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The Nashville Musician  - January-March 2001 

McDermott Tends to Charities, Concerts

By Walt Trot

    Renowned tenor John McDermott is a soldier in the battle to help North America's veterans have a fighting change for a better life.

    McDermott was in Nashville to perform a Celtic Celebration, combining forces with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Irish fiddler Eileen Ivers and the Nashville Pipes & Drums for two concerts at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.  His "Danny Boy" finale earned a standing ovation from the TPAC crowd.

    The Canadian-based artist was one of PBS' trio of Tenors, whose St. Patrick's Day telecast last year won over American audiences, via their booming vocals on Irish ballads and other folk favorites of the Brish Isles.

    McDermott cites some stylistic differences between him and co-stars Anthony Kearns and Ronan Tynan: "They have their own focus and their own careers...and they're more into opera, and I wouldn't know opera if it kicked me in the teeth.  I'm a ballad singer.  I sing songs.  Anthony is very much, in the true sense of the word, the operative tenors.  With Ronan, it's a hobby.  He's a doctor by trade...he's into sports medicine."    

       Due to the death of his mother, John was unable to participate in a sort of command performance follow-up PBS-TV special last January: "I had my mother's funeral to think about, so I said, 'Guys, get someone else.'  They replaced me with a fellow (a former priest) named Finbar Wright, a great Irish tenor in his own right.  He's very similar to Anthony, in that he's studies opera, as well.  They've asked me to do a guest spot here and there, and I do that."

    One such guest spot was on the "Irish Tenors' Live in Belfast" album, released in 2000.

    John was in the Belfast audience to see his friends perform when their Music Director Frank McNamara invited him on stage.  McDermott then sang his late mother's favorite ballad "The Last Rose of Summer," which was recorded for the CD and video.

    "We haven't spent a lot of time together," explains McDermott.  "I've met them for two shows, a total of about eight days, and we toured for 12 dates (summer 1999).  They were great.  They were fabulous."

    McDermott, who points out the Nashville dates marks his first performance in Tennessee, has a fascinating history.  He was born in the Glasgow suburb of Priesthill, Scotland, the ninth of 12 children of Irish-heritage parents Hope and Peter McDermott, who in 1965 immigrated to Canada (when John was 9 years old).  Initially they lived in a cramped two-bedroom downtown Toronto apartment.

    Today, John's home is still Toronto, though the singer has a residence in suburban Boston and hold dual Canadian-British citizenship.  His wife, Agnieszka, is Polish.  Except for a wee bit of Canadian on certain words - John's accent is even less pronounced than ABC nightly news' anchorman Peter Jennings'.

    The tall, curly-haired tenor was in his10th year working at the Toronto Sun daily newspaper (as Circulation Manager), when out-of-the-blue he embarked on a music career.

    "On October 5, 1993, my first show was in Halifax (Nova Scotia).  That was with the band I now have - and a few others.  I've had amazing luck being in the right place at the right time.  I knew as soon as I got on stage that this is what I wanted to do," recalls McDermott.  "I'm blessed because when I got into this business, I was 38 and I'd had 20 years of working.  The beauty of it is, I'm not burning a path...I'm having a good time - and I'm focused on two areas of society that are important, and I think that we all have to focus now on, and that's our seniors and our veterans."

    For him, it began with promoting WarAmps in Canada, an organization of amputee veterans, who had lost limbs or suffered other wounds in battle.,  An unabashed sentimentalist, McDermott launches a tour of promoting his veterans' tribute album "Remembrance," which helped benefit the cause.  

    "We do move about quietly doing our business.  It's not very high profile, but it does a lot of good work," adds John, whose dad was a tail gunner in England's Royal Air Force in World War II, and his mother's soldier-brother Michael (Mick) Griffin Jr., died in an infamous Japanese-run POW camp (celebrated later in Pierre Boulle's novel and the subsequent classic movie rendering "Bridge On the River Kwai").

    His 1999 album "Remembrance" and a U.S.-Canadian tour to promote it, was a salute to vets, who also realized a percentage of the proceeds.  Its music consisted of songs popularized during battles of yore, including "Battle Hymn of the Republic," "Faded Coat of Blue," "One Small Star," "I'll Be Seeing You," "Christmas in the Trenches," "Lili Marlene" and "Green Fields of France." 

    Now in Washington, D.C., there's a place called the John McDermott House, which he points out if currently home to veterans, who were homeless and hope to get their lives back together:  "They can stag there as long as it takes to do that.  We have people that will help support what they're trying to do.  There's a Buddy System in place to guide them,.  It helps them do resume, to focus on what they're best at, maybe find a job, get a bank account, you know, to get them back to where they once were.  Then, when they're ready, hopefully, they an graduate so-to-speak and move on."

    According to the artist, "Once they have a full-time job, we start looking for an apartment for them outside the facility.  There are lots more veterans who can replace them.  All of that may take from three to six months, but eventually they do find a place and they get settled."

    More recently, a new branch opened in Boston - the Hope McDermott Center - named in honor of John's late mother: "It's also for the chronically homeless."

    Why Boston? "Well, Boston was our first foray into the United States and it's become a base, a headquarters for us in the U.S.  It's special in the sense that I have a tremendous number of friends in that part of the country."

    McDermott's 10th album, being released this month, is "A Day to Myself."

    "It's all contemporary.  The title track is the story of a fellow who goes to France...and rather than taking in the sights and scenes, he goes for a walk and stumbles across a small corner place where there's some foreign soldiers buried.  This starts him to to thinking about how selfish he's been - and at least he's going to see his beloved again, which these fellows never had the chance to do."

    Another number that touched McDermott is "Love Remembers When."

    "Dean McTaggott is a wonderful writer.  This piece he wrote about his aunt Anne.  She was married to the dame man for 45 years, but in the last five he had Alzheimer's.  She often wondered when he stared out the window, did he remember her in those quiet moments, and the love that they had.  In the end, it didn't really matter because she remember for both of them."

    It's a prerequisite that the song move him before he will record it.

    "Absolutely.  It's got to touch me.  I always loved 'Waltzing Mathilda,' so I tracked down the guy who wrote it - Eric Bogle (a Scot who emigrated to Australia) - and I ended up taking him out on tour with me.  One of the great memories I have is seeing somebody sing a song that they wrote.  I think that's a memory people coming to our concert will carry with them for the rest of their lives.  They say the writer, the real source where the song came from, and heard him stand up and tell the audience what inspired him to write it.  I had him go out and do his 'The Green Fields of France' and the band played 'Waltzing Mathilda.'

    "I feel it takes on a new dimension when you know the history behind a piece.  Everybody thinks 'Danny Boy' is an old (19th century) tune," continues McDermott.  "It's an old tune, but the lyrics weren't written until 1913.  The guy who wrote the lyrics also wrote 'The Rose of Picardy' and 'Jerusalem the Holy City,' two magnifiiant pieces.  He wrote the lyrics to 'Danny Boy' based on a conversation he had with an old Scots historian in a pub in 1905.

    In a joint agreement with the writer, McDermott recorded Vietnam veteran Tim Murphy's haunting tribute "The Wall," earmarking royalties from the song for support of homeless veterans.

    Another touching memorial John initiated, honors his parents.  During his concerts, John places a scarf, hat and cane center stage: "Yes, when I tour with my own band, I have a little travel case which contains my dad's hat and cane, and my mother's scarf.  They sit there on stage with me.  It's nice memories and I enjoy talking about my family to the audience.  I share little stories I remember while growing up.  When you grow up in a  large family like mine, the rules are pretty simple:  Get to the dinner table first, get to the bathroom first and get to the bed first.  That's about it."

    McDermott first recording effort was to make a 50th anniversary tribute album for his parents, but it was so good that it helped attract the attention of promoters.

    Under their management, McDermott was soon signed by EMI Music Canada.  His debut album sold moderately well.  But it wasn't until tracks of the balladeer's music were licenses to a telemarketer in the U.S. that his fame spread farther afield. The resulting McDermott CD "The Danny Boy Collection" was hawked on late night TV and quickly became a hot seller.  More importantly, it had introduced the tenor to American fans.

    "He sold about a half million and did real well with it," recalls McDermott.  "We got some good exposure through that in the States.  But I think the most important exposure I've had in the last couple years had been the PBS show The Irish Tenors.  It gab me a great opportunity to get into the homes of millions of people that ordinarily you wouldn't have such a I'm PBS' number one fan."  

    Early this year, McDermott will be doing his own solo PBS television special.

    "We are going to do 'An Evening With...'  and I'm going to have some great guests on there, but I'm not going to tell you who yet.  There'll be some up and comers.  I want to share my favorites with everybody else."

    Whenever he heads into the studio, McDermott surrounds himself with a tried and true troupe of musicians:  "I've had the same players on every album.  Maybe we'll add a couple of new ones here and there..."

    On the road when he's the headliner, adds McDermott, I'll take the studio guys, if they're available.  We've been doing more symphony dates, however, as the demand from the symphonies is great. It's a lot of pleasure, too.  I like to watch the symphony - and I hear things you don't necessarily hear in the audience.  It's nice.