Tommy Makem was an Irish singer and musician who had a successful solo career, a recording partnership with Liam Clancy.
He was also a member of the 1960s traditional band the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.
He had a charismatic stage presence and had a great bond with his audiences.
He was a hugely talented songwriter and wrote songs such as Four Green Fields, Winds of the Morning, The Winds of Freedom and many more that became Irish folk circuit classics.
He became known around the world as the Godfather of Irish music. Many traditional folk fans also dubbed him the ‘Modern day Bard of Armagh’.
Early love of folk music
He was born in Keady, Co Armagh and came from a musical family. His father was a fiddle player and his mother was Sarah Makem, a well known singer and song collector who often featured on Irish and British radio programmes.
His brother and sister were also musicians. When he was a child he sang in the church choir but he was also a fan of traditional Irish folk songs.
As he was growing up he studied various musical instruments and was accomplished on the banjo, guitar, tin whistle and bagpipes.
As a youngster he had a number of odd jobs including working in a bar, as a clerk in a garage and a correspondent for the local newspaper. However, there were very few opportunities for him in Ireland, and he began to look towards America.
The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem
In the early 1950s, Makem had a chance meeting with a budding young actor called Liam Clancy. It was a meeting that was to change his life.
Clancy was touring Ireland at the time with American heiress Diane Hamilton who was collecting Irish folk songs. She called in on Tommy Makem’s mother Sarah who was a renowned expert on Irish music.
The young Clancy and Makem hit it off immediately. The two men chatted and found they both had an ambition to go to seek their fortunes in America. They agreed to meet up once they got there.
Chasing the American dream – from actor to singer
A few years, later they did exactly that when they started singing Irish songs together in the emerging folk clubs of New York.
Makem had originally wanted to be an actor rather than a singer but his performances with Liam and the other Clancy Brothers were so popular that he teamed up with them to form The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.
The group quickly became leading lights in the New York folk scene and were signed to Columbia records in 1961.
They were a huge success in the 1960s and appeared on the most watched TV shows in the States such as The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. They also played in some of the most prestigious venues in the world including Carnegie Hall in New York and London’s Royal Albert Hall. They even performed for President Kennedy.
They released several albums, most notably, Isn’t It Grand Boys, which reached no 22 in the UK charts.
Forming a duo with Liam Clancy