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The Chicago Tribune
March 1, 2001


By Lynn Van Matre

The past two years have been ones of triumph and tears for John McDermott.  In 1999, the singer toured as one-third of the musical phenomenon known as the Irish Tenors, playing to packed houses at Chicago's United Center and New York's Madison Square Garden. Then came 2000, which McDermott remembers as the most emotionally and spiritually challenging year of his life.

"I lost my mother, my sister and my brother, all within a six-month period," McDermott said. "I'm a spiritually grounded person, but the impact of the loss was so great, it was a challenge to my faith.

"I was on shaky ground for a while," McDermott acknowledged. "But I'm in a good place now. And no matter how bad things are for you, someone else has it worse. I have a good record company behind me, a wonderful wife, and a great business situation."

For McDermott, who left the Irish Tenors lineup early last year to concentrate on family matters, 2001 promises to be far sunnier.

The singer begins a U.S. tour on Sunday at the Paramount Arts Centre in Aurora, where he will reprise the Celtic ballads that made him famous and introduce new material by contemporary songwriters.  His new compact disc, "A Day to Myself," was released recently in Canada and will be available in the U.S. as an import.  His agent said the Web site, now registers 1,000 hits a day.  It provides info on everything from the singer's background--born in Scotland of Irish descent, he grew up in Toronto--to his golf handicap.

Not bad for a former newspaper circulation manager who didn't land a record deal until he was in his mid-30s. That was in 1992, when EMI Canada signed the one-time Toronto Sun employee after hearing an album of traditional Scotch-Irish songs McDermott recorded for his parents' 50th wedding anniversary.

Within a few years, the self-taught tenor had become a best-selling artist in Canada and had sold several hundred thousand copies of a compilation album, "The Danny Boy Collection," in the U.S. through a mail-order marketing campaign. By the late 1990s, McDermott was making frequent appearances in the U.S. and dividing his time between Toronto and a second home in Boston.

But his biggest career boost came when he was featured with Ronan Tynan and Anthony Kearns on the 1999 PBS special, "The Irish Tenors." The program's popularity led to an Irish Tenors concert tour of the U.S. and the release of a successful CD.

"Someone had the idea to put together three very different voices and personalities who were unified in their love of singing," McDermott said of the Irish Tenors. "I got to meet two interesting guys and had the opportunity to sing in front of very large audiences. It was great exposure, but there are too many other things I want to do now."

In addition to recording and touring, McDermott has become increasingly involved in U.S. and Canadian veterans' causes.  In 1999, a transitional housing facility for homeless veterans in Washington, D.C., was christened McDermott House in recognition of the singer's fundraising and advocacy efforts.  Last October, he dedicated the Hope McDermott Day Program Center at a Boston shelter; the program, named for McDermott's mother, is designed to help homeless veterans become self-sufficient. In Canada, he raises funds for War Amps, an organization of veterans who are amputees.

"The veterans population is virtually ignored outside of one day a year," said McDermott, whose late father was a Royal Air Force tail gunner in World War II.  "All the cliches like `out of sight, out of mind,' come to mind," McDermott said. "Veterans and seniors are segments of our society that often are forgotten, and I think it's important to recognize them. I'm a blue-collar guy, one of 12 children, and I didn't have it easy growing up.  I think I'm in a good position to vocalize veterans' and seniors' needs.

"A lot of artists forget they are not necessarily successful just because they are good, but because the public supports them," McDermott said. "If am successful, I believe I should take the time to give something back."

McDermott, whose musical tastes also include bluegrass and singer-songwriters such as John Prine, said he isn't surprised by American audiences' seemingly  insatiable appetites for Irish music and dance.  "I think the craving always has been there, but it's only now that it's being recognized," he said. "It's like bluegrass music. It has always been around, but now there are more big names doing it."

When and where: John McDermott will perform at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Paramount Arts Centre, 23 E. Galena Blvd. in Aurora. Tickets are $26. For more information, call the Paramount box office at 630-896-6666.