John McDermott can sing—the 44-year-old is one of Canadas best-selling performers—but he is also one heck of a talker. Almost from the moment he steps onstage at a high-school auditorium in Toronto’s west end, the audience is with him. Every quip sends a ripple of laughter across the spacious hall, and even though it’s a sunny Sunday afternoon, the place is packed right up to the back rows. The traditional Irish and Scottish ballads that McDermott is known for aren’t hip or cool, but that is of no concern to these people. They are here to listen to the songs of their childhood, delivered in McDermott’s warm, rich tenor, interspersed with a liberal sprinkling of convivial banter—it’s almost as if they were sitting in their living rooms, listening to a favourite son. The adoration appears to be mutual. During intermission he is out in the lobby—as he generally is before and after each show—signing autographs for a long line of well-wishers. “He’s a very down-to-earth person,” says die-hard fan Marion Richardson. “Personality— that’s what it’s all about with him.” McDermott, in fact, is something of a phenomenon. Although he only began singing professionally in 1993, he has sold 1.3 million recordings in Canada and the United States. That puts him near the top of the heap for a Canadian artist. Only big pop stars like Celine Dion or Amanda Marshall sell more albums. Astonishingly, it is word of mouth, not airplay or music videos, that has created this massive fan club: he is on the road almost 10 months a year, touring Canada, the United States and Europe, and a year rarely goes by without a
clutch of new McDermott projects. In
March came The Irish Tenors, a TV special and CD recorded live in Dublin with Anthony Kearns and Ronan Tynan that was so successful the trio are kicking off a 12-city North American tour this month. In May, McDermott released Remembrance in the United States, a collection of war songs honouring veterans. Mid-July also brings the re-release of Love Is a Voyage, a 1995 album that will include five new tracks, most notably Daughter of Mine, an original wedding song written by Newfoundland grandmother Madeline Thomson.
All this seems to leave the Glasgowborn, Toronto-raised McDermott somewhat bemused. “I’ve been so lucky, it isn’t funny,” he says over chicken-andrice soup in a distincdy untrendy north
Toronto pub. McDermott was raised in
the neighbourhood and still lives there,
as does his 82-year-old mother and sev-
eral of his 11 siblings. His father’s 1995 wake—a three-day event—was held in the same restaurant and it is clear that McDermott, the world traveller, maintains a profound attachment to his
roots. He describes his parents’ home on a Saturday night: chairs around the basement walls, lots of friends and neighbours, lots of singing. His father’s rich voice led the way and often, as in a McDermott concert, each song was served up with a dash of history. Many people have lost touch with their past, McDermott says, “but there is a silent majority who haven’t and that is why I’m successful.” That shows in their thirst for the old songs—Danny Boy, Guardian Angel and One Small Star are perennials at his concerts.
McDermott doesn’t seem perturbed by the indifference of Top 40 junkies. He never expected to have a singing career, he says, recounting how a chance meeting with Conrad Black while he was working in the circulation department at
The Toronto Sun led to Black
providing most of the financial backing
for his first CD. And McDermott loves performing—“they have to get the hook out or I’d sing all night.” He is married and has no children, appearing to spend most waking moments planning more projects. He is giving a series of conceits in the United States to raise money for local veterans’ charities and a proposed Second World War memorial in Washington. McDermott also wants to get a fund going to help new performers, something that will allow them to get that crucial first CD made without debt. That idea is still a gleam in his eye, but given McDermott’s successes so far, it’s one that stands a pretty good chance of coming to pass.
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