The Fureys breathed new life into When You Were Sweet 16 and were rewarded by having a huge hit record.
The song had been recorded by some top artists in the first half of the 20th century such as Al Jolson and Slim Whitman but it fell out of fashion after the arrival of rock ‘n roll in the 1950s.
It was largely forgotten when The Fureys decided to play it at a show in 1980. They had learnt it from their father Ted, who was an accomplished fiddle player and a mentor to his sons.
They had no intention of recording it at that time and only played it to please their mother who loved the song having heard in her youth.
When the show was over she told their version was terrific and told them they should record it.
They took her advice and released the song as a single in 1981. It was immediate success and gave the band their first major hit.
The Fureys version of When You Were Sweet Sixteen reached number one in the Irish charts. It also got to number 14 in the UK and to number 9 in Australia.
The song’s success not only gave the band an immediate financial boost, more importantly it brought them to a much wider audience – much wider than they had been able to achieve by touring, even though they were one of the hardest working bands on the folk circuit at that time.
It boosted the audience numbers at their concerts and paved the way for more chart success with The Green Fields of France.
The success of song owed a lot to plaintiff vocals of Finbar Furey and, of course, his banjo playing.
The song begins with Finbar improvising an intro based on the melody. It’s simple yet the notes ring out with crystal clarity – so much so that for many people, the banjo playing is the highlight of the song.
The Fureys also released a video to go with their recording of When You Were Sixteen.
It was their first venture into pop videos and featured the band dressed smartly in tuxedos – far removed from the casual clothes they usually wore on stage. They didn’t look particularly comfortable and Finbar, perhaps because of the rebel within him, removed his tie.
The video featured the band performing the song interspersed with shots of a young girl dressed in traditional Irish clothes and running across village greens etc at appropriate times to match the lyrics.