Roger Zee: I understand you started out as a drummer. Who influenced you early on?
Tommy McDonnell: Buddy Rich started me off. Then later came Steve Gadd. I would listen to all their records and learn every part.
Roger Zee: When and how did you make the transition to front-man/singer?
Tommy McDonnell: In 1987, my old friend and producer, Joe Ferry, asked me if I wanted to sing a demo for a songwriter who had no money to hire a vocalist. I performed a duet with an amazing singer, my friend Barbara Cafiero. It came out great and everyone said to me you ought to be a singer. So I figured it would be great not to have to carry a drum set — not realizing that I had a buy a PA system and a van to move the PA system. Stupid!
Roger Zee: How did your association with Gil Parris come about?
Tommy McDonnell: Jessica Delise, an agent friend of mine who booked my top-forty band, told me she knew this young guitar player who needed a singer for a gig. Gil was 17 years old and a monster. We’ve been friends ever since, always looking out for each other. Throughout his career he’s used me on records and live projects.
Roger Zee: You’ve toured the world with the Irish music and dance of Eileen Ivers. Talk about that experience.
Tommy McDonnell: What amazing times! We played some great gigs — performing at arts centers, symphonies, The Hollywood Bowl, and the Kennedy Art Center. What a tremendous thirteen year run! I remain friends with everybody I met along the way.
Roger Zee: This summer you’ve played Europe and Japan with the Original Blues Brothers. How does it feel to work with such renowned musicians?
Tommy McDonnell: They tell me all the time how great it is to be on stage with me — hehe! It’s amazing to perform with a lot of the music idols I grew up on. I’ve been listening to these guys since I was a baby. They hate it when I say that! I owe everything to Blue Lou Marini and Alan Rubin who really had faith in me when the Blues Brothers began looking for a singer. Without any audition or rehearsal, they threw me on a one month tour of Japan. Thank God I nailed it or I would’ve been saying “Did you want fries with that burger?”
Roger Zee: You recently put out an album recorded in Nashville, “Tommy McDonnell & The Mac 5.” Tell me about it.
Tommy McDonnell: The Blues Brothers played a concert outside of Paris, France on a barge on a lake about 100 yards away from a 10,000 person audience lining the surrounding streets. I found the scenario so crazy that at one point, in my Bronx, sarcastic, joking fashion, I yelled “you people across the water. ” The guy doing “front of house” for us turned out to be Grammy award-winning producer Cowboy Keith Thompson from Nashville. He got such a kick out of my crowd banter that he asked if I had my own record. I told him I wasn’t much of a songwriter but had guest appearances on many recordings. He said, “I want to do a record on you. Come to Nashville.” Being from the Bronx, I thought he was full of crap until my phone rang in December. “Let’s talk about songs for the album.” It became a leap of faith as far as song selection, keys, and style as Thompson had the whole thing worked out in his head before we even started. An amazing person! The rest is history. We begin touring the Mac five in Europe this Fall. It’s a very exciting thing to be out there on my own!
Roger Zee: What advice can you give to up and coming musician/singers?
Tommy McDonnell: The same advice I gave to my two kids — five magic words. “I SAID PLUMBER NOT DRUMMER.” Hehe. But seriously, hang in there. Practice your ass off. Be nice to everybody you meet. Because in the end, no matter how good you are, if you’re a jerk, people won’t hire you. Get your people skills together — so important! I’ve met too many musicians who led a charmed life, got amazing gigs early on, never had to work a day, and had people waiting on them hand and foot. There’s something very humbling about mixing a bag of cement or doing a job. You get to meet, talk, and deal with people. Are you sensing a trend?
Roger Zee: How do you find the state of the music business these days?
Tommy McDonnell: All the old-timers will tell you the same thing. Musicians used to run the music business and they provided room for development and creativity. Now it’s run by accountants who only look at numbers. I’m still a big fan of making great music and great relationships. The bottom line is you have to pay your dues. You have to learn about feel from the masters. I learned more about feel on the drums from my guitar-playing friend than I ever did from any drum teacher. He just naturally tuned into how to get a pocket, a groove into your soul. And you have to practice. Music’s one of the things in this world where hard work shows. If you do it, you become better. It’s amazing what your mind and body can do if you practice something. Today, kids seem to think they can become an expert from Googling something or watching a YouTube video. And all the TV shows that make you an overnight success don’t help. There’s some great talent out there — you know who you are! If I can inspire someone or put them on the right track, that’s a great day for me. I’m at the point where I want to teach voice in my off-time. My instructor, James Carson, the only one on the East Coast who teaches this method, has graciously passed it on to me. So I can’t wait to share with young up-and-comings. I’m so glad I can give back to the music and to the people.
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