It's not really Christmas until McDermott sings

Tenor synonymous with Yuletide cheer shares his holiday memories and favourite songs

Dec 23, 2006 04:30 AM

Richard Ouzounian

Tenor John McDermott is not only one of this country's most beloved entertainers, he has also forged a strong link with the holiday season, as witnessed by his popular albums such as Christmas Memories and Home for Christmas.

So it makes perfect sense that he's appearing today at the Royal Alexandra Theatre at 3 and 7:30 p.m., accompanied by the likes of Colin Mochrie, Ron Sexsmith and Guido Basso in his show, ``A McDermott Family Christmas.''

Taking a pause from rehearsals earlier this week, McDermott reflected on his Yuletide memories, past and present.

Q. What's the earliest Christmas you can recall?

A. I think I was 7 years old, back in Glasgow. Mr. Brogan, a tyrant teacher who was probably a really nice person, told us we all had to sing at the Christmas concert, so I did "Scottish Soldier," because I didn't know any Christmas songs. And I won a Lego set. That was also the year I got a red wagon and I loved it so much I slept with it.

Q. What was Christmas like in Glasgow?

A. Well, there were 12 kids, so it was a pretty loud but a terribly happy time. It wasn't so much about presents as it was about visitors, people you hadn't seen in a long time — uncle Charlie and uncle Bill. Mother always made a pudding, which took about three days to prepare, boiled in canvas. Then there'd be roast potatoes, mashed turnip, blood pudding, lots of suet. Suet on toast ... mmm.

Q. When did you move to Canada, and what was it like?

A. It was 1965 and I remember having frostbite the first winter and sunstroke the first summer. Then a wonderful priest named Father Don MacLean heard me singing and said, "That boy should audition for the choir school." So I tried out for St. Michael's Choir School (in Toronto) and they turned me down. But the night before school started, someone dropped out and I dropped in. And then I was singing every Christmas at the cathedral.

Q. After you dropped out of St. Michael's, it was almost 30 years before you sang in public again. What kept your connection with music alive all that time?

A. We'd always have Friday or Saturday night get-togethers at home and they were always full of storytelling and singing. I started combining the two and now I tell the story of a song as I sing it. It's how you learn to love a song.

Q. What's the story of your favourite Christmas song?

A. The song is "Christmas in the Trenches," written by John McCutcheon. It's told from the perspective of a young man named Francis Tolliver who was 17 when he found himself on the front of the lines on the first Christmas Eve of World War I.

An amazing thing happened that night at different points along the line and Tolliver was there to see it happen. Soldiers met in no man's land and celebrated the birth of Christ. They shared photographs of their loved ones, they played soccer in the cold winter night. Together, they passed the hours until dawn in peace.

Then the next morning, when the sun rose, they went back to the trenches and got ready to kill each other.

Q. How do you celebrate Christmas today?

A. My wife is Polish, so every Christmas Eve, we have a traditional Polish celebration with her family. Then on Christmas, my sister Margaret holds our family traditions very close, especially when it comes to the food. It's almost like my mother was still cooking.

But most of all, I like to head north and spend quiet time with my wife and my little dog.

Q. Have your feelings about Christmas changed over the years?

A. They have indeed. I no longer think the holiday is about looking for things to make you happy. It's about being with people you want to be with and remembering those who aren't there.

Q. Who do you want to be with for your shows at the Royal Alex?

A. First, my wonderful musicians ... Guido Basso, Dave Young, Erica Goodman, Phil Dwyer and many more. Then there's the crazy and wonderful Colin Mochrie. All he tells me is that he's going to perform something he calls "Christmas in L.A."

I've got Larry Gowan, who grew up 300 yards from me in Glasgow, and Kim Stockwood, coming straight from the Rock with that voice of hers that can melt your heart.

Q. Is there any one guest you're looking forward to more than the others?

A. The great Ron Sexsmith. I've recorded a whole CD of his songs, called On a Whim, that's being released in January. His music does powerful things to me; it tears at the nerves and clears things away so you can feel once again. He says it all in his tune "Maybe This Christmas."

"Maybe forgiveness will ask us to call,

"Someone we love, someone we've lost.

"For reasons we can't quite recall ..."

A John McDermott Family Christmas, 3 and 7:30 p.m. today at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W. For tickets, call 416-872-1212 or go to