America’s First Superstar

A TV documentary on the 1904 St. Louis World Fair mentioned how John Philip Sousa and his band dominated the entertainment, which included a young John McCormack singing at the Irish Pavilion.  It brought to mind a forgotten era when American superstars were not individuals with a current hit record, but band leaders – people with the ability to not only play, but compose, arrange, and lead a musical organization.  In the beginning, America’s first superstars were the leaders of America’s first marching Brass Bands, and though Sousa was certainly one of them, he was not the first.  That honor goes to a man whom Sousa himself called his mentor and whom he acknowledged as matchless.   He was a man who, in his day, was called America’s Greatest Bandleader, and The Musician of the People.  Sadly, today few remember his name, though most still know his works, and his life story would be a movie of epic proportions.

It began on Christmas Day, 1829, when a boy was born to the Gilmore family in Ballygar, Co. Galway named Patrick.  After a difficult childhood, having experienced the horror of Great Hunger in Ireland, he emigrated to America in 1848 at the age of 18.  His love of music led him to one of the many Brass Bands that were popular in America at the time, which he joined as a coronet player.  He settled in Massachusetts where anti-Irish bigotry was rampant and adopted the middle name of Sarsfield to rebuke the “No Nothings” of Horace Greeley in Boston by saying, You know little about Patrick Sarsfield and what he did to the British, but I do!

His talent overcame the prejudice and he eventually became the leader of the Charlestown Brass Band, then the Boston Brigade Band, and finally the Salem Brass.  In 1856, he started his own band, which he called Gilmore’s Boston Band, and began to change the image of American music.  At a time when the prevailing notion was the louder the brass the better the band, Gilmore became the first major bandleader in America to conduct brass band arrangements of classics by Mozart, Liszt, and Rossini.  When that made everyone sit up and take notice, he extended his repertoire to standard works, one of the most popular of which was his own composition, Seeing Nellie Home, inspired by his wife Ellen O’Neill, who was organist and choir director at St. Patrick’s Church in Lowell, Mass.  Another of his compositions, written for a civil rights leader of the time, was called John Brown’s Body.  Most will recognize that as the song to which Julia Ward Howe later rewrote the lyrics to create the Battle Hymn of the Republic.  Perhaps his most enduring work was a military march that he wrote to the air of an old Irish anti-war song.  Based on the tune, Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya, Gilmore created the classic: When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again written for his brother-in-law, Capt. Johnny O’Rourke from Limerick who was a prisoner of the Confederates.  Even the recent movie Lincoln features his song, We Are Coming, Father Abraham.

Despite his great fame as a composer and band leader, his crowning achievements were the organizing and directing of two of the largest music festivals ever held.  In 1869, he organized the National Peace Jubilee, and later, the World Peace Jubilee.  For sheer numbers of performers, nothing has ever surpassed that latter concert which consisted of 2,000 musicians, and a chorus of 20,000 voices.  He brought together leading bands from England, France, Germany, Belgium and Ireland.  The Irish band, by the way, was one he personally demanded after England insisted on sending only one band to represent the Empire, of which Ireland at the time was a part.  Gilmore told the Brits to send an Irish Band or stay home themselves.  Such was the power of Gilmore’s name; he not only attracted the world’s best musicians and singers, but he even convinced the renowned waltz king, Johann Strauss, to compose a special piece, The Jubilee Waltz, for the occasion, and to make his first trip across the Atlantic to conduct it himself.  One of the highlights of the event was the performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Anvil Chorus, with one hundred Boston firemen hammering out the rhythm on blacksmiths’ anvils.

Shortly after this triumph, Gilmore left Boston for New York, where he became leader of the 22nd Regimental Band of the National Guard.  For the next 20 years he concentrated on developing what became universally recognized as simply the greatest band in the world.  In 1878, he became the first American bandmaster to make a concert tour of Europe.  It was a smashing success.  He returned to New York, and took over P.T. Barnum’s old Hippodrome building, and renamed it Gilmore’s Concert Garden.  It became the showplace of New York where he played nightly to a full house.  If you haven’t guessed yet, when he moved on, it became Madison Square Garden.  Everything this man did was colossal.   It was Gilmore who originated the tradition of ringing in New Years in Times Square, it was Gilmore who was musical director for the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor in 1886, and it was Gilmore who, in 1891 was invited by Thomas Edison to record on wax cylinders, thereby becoming the first band to make commercial recordings.

He never forgot Ireland or his fellow Irish either.  Acclaimed as an Irishman in American newspaper articles throughout his career, when Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt and their organizations needed to promote their policies it was to Gilmore that they turned for public endorsement.  Gilmore included references to Home Rule in his Concert Programs and even wrote a Ballad dedicated to Home Rule called Ireland to England.  He raised money for Famine Relief, Clan na nGael, the Annual Emerald Ball for Orphans, the Friendly Sons of St Patrick, etc.  Gilmore spoke on the value of the Boycott to the Irish People and often declared publicly and proudly that he was an Irishman.

In 1892, Gilmore was named musical director of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, but while on a national tour that year, he died of a heart attack on Sept 24 at 62 years of age.  He was mourned by the entire nation, and thousands lined the funeral route from his home on Central Park West to St. Xavier’s Church across town, and then to his final resting place in Calvary Cemetery in Queens.  The great Victor Herbert said that for the hard, but glorious struggle from the old bands of loud brasses and drums which made the most noise possible, to bands which interpret the works of the world’s great composers to satisfy the most exacting musician, most of the glory belonged to Gilmore.  It is sad that although many still know his works, so few remember his name; yet sadder still is that many who do see his name on his compositions, don’t even know that P.S.Gilmore was Irish.  Yet he was not only Irish, but one of the Irish who helped to shape America.  His musical legacy lives on to this day despite the demise of his memory.  Despite the fact that no Irishman ever left so many footprints of musical influence, there are only 4 memorials to America’s First Superstar worldwide: a street in St Louis, a Plaque in New Orleans, a Plaque in Ballygar and the P.S.Gilmore Marching Band in the Restoration Village at Bethpage, Long Island, NY.

John McCormack

In May 1903, a curly-headed 18-year-old from Athlone submitted a last minute entry in the tenor competition at the Dublin Feis Ceoil – an annual competition in music and song. He hadn’t the money to enter until a friend paid his entrance fee, another bought his music, and Dr. Vincent O’Brien, Choirmaster of the pro cathedral in Dublin, taught the young man the two competition pieces – Handel’s Tell Fair Irene and Thomas Moore’s the Snowy Breasted Pearl. Between these generous men, young John McCormack was literally pushed into a life of music. On the day of the Feis, the nervous young McCormack was the last of 14 tenors to perform. At the end of his performance, the audience rose with a thunderous ovation, despite the fact that applause was forbidden. It was a demonstration never before seen, and the judge said, `There is no need to tell you who the winner is, you have picked him’. The next day all of Dublin was buzzing about the young man from Athlone who had captured the coveted gold medal with his inspired singing.

Born to sing on June 14, 1884, John was one of six children. He loved music, but all his family had pleasing voices, so no special attention was paid to him at home. Naturally intelligent, he won a scholarship and graduated Sligo College. Through his years of education, John always found time for the school choir. After graduation, his father secured a clerical position for him in Dublin, but John was miserable doing clerical work. Two friends: Dudley Ford and Frank Manning took him to Dr. Vincent O’Brien who gave him a place in the pro cathedral Choir at 25 Pounds per year. That was all the encouragement he needed. Young McCormack walked out of his office job, and never returned.

It was these men who supported John’s entry into the Feis where he scored his first triumph. Among John’s admirers at that Feis was a young lady named Lily Foley, who won a medal herself for singing in Irish. After the Feis, 16-year-old Miss Foley and 18-year-old John McCormack found themselves engaged to sing at a number of concerts, and a lasting friendship developed between them. Then, Mr. James Riordan arrived in Dublin to engage artists to appear at the Irish Village at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Both John and Lily were selected to join the finest entertainers in Ireland who would represent their country’s musical heritage at that prestigious event. The journey to America, and the months spent amid the glamour and glitter of the St. Louis World’s Fair was like a trip to fantasy land. `An awesome spectacle’, Lily later wrote, `for our young Irish eyes.’ All went well at the Fair until the management decided to put a stage Irish comic on the bill. Young McCormack protested the addition as demeaning to the Irish and resigned. He returned to Ireland, and the pro cathedral where he was welcomed with open arms.

His golden voice remained the central attraction in the choir until John, again through the generosity of friends, went to Italy to study and improve his God-given talent. Miss Foley remained ever in touch, and eventually the talented young songstress became Mrs. John McCormack. Together they enjoyed a life that saw John McCormack become an international star. They owned a Hollywood mansion, a Park Avenue apartment, a castle, a stable of race horses, a roomful of Rembrandts, and 12 Rolls Royces. John received the title of Papal Count, yet remained as unspoiled as the day he first entered the Dublin Feis.

He was the highest paid classical musician in history receiving more than $2,500,000. a year in days when you could keep most of it. His more than 600 recordings sold into the hundreds of millions in his lifetime, and still sell to this day. He sold out the 7,000-seat Hippodrome 50 times, and brought SRO audiences to their feet with his solo recitals in the largest theaters and arenas across five continents. He was hailed by the Germans as a peerless Lieder singer, proclaimed a master of bel canto by the Italians, and made a Chevalier of France’s Legion of Honor for his interpretations of Debussy and Faure. He was also regarded as the greatest Mozart tenor of all time, his astonishing ability to sustain long phrases on a single breath astounded box holders from Covent Garden to the Metropolitan. Constantly teamed with top prima donnas, he sang with Melba, Tetrazzini, Destinn and Farrar. The press coverage he received was only matched by silver screen idols Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and his hold on the affections of a world beyond music surpassed even that of his good friend Enrico Caruso.

Through it all he remained a constant devotee of the music of his native Ireland, and was never reluctant to sing them whether requested or not. As one writeup noted, `through his ravishingly beautiful performances of the traditional ballads and folk songs of a nation struggling against poverty, famine, and oppression and striving for a place of its own in the world commonwealth, John McCormack achieved immortality as the voice of Ireland’s history and fate, the personification of Gaelic romance and fantasy, and the cherished idol of his people everywhere.’ Shortly after his death in September, 1945, his wife Lily found these words written in a memo book on John’s desk. ‘I live again the days and evenings of my long career. I dream at night of concerts in which I have had my share of success. Now, like the old Irish minstrels, I have hung up my harp because all my songs are sung. Thank God for recordings, for his voice is not lost forever.