Regular readers of this blog know that one of TNOP's goals is to ensure that our readers are aware of the vital roots of popular music in addition to keeping abreast of the latest news about today's performers. As the history of rock and roll reaches past its fifth decade, the inevitable (or sometimes untimely) deaths of its singers, songwriters, musicians and producers become more common. And sometimes there are those on the periphery that, unbeknownst to most fans, have made a noted impact on some of rock's most important artists.
Liam Clancy (pictured left with Shane MacGowan of The Pogues, above) was one such fellow. And music fans should know why Bob Dylan called him "the best ballad singer I have heard in my life." He died at the age of 74 this past week in Cork, Ireland.
Born in Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary, Clancy was one eleven children. His mother was a noted singer, and because of that fact in the mid-1950s he met Diane Hamilton Guggenheim, who was in the Republic to record noted Irish folk singers. It was during his travels in 1955 with Guggenheim that he would meet his future band partner Tommy Makem, whose mother also was a singer of some repute.
Young Liam's dream was to be an actor; after studying in night school at the National College of Art, he had minor success in Dublin, including an appearance in the production of The Playboy of the Western World starring Siobhan McKenna and Cyril Cusack. He struck off for the United States, landing fortuitously in Grennwich Village, staying with his brother Paddy and his wife. In between toiling through auditions and landing small parts in television and small films, Clancy would frequent establishments like the White Horse Bar and Gerde's Folk City, meeting jazz musicians, folk singers and actors aspiring to success in their respective crafts. It was during this time that he met Bob Dylan and they became regular acquaintances. Dylan would later recall a particular line of Liam's in the early days, after a number of pints of Guinness: "Remember Bob: No fear. No envy. No meanness."
But achieving success as an actor was difficult, and Liam reunited with Tommy Makem in New York. Along with his bothers Pat and Tom, the four recorded an album of republican rebel ballads entitled The Rising of the Moon in 1959. Not surprisingly, Clancy indicated he chose music over acting because "the pay was significantly better."
On St. Patrick's Day 1961, The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem got their big break. An act cancelled on The Ed Sullivan Show, a very popular national variety show on CBS Television. The boys' set was extended to 16 full minutes, and Irish traditional songs were suddenly in the vogue. Liam's wonderful baritone was a key reason for the group's artistic success. And as fate would have it, the boys had recently received new sweaters from home, knit by the Clancy Brothers' Aunt Peggy; the group had "a hook and a look" according to their agent. John Hammond of Columbia Records (also responsible for the signing of artists like Billie Holliday, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen) signed The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem, and they became international stars, riding the accompanying wave of folk music popularity in the early 1960s. Millions of albums were sold. Carnegie Hall was conquered. An audience with the first Irish-American president, John F. Kennedy, occurred in 1963.
By 1964, it was claimed that one-third of all albums sold in the Republic of Ireland were Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem records.
The folk music boom faded by the late 1960s with the emergence of a different brand of rock and roll. The group would break up and Liam Clancy, suddenly less well off because of bad business decisions, found himself in Canada, where he remade himself as a popular TV personality. Over the coming years, he would reunite in various configurations with Makem and his brothers.
Liam Clancy was the last surviving member of The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem. So lift "The Parting Glass." But every June, their hometown of Carrick-on-Suir will continue to hold a festival to celebrate the musical legacy of their native sons.
FURTHER LISTENING, VIEWING & READING:
Liam sings lead on "I Never Will Play The Wild Rover No More" with his brother Tom, Tommy Makem and Pete Seeger on the first episode of Rainbow Quest with Pete Seeger.
Liam talks a couple of years ago on RTE about meeting Dylan in the early days and having a drink with him and Bono in Dublin.
View the trailer from the 2007 documentary The Yellow Bittern: The Life and Times of Liam Clancy.