The Mayo nightingale

 

John Feeney was a tenor on a par with the great John McCormack, with a warmer and more natural style, yet his name remains relatively unknown here, writes Ray Comiskey.

When people think of internationally-renowned Irish tenors, nobody within the last 100 years has come close to equalling John McCormack's claim to pre-eminence. Nobody, that is, except John Feeney, one-time building-site worker, journalist and now all but forgotten Mayo-born tenor, whose centenary falls next month. His career is a reminder of two phenomena; the kind of milieu Woody Allen captured in Radio Days - the potent draw of early radio - and, where Feeney is concerned, the pulling power of the "Irish tenor" genre.

Although he is now on the margins of musical history, consigned there by changes in taste, economics, market demographics and the emergence of television, his relative obscurity in Ireland, compared to McCormack's enduring fame, is a little surprising. His voice, comparable to McCormack's, was warm, rich and full, and he had a more natural, less mannered way with traditional Irish songs and sentimental ballads than his more celebrated friend and compatriot. They were never rivals, by the way; McCormack announced his retirement in 1937 when Feeney was just getting into his stride.

Despite being based in the US for much of his career, he visited this country frequently, performed here often and eventually came home to live in his native Mayo, where he died in 1967. Apart from considerations of taste, technology and repertoire - there is little demand now for The Fairy Tree, Mother Machree, Duna or Galway Bay - his being forgotten here probably has as much to do with his American exile as anything else.

A big radio and recording star in those pre-television days, he performed regularly in prestigious venues like Carnegie Hall; his material on the concert recital circuit also included works by Bizet, Balfe, Donizetti, Franck, Handel, Mozart, Purcell, Puccini, Schubert and Schumann.

In Feeney's 30s and 40s heyday all this must have seemed like something from another world to an Ireland whose Taoiseach's vision included comely maidens dancing at the crossroads. Certainly it was remote from Swinford, Co Mayo, where he was born on August 9th, 1903. The fourth of seven surviving children, he arrived in comfortable enough circumstances; his mother had a house on Main Street, where his parents opened a grocery shop, and they were landlords of a nearby pub.

Although he was able to complete his education at 16, the death of his father obliged him to go to London, where his eldest brother, Patrick, found him work as one of "McAlpine's Fusiliers" on building sites; one of the jobs he worked on was Wembley Stadium. By 1926 McAlpine's had shifted him to Dublin to work on a service tunnel under the Liffey; it helped him visit Swinford from time to time and there he met his future wife, Maura Ruddy, from Ballina.

In early 1928 he dropped a bombshell on his family. With the Liffey tunnel almost finished, he told them he was going to New York to train as a singer.

He arrived in June that year aboard the SS Samaria, whose manifest of "Alien Passengers" described him as a clerk, six feet tall, dark complexioned, with brown hair and blue eyes. He had $50.

His arrival was ill-timed. A manual job with Western Electric vanished in the Depression, but by then a brother, Tom, and a sister, Pat, had joined him, as well as Maura Ruddy. The girls found work and Maura paid for his initial singing lessons. They married in 1932.

The usual slog around school halls and community events followed. It didn't pay well, so he took a job with the newly established Irish Echo, writing a weekly column called "Irish Social Circles".

For an aspiring Irish tenor the job was serendipity personified. He got to know the venues and who owned them, as well as the leading Irish traditional musicians of the day - people like fiddlers Michael Coleman, James Morrison and Paddy Killoran, piper and band leader Martin Beirne, singer Joseph Maguire and the Flanagan Brothers, a dance band and recording group.

Despite the Depression, he did make a few 78 r.p.m. recordings for small labels - like many other musicians at the time, he never got paid - but it was the arrival of the English Decca label with a high-quality-budget-prices policy which energised a shrunken record industry and gave him his chance. Decca's wily Jack Kapp (who later signed jazz's Count Basie to a punitive contract) realised that the Irish-American market was a lucrative one and signed Feeney up.

Kapp launched the label with the likes of Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, Louis Armstrong and Guy Lombardo, all major music stars of the day. The rising tide helped to lift the Irish tenor's boat, and his first recording session generated a hit with When It's Moonlight In Mayo. The song wasn't written by him; two Tin Pan Alley writers, Percy Wenrich and Jack Mahoney, composed it 20 years earlier.

Feeney was simultaneously raising his profile on radio. With 26 local stations in the greater New York area serving, among others, an Irish-American audience, it made sense. The programme titles are an exile's rose-tinted dream, dripping with nostalgia and homesickness; A Trip To Ireland, Rambles In Erin, Irish Memories, Irish Showboat (with the McNulty family), and James Hayden presenting Killoran's Orchestra in "a weekly feature of high-class vocal and instrumental music with the latest information on Ireland".

Many programmes were sponsored; both the Irish Echo and its rival, the Irish World, did so. Feeney began appearing regularly on sponsored radio for the likes of "Barney - the Cut Rate Clothing King" and Harry Berkowitz, who metamorphosed into "Harry Burke, the Irish tailor" to pitch for the Green dollar.

It was radio that thrust him into the major leagues. Schaefer's, the Brooklyn brewers, wanted to tap into the Irish ethnic market. After an audition they signed him up and gave him a trial guest spot on their St Patrick's Night programme in 1937. The week he made his début for them the rival radio attractions included Marlene Dietrich, John McCormack, Rudy Vallée, Andre Kostelanitz and Andrés Segovia.

He rapidly became a regular. Schaefer's programmes were networked to markets in places like Boston, Cleveland and Baltimore, spreading Feeney's fame further afield. These were often big budget shows, with orchestras, vocal groups, name conductors and lavish production values. Curiously, although post-war stringencies and the rise of television cut radio budgets severely, Feeney - who could sing with just a piano accompaniment - stayed the course better than most. Radio also helped him ride the record industry traumas of the second World War, caused by shortage of shellac for 78 r.p.m's and the recording bans led by musicians union boss James Petrillo.

It helped, too, in building a considerable recital career for the man dubbed "the Mayo Nightingale" by the New York Times. He prospered enough to come back to Ireland for several pre-war working holidays with his wife, appearing to great acclaim at the Olympia and Theatre Royal in Dublin, the Cork Opera House, Limerick's Savoy Theatre and in Swinford and Ballina, as well as on national radio.

Prosperity in America meant a house in New York's fashionable Riverdale and a retreat on Long Island Sound, where singer Perry Como was a neighbour. But Feeney gave time to fund-raising for hospitals and schools, and assisting charitable and sports causes - he sang at the 1947 All-Ireland Final between Cavan and Kerry at New York's Polo Grounds.

He continued to perform in America and Ireland after the war, and there were minor screen appearances, but his health began to fail and he eventually retired in 1964. He and his wife, who had inherited her father's business, returned to Ballina as owners of the local Hugh Ruddy and Company, mineral water manufacturers, and he settled into a quiet life of honours and memories.

It lasted only a few years. He survived one heart attack in1967, but later that year, trying to avoid stray horses on the road, he swerved and his car wound up in a ditch. It brought on another attack and he died in his wife's arms.

And there the story might have ended, except for the fact that a huge store of memorabilia, including recordings and broadcasts, was kept by his wife. Before she returned to the US, where she died in 1990, she contacted RTÉ radio producer Harry Bradshaw, who had interviewed her in 1984, and offered it to him, saying that it was too much to take back to America. If he wasn't prepared to accept it, then it would all be thrown out.

Reluctantly, because of the sheer quantity, he agreed to take it. And it lay undisturbed at his home until a year or so ago, when he decided to investigate it and found he had entered a time capsule. Research trips to New York and contact with the singer's family followed.

The result is John Feeney: When It's Moonlight In Mayo, a two-CD set of Feeney's recordings, concert performances and off-air radio broadcasts compiled by Bradshaw and due to be released next month, complete with an extensive booklet on the singer's life. The centenary will also be marked by two archive broadcasts on radio by John Bowman.

John Feeney: When It's Moonlight In Mayo is due to be released on Viva Voce next month