Ed Power speaks to Freddie White about his early meetings with legendary musicians Phil Lynott and Eric Clapton.
All week long Eric Clapton kept his distance. The greatest bluesman of his generation wasn’t being purposefully aloof. But Clapton’s manager wanted his client on the straight and narrow. He understood only too well the clear and present threat a tour of Ireland posed to Clapton’s sobriety.
“He was just off the drugs and they were looking out for him very carefully,” recalls Cork songwriter Freddie White.
He played support to Clapton and his band as they wended their way around Ireland in 1979, starting at Cork City Hall on March 8, with stops in Tralee, Limerick, Galway and then two nights at Dublin’s National Stadium.
“There was a lot of naughty behaviour on that tour, between the road crew and my band,” says White (69).
Clapton was just one of the greats with whom the Cobh songwriter has crossed paths in a career spanning seven decades. In the Eighties, he was wingman to Phil Lynott as the Thin Lizzy singer embarked on an unlikely foray into hip-hop.
He also played with Philip King and Sonny Condell early in the history of Scullion. And White rubbed shoulders with Rory Gallagher, and is named-checked in a Christy Moore ballad (“Don’t I know you’re face are ye Paddy Reilly or Brendan Grace, Are ye Mary Black or Freddie White”).
His recording career began in the late Seventies, with albums that combined originals and covers of artist such as Warren Zevon, Tom Waits and Guy Clark.
However, My Country, the LP many consider his definitive release, consisted entirely of self-penned material. It was released in 1999, when White was living in Boston.
He crossed the Atlantic to record it, working with Moving Hearts member Declan Sinnott at Sinnott’s studio in Dublin. In a cramped space above Crow Street in Temple Bar they put together an underrated classic of Irish acoustic pop and a record that is today crying out for rediscovery.
“It was the first record of mine that was all originals,” says White. “My main thrust was always singing songs that I hear by other people. There are such brilliant writers – so stunningly good I just can’t ignore them. I hear a song and think, ‘God I have to do that’.”
Music was ever present during White’s childhood in Cobh, where he was born in 1951. His mother sang jazz standards, his father was a keen piano player.
White attended school in his home town and afterwards in Cork city. An accomplished guitarist by his early teens, he was soon playing in bands around the city.
“I went to Pres. They kicked me out in my second last year,” he says. “I went to St Ciaran’s on the Quays after that. I was quite good in school early on. I did well. I had an honours Inter Cert, which was good at the time. But they tried to make a scholar of me. I had no interest.”
Cork in the Sixties may not have been the beating heart of the rock ’n roll universe. Still, there were opportunities, if you had chops and were musically adventurous.
White performed in beat groups and then discovered Cork’s acoustic scene, becoming a regular at Captain Mackey’s folk club on MacCurtain Street. With bands from Dublin and further afield passing through there were always support slots for a bright young musician.
However, it was when he went to London in 1970 and started busking in Tube stations that White truly found his voice.
“I never considered myself much of a singer until I had to sing,” he reflects.
“If you’re in the subway and it’s noisy and you’re playing an acoustic guitar with no amplification people will walk by and completely ignore you. I basically learned to sing in those subways. Once you start raising the volume, it’s quite nice. That’s where I learned the whole style of singing my head off.”
White moved to Dublin in the mid-Seventies and soon was building a reputation around the capital.
“I did a residency in Toners on Baggot Street,” he says. “That’s where it all began to take off.”
In Dublin, he became acquainted with Phil Lynott, to whom he pays tribute with the My Country track, ‘For Philip Lynott’.
“He was always very respectful of me. He had done a rap song that he had demoed,” he says. “It was called ‘Silas Rat’. He wrote it and did most of the work. I did an overdub. It was suppose to come out as a Christmas single. But he died that Christmas.”
In 1992 White’s then wife Ann secured a green card so they emigrated to San Fransisco and then Boston, where he continued to play music whilst supporting himself with a series of day jobs. He was glad of the change of backdrop, as his career back in Ireland had fallen on lean times.
“There wasn’t a whole lot going on,” he says.
He was in Boston working as a plumber when two Cork fans, Mark Donnelly and Tom Cooney, offered to put up money for a new LP, on the proviso it was recorded with Declan Sinnott in Dublin. The timing was perfect. White had been keen to do something with the writings of his brother-in law Don O’Sullivan, an amateur poet who had passed away 1985.
“He died in a car crash in Spain,” says White. “He left behind loads of poetry. Lots of stuff about what was going in Ireland at the time. Wads of sketches. He had a very incisive personality.
“He was a real rambler. He’d disappear for months on end. He’d go to France and then disappear to Spain or North Africa. And then he would show up all of sudden, on Christmas Eve or what have you, with a friend in tow. He was a great character, a great entertainer. One of the best friends I ever had.”
During the recording process, White and his patrons parted ways. He was by then in Dublin, recording with Sinnott (there would later be a rapprochement with Donnelly and Cooney).
“It was upstairs in Crow Street. There was a lot of alternative stuff going on in Temple Bar at that time. Nowadays it’s more tourists. Then, it was a lot of artists.”
My Country captured White at his rawest and most unguarded. In his hands, O’Sullivan’s dark, swirling word-play acquires a hard-punching and confessional ache.
The music feels urgent and plaintive: the material is clearly hugely personal to White, who plays from the bottom of his heart and the depths of his soul.
What Came Next
My Country was released to acclaim. It was an emotive tribute to Don O’Sullivan, whose image adorns the cover. White went back to Boston, where he lived until 2004. He and Ann later divorced; he married Trish Hickey in Sydney in 2013. They’ve moved around, from Cobh to New York and Australia.
Now they live outside Doolin, Co Clare, where White is working on new material and seeing out the lockdown. “It’s very quiet,” he says. “Usually this place is thronged during the summer. You have busloads of tourists.”
He sighs and gazes out the window, where empty fields stretch into the distance. “There is none of that this year.”