Category: Archive

Buddy, can ya spare a tenor?

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Eileen Murphy

Singer John McDermott owes everything to chemistry — both personal and industrial.

At 44, he’s a member of the phenomenally successful Irish Tenors group, as well as an international star in his own right, with five solo albums to his credit. But before he launched his professional singing career, McDermott was a wage slave at a Toronto chemical company.

"I spent 12 years working there," he recalled during a break in rehearsals for the Tenors show in Boston last week.

"It was a good job, and I was in it a long time. Then a job opened up at the Toronto Sun newspaper — they were one of our clients — so I decided to join the paper."

McDermott was assigned to the circulation department, where he worked for 10 years. It was there that he began singing for his co-workers.

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"I was the subscriptions manager," he recalled. "Single copy sales," he added with a laugh. "But I was also the guy who would sing any time, anywhere. At the water cooler. At parties. Anywhere."

In 1991, McDermott channeled his love of music into recording a special CD in honor of his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.

"I recorded all the old songs that they loved — the ones we used to sing at family get-togethers," he said. "Nothing happened for a while."

McDermott kept his day job, forgetting about the album until one day, a couple of years later, when a friend gave the CD to an account executive at EMI Records. The executive’s reaction was enthusiastic, and he quickly licensed the rights to the record and signed McDermott to a contract.

The album, now titled "The Danny Boy Collection," sold more than a million copies, and McDermott’s new career was launched. Soon, Sun subscribers would have to contact someone else if they missed an issue. It was time for McDermott to take his place in the spotlight.

The singing McDermotts

After just a few minutes of conversation, it becomes clear that singing comes as naturally to John McDermott as breathing.

"We all grew up with singing," he said.

"I’m not just referring to Anthony Kearns and Ronan Tynan and myself," he clarified quickly, referring to the other members of the Irish Tenors group. "I mean my family. Your family. Everyone sings when they’re young."

He gave a short laugh. "I guess I just never stopped."

McDermott comes from a large, close-knit Scots-Irish family. The ninth of a dozen children, he’s the only professional singer in the clan, but says that the family was very musical.

"We’d have get-togethers every Saturday night, we’d sing all the old songs," he recalled fondly. "My father, who passed away in 1995, had the most wonderful voice, very powerful and rich. I only wish I had a voice like his."

John’s parents, Peter and Hope McDermott, emigrated from Ireland to Glasgow shortly after they married in 1941. Peter enlisted in the Royal Air Force and fought in World War II as a tail-gunner. When John was 12 years old, the family moved to Canada and settled in Toronto.

The elder McDermott’s combat experience, combined with family memories of a great-grandfather who fought in the American Civil War and an uncle who died during a Japanese death march in World War II, inspired McDermott’s keen interest in war veterans.

His latest album, "Remembrance," is a collection of songs from different eras, all linked by their association with wartime. From the stirring Civil War anthem "Battle Hymn of the Republic" to the wistful World War II ballad "I’ll Be Seeing You," the album underscores the futility of war and conveys the emotions of the men who served. Proceeds from one of the songs, "The Wall," benefit homeless veterans in the United States.

An instant hit

McDermott’s involvement in the "Irish Tenors" project began last year, when he was approached by PBS to film a special called "The Irish Tenor."

"The principals in my show met up with a couple of people who were putting together a show with Anthony and Ronan," McDermott said. "They asked if it would be possible to hook the three of us up together. I thought, ‘Well, let’s meet them first.’ "

McDermott went to Dublin to meet Kearns and Tynan, and found that the chemistry between them was perfect.

"They’re a great couple of guys," he said. "Very much dedicated to their own careers. Ronan’s a doctor, you know, and Anthony’s very much into studying opera.

The show, its name now pluralized, was filmed in Dublin before a capacity crowd at the RDS last October. The video debuted on PBS stations across America in March, and quickly became the network’s top Irish fund-raising program.

"This tour is only possible because of the video, and because of PBS," McDermott said. "It brought us, and the music, to such a wide audience."

He’s not surprised, however, that the "Irish Tenors" show became a cultural phenomenon.

"At the risk of sounding arrogant, no, it’s not a surprise," he said. "The songs are so familiar, so old . . . I think there’s a silent majority that knows — and loves — these pieces."

Opera schmopera

McDermott dismisses critics who charge that he doesn’t belong in the tenors group because he’s not a classically trained performer.

"I couldn’t sing opera if my life depended on it," he said frankly. "And I have no interest in doing so."

"Anthony and Ronan are trained in opera. I’m not. The presentation and interpretation of the songs is very different for the three of us, which also comes through in the trios."

He paused for a moment.

"I guess my response to that kind of criticism is, ‘Who cares?’" he said slowly. "The songs are beautiful, and we do a good job on them."

"We’re not trying to be operatic tenors," he said with a hint of exasperation in his voice. "If we were, I wouldn’t be a part of it, because I can’t sing opera."

"And," he added, "that’s not what we’re singing."

When it came to deciding on the songs for the program, McDermott said that the each singer chose pieces that had special meaning to him. This led to some overlap.

"Of course, I would have loved to do ‘Boolavogue,’ but that’s a very personal piece for Anthony," he said. "When Ronan sings ‘The Town I Loved So Well,’ he does it with incredible passion."

McDermott’s pieces included "The Old Man," "Voyage" and his signature song, "Danny Boy."

"If I could add a number to the show, I’d love to do ‘The Lark in the Clear Air’ or maybe ‘She Moved Through the Fair,’ " he said. "But I’m happy with the show as it is."

If audience response is any measure, the chemistry’s perfect.

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