Excerpts from an interview with John taped at the Living Arts Center in Mississauga, Canada in November 2001, the day before the filming of John McDermott : A Time To Remember.
Q: John, you were Number 9 in a family of 12. What was it like growing up in such an incredibly big family?
A: Being one of 12 — very simple rules. First to bed. First to dinner. First to the bathroom. Not necessarily in that order. But it was great fun. I think it’s what shaped us.
Q: Is it true that your love of singing came from your father who was, himself, a tenor?
A: Yes, my love of singing came from my mother and father, and the get togethers we would have on Fridays and Saturdays at home. When we first immigrated to Canada, the very first weekend we moved in, my father went and knocked on all of the neighbors’ doors and he invited everybody to come over. Needless to say, nobody came. But, he did the same thing the following week and eventually, one or two people came. And soon, he didn’t have to invite anybody any more. Because the word soon spread that if you got an invitation to McDermott’s place, you just had to go. My father would invite friends and the neighbor’s families over to discuss the events of the day, and eventually, we always got around to singing. We made our own entertainment. We did not have a television set. We made do.
Q: What is your memory of the kinds of songs that your dad used to sing and maybe the songs you sang together as a family?
A: The songs that we used to sing as a family are the songs that we put on our first album, Danny Boy. That was a reflection of the types of songs that we used to sing at home. ‘Danny Boy’ was on the album twice in fact, because my father preferred the acapella version to the instrumental accompaniment. There were 12 songs for 12 children. One that each of us could relate to. Over and above that, we used to listen to everything from scratchy recordings of Johnny Mathis, to Nat King Cole, to The Mills Brothers and of course, the Big Band stuff, and the great tenors of the day — whether it be Lanza or McCormack – it made no difference. There was just music, and there were great songs and my father would elevate the songs. He’d introduce them, ever so briefly, with a small vignette that would allow you to visualize what he was singing. And I think that we all took something from that. Because to this day, when given the opportunity to sing we’ll tell a short story. It may be that story that my father told. Or, it may be the memory of him telling the story. But, certainly, the songs found a place in our hearts, and in our souls.
Q: When you were a child did you envision yourself growing up and becoming a singer?
A: When I was 7, in my Math class at St. Robert’s in Glasgow, Mr. Brogan had a competition in class for students who could sing. I was going to sing a Beatles’ song, but I couldn’t remember it, so, I sang “A Scottish Soldier” instead because I could remember all the lyrics. I actually won a Lego set and that Lego set was top drawer. Man, I may have flunked math, but I won a Lego set. That’s what really started me.
Q: Was there a moment though — a pivotal moment when you thought to yourself– I know now that music has got to be a major part of my life?
A: The moment that I knew I had made the right decision was October 5th, 1993. It was the night of my first live performance at The Rebecca Cohen Theater, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. That night, when I went on, I knew instantly that I had made the right decision. It was a sold-out show and the audience felt like they were sitting right in my living room — that’s how comfortable it felt. So much so, that the show ran until quarter to 12, and Bill Bridges, my guitar player finally said, ‘you know — they’re bleeding’.’ So, I let the band stop, and I sang acapella for another ten or fifteen minutes, and then we said good night.
Q: Although you never had “formal” musical training, some of your early “informal” training came as a student, attending St. Michael’s Choir School. Can you tell us about that?
A:In the year that I spent at the Choir School — the things that stuck with me most, are the things that have become the most important parts of me. Music history is extraordinary. Music history was a full credit. Music theory. Harmony. They were all full credits too. And then there were the students. The people that I met — Paul Kenny, Jerry Litster and Rob Natale. All these students — all these guys that we formed a group, which stayed together even after we left the Choir School. We called ourselves The Mistletones, and we recorded together. We hung out together. And, at the same time, we all retained an incredible bond of friendship. We are always there for one another, and that’s true even today.
Q: Tell us a little about The Mistletones? The acapella group that started while you were a student at St. Michael’s Choir School.
A: We were all truck drivers, cops, insurance salesmen, you know, paint salesmen,warehouse shipper/receivers. But, we all had one thing in common, a really, really deep love of music. And so, my best friend Paul Kenny had the idea to get 12 of the guys together. And do a four-part harmony — and sing Christmas carols, Christmas music. He wanted us to go from house to house, and sing for refreshments. And we did. We sang for lots of refreshments. And so, 22 years later, we’re still together and still singing. I still go out with them for Christmas, when I can. On Christmas Eve, we will spend the afternoon, not with our families — but at a children’s hospital or a senior’s residence. We might do five or six of these in an evening. We also started singing at parties, where we could hit the ‘corporates’ for a few dollars to help local charities. And at every opportunity when I’m doing a Christmas tour, The Mistletones are part of the show. And, right now I could never ever imagine doing something like this public television special without including my closest friends, The Mistletones.
Q: You arrived at singing as your avocation, as your ‘life’s work’ late in life. Wasn’tit actually the result of a present that you gave your parents for their 50th Wedding Anniversary?
A: A really long story, condensed. I recorded the Danny Boy album, which was 12 songs. 12 songs that my parents could relate to each child. But with 13 tracks. That’s because I recorded Danny Boy twice, knowing that my Dad preferred an acapella version of Danny Boy — and my mother liked the accompaniments. I had given it to my parents for their 50th Wedding Anniversary and somebody sent Deane Cameron at EMI Records a copy of my CD. Granted it sat on a shelf for a year and a half, but then, in November of ’92, EMI released the Danny Boy album on their Angel label — their classical label. Now at the time I had no intention of leaving my job as a newspaper circulation rep. I was busy, it was a 7-day a week job, and I enjoyed it. I had no intention of going off and trying to become an entertainer or artist, if you will. Certainly the record company couldn’t offer me anything, because it was an untested album. But they did want me to go out on tour and promote it, and I said no. So they licensed and released the album. Things started to change when the unannounced champion of Canadian literacy and arts, a gentleman named Peter Gzowski played some of Danny Boy on his show Morning Side which airs coast to coast. He played three tracks: “The Band Played Waltzin’ Matilda”, “The Green Fields of France”, and “Christmas in the Trenches.” The next day, they couldn’t keep the album in the stores. And this continued through Christmas, and into the New Year. Then in January of 1993 — Peter Mansbridge of the CBC News, ran a ten minute segment that closed the evening news. And it was at that point, that sales escalated again, and again, and again. So, by the Fall of ’93, I finally went to my dad and said — you know, they want me to tour. And, he kind of looked at me — and although he was never one to tell you what to do, he said, ‘Go ahead, take the risk.’ So I quit my job and in October of ’93 went on tour. Remarkably, my first tour was with no less than the Chieftains — which then took me to another level, and I never looked back.
Q: Is there one song that has particular significance for you? A meaning for you – that resonates more than all the others?
A: Oh easily. It’s “The Last Rose of Summer” — it was a favorite of both of my parents. It was the inscription on my grandparents’ gravestones. It held an incredibly special place for my mother and father, and it holds the same for me. It’s the song that my father performed in 1958 in a pub in Glasgow and a friend recorded it, because he was emigrating to Canada. And at my dad’s funeral, I was given a copy of the tape and I took it and placed it on the album Love is a Voyage and then on the upcoming show related album A Time To Remember — because I wanted people to know where I got my voice. Who is the greatest singer I ever knew? My dad. Who am I emulating? My dad. He could tell a story in song, better than anybody that I ever heard, and I heard a lot of good ones. But he had this magic and a pure love of singing. And that’s what I am after.
Q: You’ve been quoted as saying that your upbringing has kept you grounded. What was it about your upbringing that has helped you keep your feet on the ground?
A: I believe the thing that has kept me grounded is — life experience, for one thing. Even though I grew up in a household with 11 brothers and sisters, my father didn’t have many rules. But there were certain things he insisted on that were really very simple. Don’t swear in the house. Go to Mass on a regular basis. And be fair. You know, my old man had a real philosophy of giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. I think that that comes through in every one of us to this day. He also always insisted that if you know someone is facing a hurdle rather than have them run into it, move it.
Q: Veteran’s causes are a very important part of your life. What motivated you to become so involved?
A: My father was a great supporter of The War Amps of Canada. I think he felt a strong tie because he’d been a veteran in World War II. My mother’s brother died at a P.O.W. Prison Camp. So, there’s always been a tie to veterans. My father could never accept the idea that these individuals risked their lives willingly and therefore, they didn’t need recognition for what they’d done. Saying thank you doesn’t end the day after you say it. It’s something that should be a continuum. As we speak, we have a new generation of veterans. So, I feel fortunate I can contribute to organizations like the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans, thanks to my success. And my mother did a great job of ‘setting a good example.’ She spent 27 years every Wednesday serving the homeless meals. So I can do my part and make this a better place for our veterans, homeless veterans and for our seniors. And, open the eyes of our youth. Then that’s exactly what I want to do.
Q: Could you ever imagine your life without singing– without music?
A: My life without music or singing? If you had asked me that question a few years ago, I would have said no. Today, yes, I can. And, when I lose it, I’m hoping that someone taps me on the shoulder and says, you know, John — listen to this. And I think now that I’d accept it. The striking thing now is that I have projects that I want to finish. That’s what drives me. It’s a wonderful job. If you can call it that. The only guy who has the perfect job is Tiger Woods. But, outside of that who? And, just as long as you’re enjoying it, keep doing it. So, when it stops being fun, I’ll quit. That’s a promise that I’ve made to my wife and to my family.