Elvis Costello’s Musician Father (and Doppelgänger) Performing in 1963

If you were an Eng­lish boy grow­ing up in the 1960s, and your dad met the Queen mum, you’d come away with some pret­ty heavy duty brag­ging rights.

What if your dad didn’t just meet her, but com­mand­ed her atten­tion for a full three min­utes… an event you wit­nessed on the tel­ly, along with 21.2 mil­lion oth­ers?

That’s what hap­pened to young Declan Patrick McManus, or Elvis Costel­lo as he’s more com­mon­ly known these days.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, his musi­cian father Ross’s calyp­so-inflect­ed, Tri­ni Lopez-inspired ren­di­tion of Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Ham­mer” at the Queen’s annu­al Roy­al Vari­ety Per­for­mance was over­shad­owed by anoth­er act in the evening’s line up: The Bea­t­les.

This was the per­for­mance where John Lennon famous­ly solicit­ed the audience’s par­tic­i­pa­tion on “Twist and Shout”:

For our last num­ber, I’d like to ask your help. The peo­ple in the cheap­er seats, clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you’d just rat­tle your jew­el­ry.

So, Ross McManus played for the Queen Mum (and Princess Mar­garet) and all lit­tle Declan got was a great anec­dote for his 2016 mem­oir Unfaith­ful Music & Dis­ap­pear­ing Ink and a thought­ful sou­venir:

Even­tu­al­ly I couldn’t pre­tend that I real­ly cared whether he’d… shak­en hands with the Queen Mum. I blurt­ed out:

“Did you actu­al­ly meet The Bea­t­les?”

It had obvi­ous­ly been a long night or an ear­ly morn­ing, as my Dad wasn’t that talk­a­tive. He mum­bled some­thing about them being very nice lads. Then he reached into a jack­et slung over the back of his chair and pulled out a sheet of thin air­mail paper and hand­ed it to me.

I unfold­ed it, and there were the sig­na­tures of all four of The Bea­t­les on one page. I’d seen repro­duc­tions of their sig­na­tures in enough mag­a­zines and fan club lit­er­a­ture to know that these appeared to be the real thing.

The ink seemed bare­ly dry.

What I did next will bring tears to the eyes of those who make a fetish of such objects, but I had only a small auto­graph book and the paper was too large to be mount­ed in it. 

I care­ful­ly, if not so very care­ful­ly, cut around each of the sig­na­tures, lop­ping off the e of the “The” in “The Bea­t­les” and past­ing the four irreg­u­lar scraps of paper into my album.

McManus the Elder took anoth­er crack at “If I Had a Ham­mer” when he and oth­er mem­bers of the Joe Loss Orches­tra were invit­ed to reprise their roy­al per­for­mance in the 1965 short The Mood Manexcerpt­ed at the top of this page.

Clear­ly, the acorn didn’t fall far from this tree!

Father and son seem more like twins here:

the horn-rimmed specs…

The vibra­to…

That vin­tage style!

(Speak­ing of which, Costel­lo con­fides that his father was oblig­ed to wear long johns under his off-white suit “after the tele­vi­sion direc­tor claimed that his flesh could be detect­ed through the thin mate­r­i­al … under the tele­vi­sion lights, which would be bound to scan­dal­ize the roy­al par­ty.”)

The two also shared a will­ing­ness to exper­i­ment with assumed names. Ross McManus found suc­cess in Aus­tralia with a cov­er of The Bea­t­les’ “The Long and Wind­ing Road” as “Day Costel­lo” — sur­name com­pli­ments of his grandmother’s maid­en name. (Oth­er han­dles include “Hal Prince” and “Frank Bacon and the Baconeers.”)

Elvis Costel­lo spent enough time in his old man’s orbit to rec­og­nize the dis­em­bod­ied hands play­ing the con­ga drums in the open­ing shot shot of McManus’s “If I Had a Ham­mer“ — Bill Brown’s, tak­ing a bit of a busman’s hol­i­day from the bari­tone sax­o­phone.

And he acknowl­edges his own per­son­a’s debt to his dad, cit­ing the sec­tion where  he “lip-synchs the hell out of the num­ber, mim­ing ‘ham­mer of jus­tice’ for all it’s worth”:

The close-ups that come on the repeat­ed line, “It’s a song about love between my broth­ers and my sis­ters” are eerie to behold for the sim­i­lar­i­ty of our facial expres­sion at about this age, and espe­cial­ly when singing par­tic­u­lar words.

Where my Dad holds the advan­tage over me is in his dance moves. 

Those are steps that I am yet to mas­ter.

Costel­lo also notes that his father gave him a bit of a pro­fes­sion­al leg up in 1973, when he got him hired for back­ing vocals on a musi­cal ad for R. Whites Lemon­ade:

For some rea­son, the pro­duc­er asked my Dad to deliv­er the song in a mock Elvis Pres­ley voice, while for the back­ground part, they want­ed “R. Whites” punched out so that it sound­ed like the “All right” on a Swing­ing Blue Jeans record. I sup­pose the adver­tis­ing peo­ple thought the kids would dig it… giv­en that my Dad and I could eas­i­ly approx­i­mate a suit­ably nasal Mersey sound, we cut the parts in a cou­ple of takes. It wasn’t exact­ly the big time, but there was still a thrill to hear­ing your voice come back off the tape, even if you were singing some­thing far­ci­cal. 

The ad made a last­ing impres­sion. If there’s a club for British peo­ple who watched TV in the 70’s “secret lemon­ade drinker” may well be the pass­word. (Costel­lo, under­stand­ably, was not pleased when a tabloid’s brass decid­ed it made a fit­ting head­line for his tal­ent­ed, well-known father’s obit­u­ary: “Secret Lemon­ade Drinker Dies.”)

The first Secret Lemon­ade Drinker ad’s pop­u­lar­i­ty jus­ti­fied var­i­ous sequels over the years, par­tic­u­lar­ly when fans got hip to the 19-year-old Costello’s involve­ment.

He was, in fact, more involved than many would real­ize.

As he recalls in his mem­oir, the orig­i­nal record­ing ses­sion turned into an impromp­tu cast­ing ses­sion for an alter­nate, albeit far hard­er to find online, take:

The ad men took a look around the stu­dio and decid­ed to cast this sec­ond ver­sion of the com­mer­cial from the musi­cians on the ses­sion. The drum­mer and hip­pie gui­tar play­er cer­tain­ly looked the part, but the pianist and bass play­er were old­er more con­ser­v­a­tive­ly dressed and didn’t real­ly fit the bill. Giv­en our then more fash­ion­able hair­styles, my Dad and I were recruit­ed to mime the key­board and bass parts, and we spent the day tak­ing and retak­ing the thir­ty sec­ond clip, lip-synch­ing the “R. Whites / All right” back­ground part with as much ani­ma­tion as we could man­age by take forty six.

Behold!

Costello’s rela­tion­ship with his father — also the only son of a musi­cian — is a prime top­ic of his 688-page mem­oir.

It’s not only easy, but worth­while, to truf­fle up online evi­dence of Ross’s record­ing career. There’s even a rare, ear­ly 80s duet between father and son…

For some intel on Costel­lo’s moth­er Lilian’s influ­ence, read his mov­ing trib­ute from ear­li­er this year, writ­ten short­ly after her death.

h/t to read­er Greg Kotis.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

See the First Ever Video of Elvis Costel­lo Per­form­ing, Sum­mer 1974

The Stunt That Got Elvis Costel­lo Banned From Sat­ur­day Night Live (1977)

Elvis Costello’s List of 500 Albums That Will Improve Your Life

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­maol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.


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