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A True Gentleman and a Scholar - Memories of Tommy Makem

August 3, 2007

First gig with Tommy at Cocheco Park, Dover, NH - 1992
My friend, Irish singer Tommy Makem, passed away the evening of August 1, 2007. My phone rang at 9:00 PM with the caller ID showing that the call was from Thomas Makem. I picked it up quickly, not only hoping for good news about his health but also hopeful that he was inviting me to back him up for a short tour as he had so many times before throughout the years. It was Rory Makem, Tommy’s eldest son, speaking in a voice identical to Tommy’s and telling me that his dad had died peacefully at his home in Dover, NH three hours earlier.

My friendship and admiration of Tommy Makem all began with my childhood friend, the late Ray Harvey, banjo player, guitarist and mandolin player extraordinaire. Ray and I grew up together on Long Island, NY and early on realized our love of music together. The Back Alley Boys, as we were known, played bluegrass everywhere and anywhere during our teens, including talent shows, a gig at the 1964 New York World’s Fair in Flushing, NY, and everything in between.

Moving to Boston from New York in 1967, Ray followed and became part of my extended family in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Ray tended to move in Irish music circles and I in the folk/blues circles. In the early 1980s, Ray became a member of the Garrison Brothers, an award winning Canadian folk group, which included as a principal member, Eugene Bryne. Eugene is a wonderfully talented Irish entertainer who had emigrated from Dublin and moved to New Hampshire to pursue his music career in the US and to be close to his friend and countryman, Tommy Makem. He, as well as Ray, also backed Tommy up from time to time, substituting for Ron D'Addario.

Tommy and Bob on the road in Hilton Head, SC, 1998
In 1992, I got a call from Eugene to accompany Tommy on guitar for what I thought was a one-time gig at an outdoor concert at Cocheco Falls in Dover, New Hampshire, Tommy’s adopted hometown, with the Makem Brothers, Rory, Connor and Shane, as opening act. Tommy and I had never met before that night but it was apparent during the first few minutes of the concert that we were going to become fast friends, which we did.

During the following years, I had the honor of backing up Tommy as his guitarist on tours throughout the country. My travels with him took me to venues in Los Angeles, Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey, his annual concert at St. Anselm’s College in Manchester, NH, Irish festivals in Chicago, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Tampa, Dallas, Minneapolis, Boulder and a week in New York City at Tommy’s own music club, the Irish Pavilion, plus so many other cities. That trip to NYC coincided with the US premiere of Riverdance at a black tie affair at Radio City Music Hall. I knew Tommy had the respect of his peers when we were seated in front of the likes of Sen. Ted Kennedy, also a friend, and spent the evening at the cast party with Michael Moore and Malachy McCourt.

Bob and Tommy at the Colorado Irish Festival, 2003
To friends, I compared his popularity to the Grateful Dead, all wrapped up into one person. Fans followed him from city to city. In Chicago, I would be introduced to a fan and two years later, in Madison, Wisconsin, that same fan would introduce himself to me again. I got chills myself every time he performed his classic Irish freedom song, Four Green Fields, Gentle Annie, and the song his mother, Sarah Makem, wrote, Red is the Rose, and couldn’t get out of my mind the wonderful tunes he sang like “Dancing With Bears” and many others. We have never seen the likes of Tommy Makem and I doubt we will ever see anyone like him again. He was truly a delight to work with.

"The Bard of Armagh", the “Godfather of Irish Music” was a most extraordinary musician, songwriter, storyteller, performer, Irishman and, most importantly, a family man, and I was privileged to become part of what he had to offer to the world. He was a true gentleman and a scholar and the opportunity to work with such a courageous man was an honor and invaluable learning experience which I will carry with me throughout my life. The world is a much better place to have had him for so many years and we will all miss him. Rest in peace, Tommy.

- Bob McCarthy, Winnisquam, NH

Posted by Matt Watroba at August 3, 2007 9:39 AM

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