July 23, 2010
National Public Radio is running a series on “50 Great Voices,” and I was pleased to hear the other day that one of my favorite voices has been included — that of the Irish tenor John McCormack. You can follow the unfolding of “the list” by clicking HERE. I would have expected Enrico Caruso to be on the list – and he is – but Caruso has endured as an icon ala Babe Ruth. The name Caruso is known far outside of the circle of opera buffs; his name is a synonym for “singer.” McCormack, on the other hand, is known these days mostly by the musty crowd that lives with one foot in the distant musical past. People like me, for instance.
I developed an interest in McCormack when I was in my early teens. This came as a blow to my mother, because she was already getting auditory indigestion from the olio that poured out of my hi-fi: one minute Bill Haley & His Comets, the next minute Bach’s Mass in B minor, the next minute Florian Zabach’s violin, and the next minute Hank Williams. Mom preferred Zabach.
I stumbled across McCormack after I bought four LPs by the Italian tenor Mario Del Monaco. Listening to those discs launched me into a lifelong fascination with tenors, and I accumulated recordings by dozens of them, ancient and modern. It was inevitable that McCormack would be included, because he was a prolific performer, including many recordings. Connecting with McCormack also opened my ears to Irish music, because, besides his operatic career, he was a mainstay on the concert stage and his repertoire included the songs of his native Ireland. I found these irresistible because the melodies and lyrics are laced with both humor and melancholy. I acquired recordings by other Irish tenors, too, but no one seemed to approach McCormack.
When I became better informed about music, I learned that my instincts hadn’t failed me for a change. McCormack is highly regarded as a singer — unparalleled, in the opinions of some authorities — because of the extraordinary control he had over his breath and his voice. That is well displayed in his recording of his signature song, “I Hear You Calling Me.”
Very early in his career, McCormack sang under the name Giovanni Foli, deriving it from the name of his lifelong sweetheart and longtime spouse, Lily Foley. He was wildly popular at the height of his career and he earned, and spent, enormous amounts of money. He was also the soul of charity and was particularly generous with his time and his own funds in supporting the American effort in both world wars. He became an American citizen in 1917, a decision that wasn’t well received back home, and he took his citizenship seriously. He also supported many other causes, including the Catholic Church, and the Church bestowed many honors on him, including the hereditary title of count.
According to an often-repeated story, at a chance meeting between Caruso and McCormack, McCormack asked, “And how is the greatest tenor in the world?” To which Caruso replied, “And when did you become a baritone?”
Some of McCormack’s songs are available at the NPR site and at the web site of the John McCormack Society, which is at THIS LINK.