The soft-spoken singer, who is in his early 40s, has long been a success in Ireland, England, Germany and Australia. With a repertoire that includes a mixture of ’60s-era pop songs and Irish ballads, the media-appointed “mammy’s boy” has charmed hearts in many counties. However, he has yet to make inroads in the U.S. market.
If the buzz around his upcoming tour is anything to go by, however, that’s about to change. O’Donnell is coming to the U.S. today, April 30, to kick start a month-long schedule that will take him from Pennsylvania to New York, Canada, Chicago, Texas and a number of points in between. At least three of the 14 scheduled shows had sold out by last week.
Thanks largely to two PBS television specials, O’Donnell’s reputation precedes him. He recognizes this as an incredible opportunity and realizes the extra pressure that that brings.
“A lot of people are going to the shows in America for the first time,” he said last week from his home in Donegal. “They enjoyed the programs, and so there is that expectation. That creates great excitement.”
The two programs to which O’Donnell referred are “The Daniel O’Donnell Show,” which aired last year, and “Daniel O’Donnell and Friends,” which has been airing since last month.
Before the shows aired, fans had to turn to Irish shops or the internet in order to buy his albums. Now mainstream stores are stocking his ballad-tinged, country-and-western-styled music. O’Donnell also has a new feather in his cap with recently developed songwriting skills.
Like everything else, it seems, he has taken this new venture in his stride. “It wasn’t very difficult,” he said, describing the writing process. “I just had never been inspired before.”
The genesis of O’Donnell’s foray into the American market started a few years ago at the Albert Hall in London. Diane Bliss, a vice-president for Detroit Public Television, had been advised to check him out by a friend in the recording business.
“My job is to find new talent that will appeal to our audience at home,” she said. “Don’t forget that it was PBS who brought ‘Riverdance’ to the public.”
Bliss enjoyed the concert but was amazed at the reaction of the rest of the audience.
“The effect he had was the most important thing,” she said, “how he touched and moved that audience.”
Bliss, who is 58 and married to an Irish man, admitted to being moved herself. “I caught myself singing along too,” she said.
She was convinced that she had stumbled upon the next big thing but found it difficult to convince the necessary people to make a show featuring the Donegal-born singer.
“The person in charge of purchasing for PBS came with me to the concert,” she said. “He swayed to the music and really enjoyed it, but when I asked him about doing a program on Daniel, he said absolutely not. It was not the sort of thing he wanted.”
In time, he was replaced by another purchaser at PBS who was as uninterested as his predecessor. Bliss tried a third person, this time approaching a different distributor. She was refused again.
Detroit Public Television had, in the meantime, aired a show of a Daniel O’Donnell concert that got a positive response from the public. Bliss was increasingly convinced about the potential of O’Donnell’s particular brand of charm.
She made a fourth attempt. “I sent a video of the program we had aired to a person at PBS,” she said. “I cushioned it with crumpled dollar bills which would fall out when the package was opened and wrote in a note, ‘Need I say more?’ He went for it.” This had the desired effect and soon, PBS and O’Donnell descended on Killarney to film a concert.
Bliss is not surprised at the positive responses that the O’Donnell shows have garnered. “I knew as soon as I saw him in concert that people like my mother and aunt would love him,” she said. “People in their older years love to be reminded of happy memories. They might be able to sing along to a song they danced to at their wedding.”
O’Donnell talks about his career with a nonchalance that belies his ambition.
“I don’t know if I will have success over here,” he said. “I am starting all over again in a new place.” He claims not to know wherein lies his appeal but the clean-cut singer has presented a non-threatening pastel-fronted look consistently for years. He seems to be delighted by this new challenge and, refreshingly, seems to lack the over-the-top introspection that accompanies many successful entertainers.
The singer, considered by many to be a confirmed bachelor, surprised fans by marrying Majella McClellan a year ago. McClellan is hoping to join him for the start of the tour. Her two teenage children, from a previous marriage, are in boarding school.
His wholesome, milk-fed image has proved challenging to gossip columnists who can’t seem to find anything unsavory about him. O’Donnell claims to be unconcerned about the media interest in is private life. “I don’t get uncomfortable about speculation, I love what I do,” he said.
The singer’s favorite charity, the Romanian Challenge Appeal, has benefited from his interest. To date, he has raised more than euro 1 million to help the children.