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The Weekender  - December 16, 2000 

Touching people one song at a time: Former Irish tenor John McDermott

Weekender Correspondent

Surprised? John McDermott says he is ``absolutely astonished'' at the path his career has taken.

"It's like it's as close to an overnight success story as you're gonna get,'' he says, laughing.

It wasn't that long ago that he was laboring as single copy manager in the circulation department of the Toronto Sun.

Always a lover of music, he made a vocal tape as a Christmas gift for each of his 11 brothers and sisters -- ``One song for each of the 12 kids (including himself),'' he explains.

It sat on a shelf for a year and a half and eventually ended up on a desk at EMI Records/Canada.

Now he is known as a million selling solo artist and alumnus of the international PBS smash hit, The Irish Tenors.

``You take it (the success) at face value and don't make it something it's not,'' McDermott says. ``I was at the right place at the right time and I had good people around me and we made more right choices than wrong ones.''

McDermott emigrated from Scotland to Canada with his family in 1965. St. Michael's Choir School in Toronto was a training ground for his striking, pure voice. His affinity for both the Celtic tradition and North American standards was influenced by his family's Trans-Atlantic voyage.

Music was the fabric of life in the McDermott household. His late father Peter McDermott, whom he cites as his primary mentor and teacher, was a clarion tenor in his own right. He encouraged John to embrace traditional and contemporary music -- from the ancient airs of Scotland and Ireland to Johnny Mathis.

McDermott pays tribute to his late parents in his performances, placing his father's cap and cane and his mother's scarf at center stage to honor the fact that they gave life to his career.

``My dad had a marvelous voice. I emulate him. He had a beautiful tenor voice,'' he says.

McDermott does not consider himself a singer of songs as much as a storyteller. ``One of the great values of the material I have the opportunity to perform is it is primarily based on fact, the songs themselves. That encouragement comes from my dad.''

In his shows, he explains a very short history of as many of his songs as he can. ``I tell people where the writer was coming from, what the song was about and hopefully it gives people more of an appreciation for the song. That's important. I think a lot of these songs were already favorites of people.

``The songs or story you are singing touches a chord in their past, either of a very positive nature, a person, place or time they can recall at some point in life. And it carries a lot of memories. You move somebody emotionally in the same song. It might be a very sad moment or a very positive moment for others. All these songs carry with them a roller coaster of emotion. You have to, if you can, convey as much of a piece as possible. That appreciation and emotion becomes that much stronger.''

It is joyful emotion that takes precedent in his holiday concert. It blends contemporary and traditional material. Anne Lindsay, a vocalist and violinist will accompany him.

``Charlie Brown's Christmas'' has always been a favorite of his. ``I want to get that into the show,'' he says. ``I really do mainly the traditional pieces, not so much the commercial side of the holidays.''

McDermott describes himself as a Christmas person.

``I'm Uncle Buck at Christmas. I don't have kids, but everybody else in my family has children,'' he says. ``I'm the sugar man. I visit every one of them and give them the noisiest, most irritating toy and then I leave (he laughs). I really enjoy Christmas. I enjoy it for the kids.''

Regardless of the season, concerts are a joy to McDermott. ``When you get the right audience and right atmosphere and right hall there is just nothing quite like it,'' he says. ``It's a lot of fun. I'm holding the talking stick (he laughs). It's our party and we are just there to entertain you. We have a lot of fun on stage, we really do.''

McDermott has another busy year ahead in 2001, including possibly hooking up with the Irish Tenors again for some special guest appearances.

``I believe the success of the Tenors came from three very different voices. The three very different approaches and interpretations and subtleties complemented each other. And there was that magic of being at the right place at the right time. Without question, the reason we were so successful was because of PBS. If we had gone out without the PBS in-your-face support there is not a chance we would have been as successful.''

McDermott says in leaving the Irish tenors he wanted to prioritize his concentration on military veterans and senior (citizen) issues. ``That's what my tours allow me to do,'' he says. He is passionate about those areas and has been recognized for his efforts.

His father was a tail-gunner in the British Royal Air Force. His mother's brother was a prisoner of war in World War II.

The release of John's 1999 album, ``Remembrance,'' a tribute to America's veterans, has won him praise and recognition from servicemen and women, from veterans and from the U.S. government.

He was invited to the President's Veterans Day Breakfast at the White House, and the wreath laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers in Arlington National Cemetery.

He performed before thousands at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. ``I had the honor of performing the song `The Wall' from my `Remembrance' album at the Wall,'' he says. It was an emotional experience, he says, as he refers to ``that missing generation.'' ``I saw a lot of grandfathers with grandsons there,'' he explains.

He continues to perform on behalf of veterans. His ``Remembrance'' tours are a part of his yearly tour schedule, with particular emphasis around the Memorial Day and Veterans Day period.

In the fall of 1999, he was honored as ``Man of the Year'' by Boston's New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans. He has supported the shelter since he first came to the U.S.

McDermott House, a Washington, D.C. transitional housing facility, opened its doors in late 1999.

Named in John's honor, it is to house up to 40 D.C. area veterans making the transition from homelessness to self-sufficiency. The artist hopes to help in the development of similar facilities across the United States.

He established the Hope McDermott Fund, named after his late mother, as the central charitable organization for all of his efforts on behalf of homeless veterans.

``We just keep going because of the support I get from the audiences,'' he says.

McDermott became interested in issues concerning senior citizens before he got into music full-time. Now he schedules visits to senior centers, rest homes and hospitals whenever he can when he tours.

"I learned they just wanted to talk and there's a change and impact that has on their lives,'' he says. "It has become a big part of what we do.''

Both sets of McDermott's grandparents are dead. His father died in 1995, and he lost both his mother and brother this year.

Alzheimer's disease is one of the problems that needs more attention, he says. And he advocates making music available to seniors.

He would like to see ``music appreciation rooms'' set up in hospitals. ``It's very basic but critical. Music is a wonderful communicator,'' he says. ``A senior can go into this room, pick up headphones and plug into a listening post. There will be a selection of music to choose from and they can sing their hearts out. That's what they do. There might be 15 to 20 people in the same room and they're all getting something out of it.''

"I know how lucky I am and I know that I am in a position to take the huge amount of success I've achieved and turn it into something really, really positive for a lot of people, and at the same time touch a lot of people,'' McDermott says.

That's John McDermott, touching people one song at a time.