In the front row at London's Covent Garden sat a chubby Irish lad who thought he knew something about singing, too. He had a gold medal from a Dublin musical festival to prove it. And he had been making $50 a week, singing at the St. Louis Exposition. That night in 1905 he first heard the great Enrico Caruso in La Boheme. "The best lesson . . . I ever received," John McCormack said, years later. The lesson: that a singer with a natural gift, and powerful lungs, still had to work at it.
So 20-year-old John McCormack went off to Milan to study. Two years later he was on the Covent Garden stage himself, singing Cavalleria Rusticana. And in another two years he was a hit at Oscar Hammerstein's Manhattan Opera House. Critics still had reservations: they referred to him as "the best endowed lyric tenor of his time." Ah, but singing Kathleen Mavourneen or Irish Eyes when Al Smith or Jimmy Walker or any other good Irishman was about, he'd steal their hearts away.
Almost everybody who owned a talking machine in the days of World War I was sure to have, along with Caruso's Pagliacci, John McCormack's Mother Machree, The Rosary, and probably Adeste Fideles. He sang up & down the land, and was always good for a benefitfor the Irish, the
Red Cross, the Catholics, the U.S. (he sold a half-million dollars' worth of Liberty Bonds). The Church made him a Papal Count; his records and his concerts made him the best-paid concert singer in history (total earnings: $4,000,000).
There was no operatic stuffiness in the good-natured, roly-poly Irishman; in 1925 he and Lucrezia Bori were among the first big name singers to go on the air. And in 1929 Fox paid him nearly a half-million dollars to sing eleven songs for a cinematic bit of Irish moonshine called Song O' My Heart. But in 1938 he retired, and only sang twice in public after that. Once was at his son's wedding in 1941. Last year, he started a tour for the British Red Cross, was told by his doctor to stop.
"I guess my bellows are overstretched from holding those long ones," he said.
Last week, in his County Dublin home at Booterstown, Irish Tenor John McCormack died, at 61, of bronchial pneumonia.