Anyone who claims to have come of age in Cork during the 1980s and 1990s will have at least one story about Kenny Lee, the businessman, promoter and impresario whose death at the age of 84 was announced earlier this week.
Kenny was a forward-thinking presence in Cork entertainment circles for decades and his name is associated with some of the best-known and colourful nightclubs in the city’s recent history, The Pav and Bogarts among them. But it was as the hands-on chief at Spiders – the sprawling complex on Hanover Street that was later developed as Cubins – that he was at his most visible. Indeed there isn’t a fifty-something male in the greater Cork city area who wasn’t refused admission to Spiders by the man himself, often on the most spurious of grounds. Like being flutered or having your woolly cardigan tucked incorrectly into your Bowie pants.
The nightclub scene in Cork city sparked into life during the early 1970s once the country’s licencing laws were loosened up, the influence of television had extended and the clout of the showbands had been usurped by the arrival of a far more mobile – and cheaper – alternative: the disc jockey. And it was in this world that Kenny Lee became a lead architect. This aspect of local social history is worth a thesis in its own right and God help whoever is charged with clearing it legally for publication. But in as much as the lucrative dancehall beat made household names from owners and show-runners like Murt and Jerry Lucey and Peter Prendergast, those who ran Cork’s night-time entertainment circus in the 1980s were often as well-known as the premises they ran. But I don’t think any of them were ever better known than Kenny Lee, whose formidable reputation and slick personality preceded him: he struck the fear of God into many the saucy feen.
In this writer’s mind, Kenny will forever and always be associated with Spiders, which was like a finishing school for those who’d completed their primary education at the feral disco in Saint Francis’s Hall. You’d often hear Kenny’s name taken in vain by some of the cooler cohort and, in the strictly monochrome years that dominated the 1980s, he walked the walk like he talked the talk. He was a grandmaster of flash and was always decked out to impress. He’d regularly park-up right outside Spiders in his flash motor, often replete in top-of-the-range threads and dripping in bling. In his pomp he looked like a cross between Travolta’s Tony Manero and Paulie Walnuts from The Sopranos while acting like Cork’s own Saint Peter. Access beyond those pearly gates and imposing doors often took far more than the odd plenary indulgence or corporal work of mercy.
And it’s fair to say that Kenny ran a series of excellent shops too, even if the shifting, slobbering and scutting in Spiders was often on a par with anything seen during the last days of the Roman Empire. The duty jocks – several of them on night-release from the city’s fledgling pirate radio stations – would manfully play through the hits du jour but when the night needed a decent kicking into a different gear, Kenny would often take the mic himself and manoeuvre things back onto track. To ensure that not every spotty teenage oik went home empty-handed [‘I suppose a jag is out of the question?’], Kenny would announce a series of spot prizes that he’d award to the best dancers on the floor. For those fleet-of-foot young swains unsuccessfully chasing their end, there was often a consolation of sorts to be mined from Kenny’s treasure trove: ‘You can win a fiver… or a holiday in Ibiza’, he’d inform the revellers.
But Spiders wasn’t purely a pulling palace either. True to form, and in keeping with Kenny’s own sense of adventure, the club also ran a series of infrequent live shows by some of Ireland’s better young groups and I can recall a couple of cracking live shows there by the likes of Blue in Heaven and The Stars of Heaven, as well as some of the city’s most ambitious laboratory experiments. At which, unlike the club’s regular disco nights, most of the poses were struck on the stage and not around the alcoves and crannies.
Kenny Lee straddled several generations of live musicians and every genre of popular music known to man. He was a contemporary of Joe McCarthy and Sean Lucey of The Dixies and, like them, he attended the North Monastery school on the northside of the city. So it was more than mere co-incidence when, with most of his peers facing into retirements, he formed a late-stage relationship with the Dublin-based promoter, Peter Aiken. It was with Aiken that he worked on the ‘Live at the Marquee’ series of high-profile shows in Cork during the Autumn of his career. Peter Aiken’s own father, Jim, is the Armagh-born promoter who became the most influential figure in live Irish entertainment during the 1970s and 80s. Like Kenny Lee, he is another of those who were born in the 1930s and went on to cut their entrepreneurial chops as they developed the country’s live circuit out of all recognition in the post-dancehall era.
Kenny Lee was never a national figure, nor did he ever aspire to being one. The closest he got to enjoying a nationwide profile was off the back of a long-running legal action with the Revenue Commissioners that was concluded in 2021 and that ran for the guts of a decade. But to those of us who grew up in Cork during the 1970s and 1980s, he was the man who held the keys to the kingdom, the king of clubs. In any self-respecting history of popular entertainment in Cork, his name will resonate loudly: Kenny Lee made his contribution and its one that will be recalled fondly.