RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In the early part of the 20th century, Americans flocked to hear the voice of a famous Irish tenor. And John McCormack sold millions of records. You might say he was the Bono of his day.
For our yearlong series 50 Great Voices, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg rediscovers John McCormack and some of her own past.
SUSAN STAMBERG: I am old, but I wasnt always. This story is from the time my father was old - at least to me, his little girl. Dad, one Robert Levitt, was always up on the latest things. In that age of easily broken 78-RPM shellac phonograph records, he came home one day with a red plastic-looking disc, said here's a new record; reached it across to me; and before I could grab it, quite deliberately let it drop to the floor.
STAMBERG: It didnt break - which was how I learned about vinyl long playing records. But my father held on to his 78s. He played his beloved old Caruso records over and over again, and another tenor who sounded like this.
(Soundbite of song, "Believe Me")
Mr. JOHN MCCORMACK (Irish Tenor): (Singing) Believe me if all those endearing young charms, which I gaze on so fondly today...
STAMBERG: John McCormack, the Irish tenor captured the heart of my father and so many music lovers the world over. And, because daddy loved McCormack, I naturally did not. Every time he put his scratchy McCormacks on the phonograph, I rolled my eyes and went off to read a book. I was into Sinatra and Broadway musicals, and later, jazz. Certainly not this...
Mr. MCCORMACK: (Singing)
STAMBERG: Although I did once use John McCormack in an NPR story. It was a piece about crooner Bing Crosby, the easy-going, laid-back pop superstar of his day.
Explaining the Crosby phenomenon, jazz singer Mel Torme reminded listeners of what singing was like when Bing started out in the 1920s.
Mr. MEL TORME (Singer-Songwriter): Singers prior to Bing Crosby were very stiff about songs. They didnt take liberties with the melody.
(Soundbite of song, "I'm Falling in Love with Someone")
Mr. MCCORMACK: (Singing) I'm sure I could love someone madly, if someone would only love me.
STAMBERG: Before Crosby, there were the fussy, formal European-style operatic singers, like John McCormack.
Piles of letters arrived from angry listeners. What do you mean fussy? McCormack was a genius. Unfazed, McCormack remained not my cup of breakfast blend, until his name popped up on our 50 Great Voices list and got me poking around a bit.
(Soundbite of song, "Macushla")
STAMBERG: The thing thats in my head, and really that brought me to the story is "Macuschla."
Mr. ANTHONY KEARNS (Member, The Irish Tenors): Oh, I mean, thats a wonderful recording.
STAMBERG: This is Anthony Kearns, one of The Irish Tenors performers.
Mr. KEARNS: The sadness in it and the longing and the wanting, it just draws at the heart.
STAMBERG: It's the song my father played the most, the one I rolled my eyes at, until now, all these years later, when it draws at heart, unexpectedly, in so many ways.
Mr. KEARNS: If you listen to the early recordings for the Victor label, okay, you hear the crackling in the background. People used to describe it as frying of the rashers - the bacon and the sausages. But you hear his quality of singing and the style that the man had, and in particular, the way he could interpret the story in the song.
STAMBERG: McCormack's biographer, Gordon T. Ledbetter agrees.
Mr. GORDON T. LEDBETTER (Author, "The Great Irish Tenor"): I would say without any question or doubt, that he was the greatest musician amongst singers.
STAMBERG: McCormack's voice was at its peak from 1910 to 1920, Ledbetter says. He sang from the heart and the head, spontaneously and cerebrally. He could sing anything, from opera to German lieder to "Danny Boy."
Again, tenor Anthony Kearns.
Mr. KEARNS: His breath control, his diction, the quality of the voice, and with such ease that he manages to sing and bring it right down to a pianissimo and can control his instrument.
(Soundbite of song, "I Hear You Calling Me")
Mr. MCCORMACK: (Singing) I hear you calling me...
STAMBERG: In addition to the voice, biographer Ledbetter says handsome John McCormack had a sparkling personality.
Mr. LEDBETTER: A man of tremendous charm. I'm reminded, a little bit, of John Kennedy. He had that same boyish sort of charm, charismatic.
STAMBERG: McCormack was extravagant, too - money burned a hole in his pocket.
Mr. LEDBETTER: He had, I think, 13 Rolls Royces. He had a string of racehorses. He had a big art collection.
STAMBERG: Lived like a rock star. Sang, yes, like an angel - in crowded halls without a microphone.
Mr. MCCORMACK: (Singing) I dream of Jeannie with the light brown hair, borne like a vapor on the sweet summer air.
STAMBERG: Today's Irish tenor Anthony Kearns says the world has, by and large, forgotten John McCormack. His career ended in the 1930s - his voice diminished, the new, casual American singing style in vogue. But listening to him now, or again, like me enveloped in loves and losses of life's lessons, the beauty and sadness and presence can lull us to another world.
Mr. KEARNS: Can you imagine? I would love to have been back in the day - the drawing room ballad, sitting in a nice country Irish house, listening to John McCormack with a Steinway piano, performing those songs.
STAMBERG: Im Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
Mr. MCCORMACK: (Singing) I sigh for a Jeannie for her light...
MONTAGNE: You can hear some of John McCormack's recordings at NPRMusic.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
And Im Mary Louise Kelly.