A Larger Than Life Gentleman

ITB chief Barry Dickins has a story about when he was a young agent at M.A.M. in the ’70s and first met "this larger than life Irishman called Jim Aiken," who asked him why he didn’t have any of his acts playing Ireland.

"I told him that it was too dangerous to send my artists there," said Dickins, taking up the story.

"Then I talked the Kinks into playing in Ireland and went with them. The audiences were fantastic and I have been sending acts to Ireland ever since. Bob Dylan loves Ireland.

"Jim was the man that put Ireland on the touring map and was always a pleasure to deal with, he was a gentleman and had a great sense of humor. He was the only promoter that I have ever shook hands with for a deal. Contracts were not really necessary, as Jim’s word was his bond. The artists that worked with Jim loved the man."

The tributes that followed the news of Aiken’s death, from a short illness aged 74, make it clear that everyone who met him – from music business entrepreneurs to leading Irish politicians – also loved the man.

"Riverdance" star Michael Flatley certainly did, saying just that in a tribute that also described Aiken as a "straight shooter" and being "a father figure to me."

"I was kind of on my own and big Jim came and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with me and helped me to launch my own show," he told BBC News.

"I dare say if it wasn’t for big Jim Aiken I wouldn’t have got this show off the ground. Just about everybody in show business in Ireland would have a similar story about their careers."

Niall Stokes, editor of Hot Press, described him as a towering figure in Irish music.

Tributes and condolences have poured in from a host of international acts including Sir Cliff Richard, who spoke of the "trust and respect" he had for the promoter.

Denis Desmond of Dublin-based MCD, Aiken’s much younger rival in the Irish concert business, described his death as very sad news and said, "Jim was an inspiration. He set the standard for concert promotion in Ireland and was always the perfect gentleman."

When colleagues describe Jim Aiken, it seems "gentleman" is a word that can never be overused, as if – even in a highly competitive music industry – the term and his name are somehow synonymous.

The politicians took exactly the same view with former taoiseach (Irish Republic leader) Albert Reynolds describing him as a "perfect gentleman."

Reynolds, who’d spent some time as a promoter himself, also described him as a "true friend."

"He was a delight to do business with – you couldn’t meet a nicer chap."

Current president Mary McAleese, who made a private visit to his house just days before he died, expressed her "deep sadness" and praised him for his great vision in developing shows at Stormont Castle, Belfast, home of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and for "bringing world-class performers to this island."

Apart from convincing agents like Dickins that they should bring their acts to Ireland, despite the fact that U.K. news programs showed footage of the troubles almost nightly, he’ll be best remembered for opening up Stormont – in the wake of the Good Friday peace agreement – getting acts like Sir Elton John, Rod Stewart, Eagles, and Luciano Pavarotti to perform there.

Irish journalist and broadcaster Eamon Mallie, a close friend of Aiken’s for 30 years, said his one big regret in life was that he never brought Elvis to Belfast and praised him for "keeping the light burning in Belfast at a time when the walls were falling down around the place."

Born in Jonesborough, Co. Armagh, Aiken spent three and a half years studying for the priesthood and taught in a Belfast primary school before being drawn toward show business because he wanted to buy a car.

"I didn’t have a lot of money and I wanted a car," he told Ireland’s Business Eye in an interview published in March 2005. "I’d always had an interest in entertainment, so I started to run dances and look after the odd band … just to fund the car, you understand."

He began promoting Irish show bands while still in his 20s and moved on to traveling the world and encouraging top stars to perform in Northern Ireland. Charlie Pride and Neil Diamond were also among the acts to hear Aiken’s call and perform in Belfast.

Those who’ve known him longest and best will be aware that he was a sportsman of some note in his younger years, representing County Armagh at Gaelic football. He also took a keen interest in horse racing and rugby.

He’s survived by Anne, his wife of 47 years, son Peter – who has headed Aiken Promotions in recent years – and daughters Claire, Susan, Cathy and Joan, and 11 grandchildren.

Jim Aiken died peacefully at his South Belfast home February 27th. His funeral was held locally a couple of days later.