Frankie Gavin was born in Corrandulla, on the eastern side of Lough Corrib in County Galway, in 1956. There was a lot of music in the family. His father played the fiddle. His mother, Mary Crehan from Ballygar, and her brothers all played music on either fiddle or accordeon. His brother Sean plays the accordion and two sisters, Noirin and Marion, are involved in music.
He has been playing music since around the age of four when he started on the tin whistle. He made his first TV appearance at the age of seven.
His formal training was confined to some lessons from Martin Rabbitt in Galway who taught him to read music, but he is largely self-taught and has an unusual capacity for learning music by heart. In 1973 he won the All Ireland under-18 fiddle championship: the runner-up that year was Liz Carroll of Chicago, who went on the win the title herself in the following year. He also won the All Ireland flute competition. He listened at home to the early US recordings of Coleman and Morrison and has always had a high regard for the latter.
In the early 1970s he started playing at the sessions in the Cellar Bar, Galway, with, among others, Alex Finn, the late Mickey Finn (no relation), Johnnie (Ringo) MaDonagh and Charlie Piggot. The sessions moved to Hughes’ Pub in Spiddal and in 1973 De Danann was formed. His Currandulla connection came in useful when De Danann were looking for a singer, and it was he who came up with Dolores Keane from nearby Cahirlistrane. When De Danann brought out their first album, her singing of The Rambling Irishman gained a lot of airplay for the group.
Although De Danann has had many highpoints over a quarter of a century, particularly with the singing of Dolores Keane and Maura O’Connell and the box playing of Mairtin O’Connor, Frankie Gavin’s fiddle playing has always been a central feature of its repertoire.
Exposure to American audiences began when he played with De Danann at the American bicentennial celebrations in Washington DC with artists such as Junior Crehan and Micho Russell.
Nuala O’Connor, writing in The Irish Times in 1995, described him as a precociously gifted traditional musician. “Gavin was drawn at an early age towards the 78-rpm recordings of Irish American musicians such as Coleman, Morrison, The Flanagan Brothers, John McKenna and Joe Derrane. It undoubtedly had a liberating effect on his own playing.”
She continued: “From his immersion, on the one hand, in the traditional repertoire of the regional hinterland of Galway, Clare and Sligo/Leitrim, and his excursions of the farthest reaches of 78′s archives, came a vast store of tunes and a familiarity with arrangements and settings.”
He also has a gift for absorbing and switching between styles and evidently has paid detailed attention to the variety of Irish regional styles. Philippe Varlet wrote of him: “Frankie Gavin’s fiddle playing is technically complex, unabashedly brilliant, and has a pronounced, driving swing which harks back to the sound of the 1920s.”
He had been central to De Danann’s experiments with pop and baroque with their wonderful interpretations of The Beatles Hey Jude (where they lift the tempo through jig to reel time) and Handel’s The Arrival of the Queen of Sheeba (in Galway). While their late 1990s interpretation of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody went down well with festival audiences, its many tempo changes proved unsettling for CD listeners. De Danann finally disbanded in December 2002.
He has collaborated with a diverse range of artists, from The Rolling Stones and Keith Richards to the late Stephane Grappelli and Yehudi Menuhin. He arranged and recorded the original soundtrack for the TV series The Irish RM.
In July 2001 he released the album, Fierce Traditional, which appears to mark a return to more traditional values. He told The Irish Times: “I feel that traditional music today is taking on a new slant altogether . . . which doesn’t have the slightest appeal to me whatsoever. And I felt that this (CD) was a statement about holding on to the real roots of the music. I feel that a lot of newer recordings are full of people playing ‘trendy’ music, with anything from drum kits to new compositions and groovy tunes which don’t sound the slightest bit Irish to me. ”
In 2007 he formed eclectic band Hibernian Rhapsody with long-time accompanist Carl Hession on piano, ex-De Dannan accordionist Derek Hickey, Tim Edey on guitar and vocalist Michelle Lally. Harmonica player Rick Epping is an occasional guest member. The group combines Irish traditional, blues, jazz and classical.
In June 2009 he said he was reforming De Dannan and the new group would be launched at the World Fleadh in Castlebar on August 5. The group has the same line-up as Hibernian Rhapsody, minus Carl Hession. However on July 23, Alec Finn, a co-founder of the original De Dannan, said that the “De Dannan” name belonged to him. See Ramblinghouse
He lives near Oughterard on the west of the Corrib, with his wife Tracey Harris and their children. His violin is a German-made copy of a Guarnaerius. He has recorded seven solo albums and 16 albums with De Danann. His traditional compositions include The Drimneen Reel and The Wren’s Nest. In October he was awarded an honorary Masters Degree by his local university, NUI Galway.
Fierce Traditional, with Brian McGrath, (Tara), 2001
Jigs and Jazz, with Stephane Grapelli, 1993
An Irish Christmas, Frankie Gavin, 1992
Frankie Goes to Town, Frankie Gavin, 1989
Om?s Do Joe Cooley, with Paul Brock, 1986
Croch Suas E, Frankie Gavin on flute, fiddle and tin whistle, 1983
Traditional Music of Ireland, with Alec Finn, 1977