While some aspiring musicians were starting bands or rocking open mics, John McDermott was delivering newspapers.
But McDermott never aspired towards a career in music. It wasn’t until demands from the industry that he embarked on a 20-year-and-counting journey as a tenor, sparked by a recording he made as an anniversary gift for his parents.
McDermott, who this year released three recordings and embarked on but another cross-country tour, initially found his way into the business through the back door, when the 13-track disc he recorded for his parents was given to an EMI record exec. The CD, which includes one track for each of his 12 siblings and two versions of Danny Boy, became the only Canadian recording released by EMI on their classical label Angel. The following day, CBC’s Peter Gzowski played three tracks from the album and the former choir boy’s life swerved in a new direction.
“It was unbelievable,” said McDermott. “That sent the sales on an absolute spiral.”
McDermott’s friend, Paul McGrath, worked as a producer for CBC television at the time and created a 10-minute piece on the success of the Danny Boy album. The mini-doc soon closed out the national news, and McDermott’s life as a paper carrier.
“That was it,” he said. “We couldn’t keep up with the demand. (EMI) started coming to me and saying, ‘Your sales are 50,000. You need to put a band together and go on tour.’ I said ‘Are you kidding me?’ Who’s going to pay my rent? I work. This is an album I did for my parents.’ I said ‘thanks, but no thanks’”
When sales hit 100,000 copies, EMI came back to McDermott and told him to form a band.
Still unwilling to risk losing his previous life as he knew it, McDermott successfully requested a leave of absence from his position. He called a couple of musician friends – and offered a fiddler he saw perform in a bar $200 nightly to join their group.
“That’s when my world changed. The guy I hired to play fiddle was Ashley MacIsaac.”
Their first gig: opening for The Chieftains at a sold out show Oct. 5, 1993 at the Rebecca Cohn Theatre in Halifax.
“I would hate to be getting into the business today, but at the same time, we didn’t really follow the rules when we were getting into it,” he said. “I’ve never been in a band, I’ve never toured, I’ve never played a show and now I’m the opening act for the No. 1 Celtic band in the world? How do you do that?”
McDermott felt the performer’s rush that night and knew he had found his calling. He quit his job the next day.
“It felt right,” he said. “And it still feels good.”
Though McDermott says there’s “no chance in hell” he’d pass up singing his famed Danny Boy at a show these days, he’s moved into a time where he can tell the kind of stories he wasn’t comfortable talking about in his younger years.
McDermott wrote The Gift of Years about his uncle, a prisoner of war at the Changi Japanese war camp, while Along the Merry Road to Hell deals with his brother’s addiction and subsequent death.
An advocate for veterans’ support and palliative care, he backs both causes through his not-for-profit charitable foundation, McDermott House Canada.
Originally formed with the goal of expanding the palliative care unit at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital, the foundation’s scope reaches beyond the borders of his home province. McDermott House leaves behind half the revenue from each of their charity shows in the cities they visit to support local veterans programs.
McDermott formed the foundation in 2010, the same year he was awarded a Minister of Veterans Affairs Commendation for his work on behalf of veterans. The outspoken singer and honorary member of the War Amps of Canada has steadily continued to ramp up his fundraising efforts benefit CDs and charity events in both the United States and Canada.
“Alcoholism is not something that’s just in John McDermott’s world. It’s a very, very real part of some life experiences for some people. So to talk about it – I don’t think there’s a downside. It’s just who I am. And I don’t think the government does enough for veterans, so I say that. I don’t think they do enough for hospice care and I say that.”
McDermott’s latest recordings include A Traditional Christmas, My Gentle Harp: A Tribute to Thomas Moore and A Day to Myself, a thinly-released album, back by popular demand. Now mid-tour and with an as yet unnamed set of piano and voice hymns also slated for release this winter, the 58-year-old is showing no signs of stopping – but isn’t afraid of the day when it arrives.
“When we get older, sometimes we lose certain abilities, like the ability to hold notes. I won’t hang on to it. If I can’t sing, I’m not going to punish people,” he said. “Just because we can’t sing doesn’t mean we can’t contribute. There’s so much we can do.”
McDermott comes to the McPherson Playhouse Sunday (Nov. 3) at 7:30pm. Tickets are $52.50 through rmts.bc.ca.