Most of the cuts on Danny Boy, John McDermott’s first solo album, are sad ballads, unlikely to entice anyone onto the dance floor. But across Canada, the Toronto tenor’s collection of war-related songs and airs of the British Isles is a best-seller. Such unabashedly sentimental music seems out of place in the edgy, jaded 1990s. But McDermott’s voice, a poignant blend of sinew and sweetness, makes the material heartrendingly beautiful.
Danny Boy (Capitol-EMI) has captured the public’s attention with surprising swiftness. Since its Canada-wide release on Remembrance Day, it has sold more than 40,000 copies. Earlier this month, it jumped to 33rd place from 91st place on the top 100 albums chart of the Toronto-based music magazine RPM. Glasgow-born McDermott, who quit his day job in The Toronto Sun newspaper’s circulation department in November, was a nominee in the Most Promising Male Vocalist category at the Juno Awards on March 21. Angel Records has just introduced the album in the United States, and United Kingdom
and Pacific Rim releases are expected to follow within the next few months. Said the outgoing 36-year-old in a recent interview: “My parents are just stunned.”
Before Danny Boy, McDermott gained exposure as an anthem singer at Blue Jays baseball games and Maple Leafs hockey matches. Meanwhile, singing for free at parties was a pastime that eventually paid a huge dividend: that was how he met such powerful financiers as Conrad Black and Trevor Eyton, who invested in his recording project.
McDermott sings music that is in his genes. His paternal grandfather was born and raised in Ballymena, County Antrim, in Northern Ireland, and his other grandfather worked in the Glasgow shipyards. John McDermott, who is the ninth of Peter and Hope McDermott’s 12 children, moved to the northern Toronto suburb of Willowdale with the family in 1965, when he was 9. There, his family and neighbors with Scottish backgrounds gathered on Saturday nights to watch NHL games on TV and sing the old songs from home. “To hear John singing
now, you’d think you were listening to his dad years ago,” said Hope McDermott.
When John McDèrmott was 14, his talent won him a place in St. Michael’s Choir School in Toronto. After graduation, he and some of his classmates called themselves The Mistletones and sang semi-professionally. But McDermott gave little thought to a full-time musical career. “I’ve lost track of the weddings I’ve done, the parties I’ve sung at,” he recalled recently. “If somebody wanted a singer, I’d show up.” J. Douglas Creighton, who was the chief executive officer of The Toronto Sun until he lost his job in a managerial coup in November, often asked McDermott to sing for his influential friends.
Creighton’s support created a ripple effect, ultimately generating the funding for Danny Boy. In 1989, McDermott performed at an annual dinner hosted in Toronto by publishing magnate Black and his company Hollinger Inc., with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and former president Ronald Reagan in attendance. Contacted recently at his London office by Maclean’s, Black praised McDermott’s “remarkably melodious voice” and his willingness to sing at that dinner without accompaniment or any expectation of being paid. “When he sought investors,” Black said, “I was well-disposed to be one of them.”
McDermott’s musical tastes range from the close harmonies of The Mills Brothers to the keening lyricism of Joni Mitchell. But Danny Boy reveals his spiritual kinship with such traditional tenors as Ireland’s John McCormack. Two versions of the title track, one with instrumental backing and a spellbinding, unaccompanied rendition, appear on the album. McDermott also performs such centuries-old airs as By Yon Bonnie Banks and The Minstrel Boy with appealing directness and conviction.
Several songs, including And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda by Australia’s Eric Bogle, are about the First World War. The Sun is Burning, by Scotland’s Iain Campbell, deals with the Second World War atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “The First World War and the Second World War affected so many people,” said McDermott. “Even people who weren’t involved in those wars were exposed to them in some way or another through a family member.” He has recorded a version of The Sun is Burning in Japanese for the album’s release in Japan.
McDermott, who lives in Toronto with his wife, Polish-born Agnieszka, says that he is still sorting out his life in the wake of Danny Boy’s success. He is making plans for his first Canadian tour and now has a five-album contract with Capitol Records-EMI of Canada.
With its songs of sad partings and death on the battlefield, Danny Boy is, as McDermott has observed, “not very uplifting.” But his mother, whose speech retains the tang of her native Glasgow, recently offered one explanation for the album’s popularity: “When people listen to it, memories come back to' them, and they all have their wee cry.”
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