The Concord Monitor
November 1, 2001
Remembering Their Sacrifice
Irish tenor John McDermott raises his voice for veterans' causes
By Christine Hamm
He laughs; he cries; and he sings like an angel of the lord on high. What more do you need from an Irish tenor?
Tomorrow night at 8, balladeer John McDermott brings his 2001 Remembrance world tour to the Capitol Center for the Arts. Born in Scotland and raised in Canada by parents who never forgot their Irish roots, McDermott gained widespread recognition when he first appeared in 1999 on PBS as one of The Irish Tenors. While inspired by Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras, the Irish trio proved that when it came to tenor harmonies, Italians had no corner on the market.
Following that success, McDermott has gone out on his own. His Remembrance tour was born on Veterans Day 1999 when he performed at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a guest of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He vowed then to make an annual tour as a benefit for veterans' causes. Last year, he provided funds for the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans to open the Hope McDermott Day Program Center, named for McDermott's late mother. Last Friday, McDermott was on his way to Boston to receive the Bob Hope Award from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society for his ongoing work. He figures the recognition is the most exciting of his career.
"Working for veterans, this was something I could do that I knew my parents would be proud of," McDermott said in a telephone interview. "My dad had a great affiliation with the war amputees in Canada. He was with the RAF in World War II. I had a cousin in Vietnam and an uncle who died in a Malaysian prison camp. There was always a lot of recognition and reverence for veterans in our house."
Thus was born the Remembrance CD, one of nine McDermott has recorded. Three have gone platinum.
McDermott says that since Sept. 11, his audiences have been amazing, "wearing their patriotism on their foreheads, and singing along with many of the lyrics." Songs range from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to "Roses of Picardy," "I'll Be Seeing You," "And the
Band Played Waltzing Matilda," "The Wall," "The U.S. Armed Forces Medley" and "America the Beautiful."
"The pieces themselves bring out emotions," said McDermott. "They're all based on real stories, facts and events that have occurred. I try to tell a little bit about these beforehand to give people an extra dimension."
Storytelling is, of course, another Irish trait, and another talent, along with "an awesome voice," that McDermott believes he inherited from his father. Before moving to Canada, his Donegal-born dad worked for a while as a bartender in Scotland.
Now just thinking about it makes McDermott laugh as he recalls Friday and Saturday nights, and his father's impromptu performances.
"He and his pal Billy would put these scarves over their heads, tell some jokes, and sing 'The Last Rose of Summer.' Bow-legged and cross-eyed, both of them, with not a hair on either one of them," McDermott said.
At home, McDermott senior instilled the whole family (John was the ninth of 12 children) with a love of music, particularly traditional Irish favorites. Once in Canada, Friday and Saturday nights were typically spent with everyone gathered in the basement for sing-alongs.
Although he spent two years at St. Michael's Choir School in Toronto, McDermott credits such family gatherings to his passion for music.
"It was sort of an education as you go," he said. ". . . Although Dad didn't elaborate much, I have all his references as a starting point for my own research and, as a result, my repertoire."
Ironically, it was while trying to thank his family for all their support that McDermott discovered his second career. In 1990, he was circulation manager for the Toronto Sun when he decided to make a CD of family favorites for his parents' 50th wedding anniversary.
When someone sent the results to the head of the EMI recording studios, McDermott got a contract with Angel Records. After being featured on a radio program for Remembrance Day in Canada, the album sold 50,000 copies. A few months later, CBC did a 10-minute story on the album, and sales went through the roof. In October 1993 when McDermott was 38, he quit his job to go on the road. And the rest is history.
Which is another way of describing McDermott's Remembrance shows.
"Fond memories is what I call them," he said. "It's a wonderful soft roller coaster ride through fond memories, incidents in your life, some of them sad, some of them happy."
He laughs. He cries. And he sings like an angel of the lord on high.