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Retrospective journey

A musical gift to parents turned into a two-decade career for Celtic tenor

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It's been 20 years since John McDermott took a big gamble, leaving the newspaper business to see where his golden voice would take him.

Little did he know then that his voice, and all those famous songs of Scotland, Ireland and elsewhere, would take him from coast to coast several times and around the world on a two-decade musical journey that isn't about to end anytime soon.

His latest tour has him once again crossing Canada with two stops in Manitoba April 10 at the Western Manitoba Centennial Auditorium in Brandon and April 11 at the Burton Cummings Theatre in Winnipeg. The concerts are part of a 20-year retrospective of his career, but McDermott jokes in an interview that he could also call it the "20 Shades of Grey tour."

Not that travelling city to city and singing is getting old for McDermott. Far from it.

"I can't wait to get to the next show. It's really a pleasure to do what we do," McDermott says.

"My own way of seeing things while touring, you realize quickly if you don't have an audience, you don't have a job. They're my employers."

Perhaps it's his unlikely road to stardom that prevents him from taking performing for granted. Initially, he sand only at parties and karaoke events, and even his first recording was a bit of a lark -- a 50th anniversary present for his parents.

He later pitched the CD to friends in the entertainment industry and it landed him a recording contract in 1992. That anniversary present eventually sold 50,000 copies in Canada and led to a tour with Ireland's the Chieftains.

"I was surprised with how comfortable I felt as a solo artist. It just felt right -- the transition was so easy," McDermott says.

He's recorded 24 more albums since, had a stint with the Irish Tenors and became such a popular figure in the New England area that he was asked to sing at the funeral of U.S. senator Ted Kennedy.

McDermott has also become part of the growing number of Canadian artists, like Jim Cuddy of Blue Rodeo, who are trying to make a difference in the charitable arena as well as the performance hall.

Funds raised from his album sales and concerts have gone to veterans charities in the United States and Canada and his philanthropic foundation, McDermott House Canada, is planning a $3.6-million expansion of the palliative care unit at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.

"My father said to give back to Canada -- it's given our family so much opportunity. And then give back to the veteran community," said McDermott. His father was a Royal Air Force vet from the Second World War who died in 1995, shortly after McDermott's music career took off.

His father, who moved to Canada from Scotland along with his wife and 12 children when McDermott was a boy, always enjoyed his son's a cappella version of Danny Boy, he says, which, together with And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda, remains the backbone of his shows all these years later.

"They still have an emotional impact -- that's why they have longevity," McDermott says. "They were written with a purpose and a reason."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 10, 2014 C16

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