Tribute to a golden voice: NCH to celebrate life of Tenor Frank Patterson

Frank Patterson.

An event at the NCH will celebrate the life of late great tenor Frank Patterson, writes Cathy Desmond.

In January 2019, The Nationalist, a local newspaper in Clonmel launched a poll to decide on who was the greatest person living or dead from the premier county. The short list of 16 names included revolutionary leaders, popular

entertainers and sportsmen. Leading the poll and voted the No 1 Greatest Tipperary Person of all time was the man nicknamed ‘Ireland’s Golden Tenor’. Standing on a pedestal in Clonmel town centre, a bronze statue of the singer in full concert tails poised as if captured mid-song preserves the memory of Frank Patterson.

Recognised as the rightful successor to Count John McCormack, Patterson was feted across the world in a spectacularly successful career that spanned four decades before his untimely death at the age 61 in 2000. Together with his wife, pianist Eily O’Grady (who passed away in 2015), the duo blazed a trail across America playing for presidents and popes entertaining audiences in the grandest halls but also for the hoi polloi in hundreds of parish halls throughout Ireland and America.

Frank Patterson and his wife Eily, with their baby son Éanán;
Frank Patterson and his wife Eily, with their baby son Éanán;

There were rumours that he was courted by the Mob but offers of ‘new management’ were politely but firmly declined. The king of rock and roll was a fan. Elvis’s daughter, Lisa Marie Presley came to Tipperary to lay flowers on the grave as a mark of her father’s respect.

Almost two decades after his death, the fan base of Pronsias mac Pháidín remains strong. Now preparations are advanced for a special tribute show at the National Concert Hall to celebrate a unique musical legacy.

The guests will include a host of musical cousins and clan members that include Na Casaidigh and the O’Gradys. Des Keogh, Patterson’s brother-in-law will narrate, and Oonagh Keogh will lead a 30-piece orchestra. The tenor chosen to bear the mantle and sing Patterson’s best loved songs is Wexford man, Anthony Kearns.

Kearns is best known as one of the original ‘Irish Tenors’, a singing trio who enjoyed instant success when they first emerged in 1999 post Riverdance. The group still tour twenty years later.

“We were fortunate that we landed on the crest of a wave,” says Kearns. “Frank paved the way. He kept the whole thing going single handed and he did it the hard way.”

The two met on one occasion only just after the Irish Tenors had emerged on the scene.

We were like ships that pass in the night. I met him in a hotel in Eyre Square. I was heading out to Clifden and he had a concert in Galway city.

"There was room for two Irish tenors in Galway back then,” he quips.

Following Patterson’s death, Kearns received a very special bequest.

Eily gave me all of Frank’s music. She said she wanted it to go to a good home. Most of Frank’s arrangements are by Johnny Tate done in a time when no expense was spared.

"Some of the arrangements are hand- written. There is wonderful colour in the orchestrations and the rich arrangements allow the songs to breathe.”

Producing the event is Gerald Peregrine, a cello virtuoso who had a unique back stage pass to Ireland’s cultural ambassador.

“I grew up in a musical family. Eily was my aunt. My cousin Éanán [Patterson’s son] is the same as age as me and we often visited them when they were home in Brittas. When I was 11 years old, I spent six weeks in the States and went to school with Éanán. I learned so much about the business from being around them.

Frank Patterson and his wife Eily on their wedding day.;
Frank Patterson and his wife Eily on their wedding day.;

“Frank was sweet and sincere. Even at the height of his success, he was genuinely humbled at the audience reactions. Whether he was playing in a parish hall or Carnegie Hall he would always turn up in full concert regalia. There was never an off day.

“Just before she died, I promised Eily that I would do my best to preserve Frank’s legacy. The time seems right now to look back, hear the stories and re live some of the incredible memories from his glittering career.”

Frank Patterson - Ireland’s Golden Tenor, National Concert Hall, Dublin, June 15

  • Frank Patterson: A life in Music

  • Early Life: Frank Patterson was born in Clonmel on October 5, 1938, the eldest of four children. He sang in the parish choir and joined in with the tradition of singing with the Wrenboys. Tommy O’Brien, radio presenter encouraged him after hearing him sing in a school production. A keen sportsman, playing tennis, golf and hurling, he left school early to work in the family printing business before moving to Dublin in 1961
  • Big Breakthrough: Entered the Feis Ceoil in 1964, winning the ‘grand slam’ of Oratorio, Lieder and German Prizes leading to scholarships to study in London, Paris and Holland.
  • First Record Deal: While in Paris, a radio broadcast caught the attention of Phillips Record Company. His first recording, My Dear Native Land, was released in 1973. He went on to record 36 albums in six languages.
  • The 1970s: TV show Your Pleasure ran from 1974-1984 on RTÉ. Engagements with orchestras in Europe won him a reputation as a singer of Bach, Handel and Mozart. He featured in an all Bach Proms appearance with Bernadette Greevy and the New Irish Chamber Orchestra at the Albert Hall. Papal Performance: A devout Catholic, in 1979 he sang at the Phoenix Park Mass for Pope John Paul II.
  • 1980s America: Patterson moved to the USA making his home north of New York City. He sang for presidents at the White House and was the first Irish singer to sell out Radio City Music Hall in New York.
  • Screen: In 1978 John Huston created the role of Bartell D’arcy for him in The Dead, the character who sings ‘The Lass of Aughrim’. In 1996 he appeared as ‘tenor in restaurant’ in Michael Collins singing ‘Macushla’. Patterson is heard singing on the soundtracks of Miller’s Crossing and Gangs Of New York. He appeared as a singing waiter in a comedy sketch on the Tracy Ullman Show.
  • Final Days: Diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1999, he had several operations but the cancer recurred a year later. His final performance was on June 4, 2000, in Boston. Six days later he was admitted to the hospital where he died. Such was the extent of his fame that the traffic was stopped on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan as a mark of respect and to allow the funeral cortege pass

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