, in March 1950, Billy made the ambitious decision to be the first boy ever to enter for the Senior Lieder Class in the Belfast Music Festival. Accompanied by Samuel Barron, a young Queen's University student, they commenced work on two pieces in German, one of which was Röslein Dreie in Der Reihe. They met strong competition from fourteen other much older candidates, but scored the most brilliant triumph of the festival when he took first place. The adjudicator, Ronald Briggs, said that it was a triumph not only for his vocal ability but also for his musicianship. Billy was awarded 178 points. In second place was Margaret Shanks with 171 points.

By this time, Billy had left Bangor Grammar School and was attending a business training college. In June, he appeared as Don Ettore in Haydn's Opera, La Canterina (the songsters) which was produced in Belfast by Dr. Havelock Nelson.

Billy Neely, as the love-sick boy, looked the part and displayed his distinctive voice in this and the two solo items to good effect.

From 27th September to 21st October, he appeared in Cabaret both at the Belfast and the Midlands' Ideal Home Exhibitions, appearing at the latter as Belfast's own Boy Soprano.

In his second appearance on Henry Hall's Guest Night on August 5th. 1950, Billy sang Ave Maria and Smilin' Through. And throughout September, Billy took part in a C.E.M.A. Tour of Northern Ireland beginning at the Protestant Hall, Ballymena on the 18th and concluding at the Guildhall, Londonderry on the 26th. Mr. Havelock Nelson, the official B.B.C. Accompanist was at the piano..

There was a resounding burst of applause for Master Billy Neely when he appeared (at The Protestant Hall), and when he began to sing there was not a movement in the hall. This talented lad, who has conquered hearts all over the United Kingdom with his beautiful voice, made yet another conquest on Monday Evening

Interviewed after the concert at the Royal School, Portora, Enniskillen on Monday, 25th. Billy was described as singing with all the artistry, assurance and ability of a prima donna of twenty-five years' concert experience.

Happily, he is unspoilt; he is just a lively, lovable lad of fifteen, whose only wish after the concert was to play tennis with one of the boys. I asked him was his voice tired after the concert? "No," he replied, "I only sang twelve songs." And, I may add, two encores.

At Newry, on Friday evening, Master Neely was suffering from a slight cold, but gained the full confidence of the audience. Schubert's Who is Sylvia (sung as a compliment to the younger members of the audience) was beautifully phrased and presented in true Lieder style.


At the closing night of the tour at Guildhall, Londonderry, the reviewer found the concert a most exhilarating experience. Unfortunately, he felt compelled to report an exhibition of extreme rudeness by a Roman Catholic "lady" in the audience who believed that it was opportune to stage a "demonstration" of her own during the playing of the National Anthem. When Mr Cole started playing, she thought it was the right moment to walk down the isle, continuing between the audience and the stage, and out. Now the pianist, quite unnecessarily, in my opinion, had intimated that the anthem would follow his rendering of an encore. Yet this person remained for it, and directly insulted the artist. The reporter continued to denounce this effrontery for two more paragraphs!

Following this hugely successful tour, Billy appeared in London with the Ormiston Choir of Belfast on 3rd November where he sang six solos, including Hear my Prayer. Other concerts followed including another performance of the Messiah on 13th December.

Billy's final appearance as a boy soprano was a broadcast of Grand Hotel in the concert Hall of Broadcasting House, London on Christmas Eve. Sadly, only Billy's script survives. In Billy's own hand is written over the typed script
I should like to sing for you an Irish song arranged by Herbert Hughes-----It is called A Ballynure Ballad .

Billy's records sold for many years after his voice had broken. What a pity that so many of the transcription discs were destroyed. But those recordings that do survive on H.M.V. 78 and other discs are a remarkable record of his great talent and glorious voice.

'I wish I could do it all over again', he said to me after reading the draft of his story.

As Lawrence Neely, he was soon the possessor of a fine baritone voice with which he distinguished himself, gaining both the Seguin Scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in 1954 and four years later, the William Robertshaw Exhibition. He now lives in France with his wife and family.

Additional notes from Volume III

Billy Neely began his career as a chorister, aged eleven, with St. Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast. Two years later, he won the Broadhead Trophy for boy sopranos in the Blackpool Music Festival. Billy became a regular contributor to Northern Ireland Children’s Hour and by 1949 he had his own slot on the wireless where he sang many songs, including the Cherry Ripe on volume two, which was taken from a broadcast disc.

In 1950 Billy won first prize in the Senior Lieder Class in the Belfast Music Festival, singing among other Lieder Röslein Dreie in der Reihe and scored the most brilliant triumph of the festival when he took first prize beating all the adult female contestants.

Billy’s name is still legendary in the Province and he has been subject of an hour-long feature for BBC Ulster, including many of the discs which appear on volumes two and three of The Better Land.

Many of Billy records have never been heard since that early 1950s, and like all the others have been expertly re-mastered by Martin Monkman of Amphion Recordings.

Billy Neely (Billy Corkill-Callin), Denis Wright and Derek Barsham recently appeared together in concert at Wesley’s Chapel, London to mark the launch of The Better Land. We believe it is the first time ever that two professional ex-boy sopranos have sung together as adults.

Additional notes from "The Better Land - Volume IV"

Derek Barsham, Billy Neely & Graham Payn

Billy Neely provides  gems of real delight; Derek Barsham’s artistry is again heard to particularly fine effect. ...Donald Webster, Choir Schools Today, December 2000

On this CD we feature Billy Neely's earliest surviving discs taken from  live broadcasts in the Northern Ireland Children's Hour in 1949, together with his last two recordings, a particularly fine interpretation of Hear my prayer, and the Irish patter song, Kitty my love,  the latter broadcast live on October 7th 1950 in the Light Programme.  It was the last time he broadcast as a boy soprano.

Also featured is one of Derek Barsham's final broadcasts - as the Tsarevitch Feodor in Moussorgsky's Boris Godounov, recorded April 30th 1947.   Two days later, he sang his last as a boy, a few months short of his seventeenth birthday.

Full biographical details for both Derek Barsham and Billy Neely are to be found in the notes accompanying Volume II  of The Better Land.  Their discs also feature on Volume III.  Graham Payns remarkable story is to be found on Volume II and his records are featured on the second and third volumes.

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