Ireland's proud Troubadours by Earle Hitchner
If Andy Warhol was right about everyone getting 15 minutes of fame, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem went him one minute better on a Sunday night in January, 1961. Tom, Liam and Paddy Clancy, along with good friend Tommy Makem, made their first appearance on the hugely popular one-hour TV variety program, The Ed Sullivan Show, and the unexpected cancellation of a headlining act led to an equally unexpected dividend of more camera time for the quartet.
Originally slotted for 3 minutes, they captivated 80 million viewers for 16 minutes, regaling them with Irish songs free of artifice, the so-called "paddywhackery" and "oirishness" associated with so many vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley takes on Irish life. Wearing their trademark, cream-colored, cable-knit Aran sweaters that the Clancys' mother had sent for the cold American winters, the foursome threw their heads back, opened their mouths, and let loose rich vocal harmonies rooted in the culture of Ireland but shaped by the folksong revival then taking place in America.
A few days later, walking down State Street in Chicago, they were stopped by a pedestrian who saw the Sullivan show and asked for their autographs. As Tom Clancy scribbled his name, he looked back at his brothers and Makem and joked, "Hey, we re famous!" But it was no joke. Renowned record producer John Hammond Sr. also saw the quartet on TV, and signed them to Columbia. The music career of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem had taken a giant step forward.
Happy accidents seemed to befall the quartet in other ways as well. Earlier on, they struggled to come up with a band name — The Moonshiners, The Druids, The Bards, The Beggarmen, and even The Chieftains were among the rejected suggestions — and they still hadn't agreed on a name when they got to Chicago for an important six-week engagement at The Gate Of Horn club. Exasperated with their indecision, the owner simply slapped this up on the marquee: "The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem." And the name stuck.
What also stuck was their talent for and joy in singing, both fostered in Ireland. In his hometown of Keady, an agricultural community in County Armagh, Tommy Makem learned to sing mainly from his mother, Sarah, who had a lovely, pure voice and a staggering repertoire of over 500 songs. In another small market town, Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary, lived Robert Clancy, who was an insurance broker, his wife, Joan, and their nine children: Lili, Leish, Cait, Paddy, Tom, Bobby, Joan, Peg and Liam. Robert and Joan Clancy sang constantly — on walks, in the car, in the garden, in the house — and it became second nature for their children.
Two Clancy sons, Tom and Paddy, immigrated to America in 1950, and youngest brother Liam followed in late 1955, accompanied by Tommy Makem. Bit by the thespian bug, they pursued acting jobs by day and sang at night in such Manhattan pubs as The Lion's Head and The White Horse Tavern. For Tradition Records, an independent label founded by Paddy Clancy, they also began making albums, including 1956's The Rising Of The Moon: songs of Irish rebellion belted out in unison and originally recorded around a kitchen table in the Bronx.
The first album with the quartet shown in Aran sweaters, however, was 1961's A Spontaneous Performance Recording, their outstanding debut on Columbia, a label for which they would record several more successful releases. It is from this impressive body of work for Columbia that the 16 songs on The Best Of The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem have been selected.
Eleven of the tracks are live, conveying the extraordinary ability of the Clancys and Makem to connect and communicate directly with an audience. Dollops of humor — listen to Tommy Makem's anecdote prefacing "The Old Orange Flute" — intersperse with bits of history and reminiscence to provide a full stage experience for the people they sing to. They take their craft, not themselves, seriously, and concert-goers love them for it.
At Manhattan's Carnegie Hall in 1962, the group's lusty live singing of "Irish Rover," peppered by their own exuberant shouts, represents balladry at its best. In this tall tale of a tall ship named Irish Rover, they whimsically catalog its cargo, including "three million bales of old nanny goats' tails" and "five million hogs and six million dogs."
There's also plenty of fun flowing through Irish songs about drinking, especially whiskey, the word itself derived from uisce beatha, Gaelic for "water of life." In "Whiskey, You're The Divi1," The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem rousingly sing about something "sweeter, stronger, decent-er and spunkier than tea," which ultimately leads the narrator "astray"to America. Two other classics of theirs, "The Jug Of Punch" and "Whiskey Is The Life Of Man," focus more on the presumed therapeutic benefits of the liquor.
Songs of Ireland's history and heroes have always occupied a special place in any Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem concert or recording, and this compilation is no exception. "(Down By The Glenn) The Bold Fenian Men," written by Peadar Kearney, and "The Patriot Game," written by his nephew, Dominic Behan, are sung not with anger but quiet ardor, befitting the enormous personal sacrifices made in the name of country. Only when more robust vocals seem merited, as in "A Nation Once Again" and "The Rising Of The Moon," do the Clancys and Makem sing with a swagger.
In the early 1960s, as his profile and popularity grew, a buoyant Bob Dylan cracked, "I'm going to be as big as The Clancy Brothers!" It's not an idle assessment of their impact back then. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem performed in the best-known clubs and biggest concert halls, on occasion sharing the stage with such opening acts as Stan Getz, Bob Dylan and an up-and-coming singer named Barbra Streisand.
With the deaths of Tom Clancy in 1990 and Paddy Clancy in 1998, The Clancy Brothers (Liam and Bobby, another singing sibling, remain) are diminished only in ranks, not reputation. They and Makem pioneered a style of lead and harmony singing that was a boon to the folk boom in both Ireland and America. Often imitated, never duplicated, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were in the vanguard of an Irish musical movement whose powerful ripple effects are still felt today.
— A noted expert on Celtic music, Earle Hitchner has written for The Wall Street Journal, Billboard and Irish Echo, among many other publications.
Singing songs of Irish history and humor in their trademark Aran sweaters, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem had an enormous influence on Irish music, forever changing the way it was performed and perceived. Tom, Paddy and Liam Clancy from Tipperary, along with good friend Tommy Makem from Armagh, blended their remarkable, robust voices to forge a new appreciation of Ireland's proud musical heritage. This collection of 16 classic songs captures them in peak performance, both in the studio and in concert, proving that their ability to entertain and enthrall audiences was second to none.