2002 – Chieftains’ harpist Derek Bell dies unexpectedly during a recovery period from minor surgery in the United States.
Derek Bell, the versatile harpist with the Chieftains, one of the most celebrated Irish traditional bands, died in his hotel in Phoenix. He was 66 and lived in Belfast.
The Chieftains, led by Paddy Moloney, have been acclaimed for their role in the revival of Celtic music. Mr. Bell, a virtuoso of the Celtic harp, played the piano and electric keyboard as well as the oboe, English horn and hammered dulcimer. He was also a composer and a classical musician on several instruments.
The band, currently appearing as a quintet, was visiting the United States as part of its 40th anniversary tour.
Derek Bell was born in Belfast. A child prodigy who wrote his first piano concerto at age 12, he studied at the Royal College of Music, learned to play the oboe and studied the piano further in the United States.
He appeared with symphony orchestras in Moscow, London, Budapest and Pittsburgh. At one time he was principal oboist and a horn player for the American Wind Symphony Orchestra.
Mr. Bell did not add the harp to the instruments he played until the 1960’s, when he was manager of the Belfast Symphony Orchestra and was recruited to tune its harp collection. He studied the instrument formally and went on to become principal harpist and second oboist of the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra in 1965.
He joined the Chieftains in 1972 and soon became an integral part of its quest to reclaim the tradition of Irish sounds. He also pursued a successful solo career while working with the band.
In 2000, he was named a member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to traditional Irish and classical music.
The Chieftains are a traditional Irish band formed in Dublin in 1963, by Paddy Moloney, Sean Potts and Michael Tubridy. The band had their first rehearsals at Moloney’s house, with Tubridy, Martin Fay and David Fallon. Their sound, which is almost entirely instrumental and largely built around uilleann pipes, has become synonymous with traditional Irish music and they are regarded as having helped popularise Irish music across the world.
Paddy Moloney came out of Ceoltóirí Chualann, a group of musicians who specialised in instrumentals, and sought to form a new band. The group remained only semi-professional up until the 1970s and by then had achieved great success in Ireland and the United Kingdom. In 1973, their popularity began to spread to the United States when their previous albums were released there by Island Records. They received further acclaim when they worked on the Academy Award-winning soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick‘s 1975 film Barry Lyndon, which triggered their transition to the mainstream in the US.
The group continued to release successful records throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and their work with Van Morrison in 1988 resulted in the critically acclaimed album Irish Heartbeat. They went on to collaborate with many other well-known musicians and singers; among them Luciano Pavarotti, the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Sinéad O’Connor and Roger Daltrey. The band have won six Grammys during their career and they were given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the prestigious BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2002. Some music experts have credited The Chieftains with bringing traditional Irish music to a worldwide audience, so much so that the Irish government awarded them the honorary title of ‘Ireland’s Musical Ambassadors’ in 1989. In 2012, they celebrated their 50th anniversary with the release of their most recent record Voice of Ages.
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