By David Hennessy
“When you are singing to a person who has advanced Alzheimer’s, there is a light comes on inside of them and somebody who can’t even remember much about themselves can remember the words to a song, and they can remember every single word,” tenor Jack Foley says of his rewarding experiences of performing in hospitals for the charity, Music in Hospitals.
“I’ve seen people come alive when I sing. You can see the light behind people’s eyes. That little bit of them dementia has robbed comes back for a little while, albeit if it’s only for a couple of minutes during a song. There’s quite a few times I’ve experienced, going in and singing, seeing people open up with joy and being in a different place. There’s a magic in it. Music in Hospitals, they’re a wonderful charity.”
Jack knows too well the power of music. Growing up in East Durham, he always had a passion for music and singing but being the son of a miner, it was not really a path that he was encouraged to take. Instead, on leaving school, he found steady work as a tree surgeon and worked in this capacity for years.
He was nearly 30 when he was compelled to give up a steady income to pursue his dreams and make that move to London. In fact, Jack was so determined to be a part of the opera world that he took a job as an usher at the Royal Opera House before becoming a backstage tour guide- a job he still does on a casual basis. Jack’s journey is so diverse and interesting that it also includes a time spent working as an undertaker.
Another charity Jack does work with is Cancer Research UK. This is a cause that is very close to his heart since he lost his uncle Gerard to the disease: “My experience was very powerful to me. I’d just left the north east to come and live in London, I was working in a hotel in north London, and my uncle Gerard unfortunately was dying. Uncle Gerard was my biggest fan when I started singing. He was there for any concert I ever did and that is why I support Cancer Research UK.
With his working class roots and theatrical passions, Jack’s story is very reminiscent of the popular film and musical, Billy Elliot. The parallels even extend to his father being a coal miner. “My father left school at 14, he left school on a Friday and started work in the mines on a Monday: Straight to the mines at 14. My father’s profession of being a coal miner is a very macho man’s man kind of world so anything theatrical was for women. Men don’t do that sort of thing and certainly not opera or in Billy Elliot’s case, ballet.
“I was in my mid 20s by the time I was like: ‘Do you know what? It’s okay to sing. This is in me, it needs to come out. I’m going to move to London’. When that movie came out, I had been living in London four or five months. I went to see it, I cried at the scene at the end where he’s accepted by his father which I was by my father.
“I said to my father: ‘I’ve been working at the local council for 13 years, I’ve got a pension, own my own house, have a car. I’m going to move to London, be a singer’. He thought I was mad, he could not understand what I was talking about. When he got his head around it, he realised I was completely serious, there was nobody more supportive.”
Was it scary for Jack to give up the stability of a stable job and start a new life? “I don’t think it was actually that difficult. I knew there was something right in it. The financial side of it, I’ve never been hugely driven by finances. I’ve found with everything in life, once it is there (brain), your body will follow.
“I remember a couple of years ago, I decided to do the London marathon. I was in my late 30s at the time and I said ‘if I don’t do it now, I’m never going do it’. I did it in 5 hours and 20 minutes and as soon as I crossed that line I knew: ‘I’m never going do that again’. But four months before that, I knew that I could do it. I didn’t train as religiously as I should have. Once something’s in your mind, the rest of it will follow.”
Jack can trace his roots back to all corners of Ireland (Clare, Kerry, Donegal and a region in Northern Ireland that can not be narrowed down) with all eight great great grandparents on his father’s side born there before coming over to the UK. His mother’s side is also Irish but not as much detail is known about her side of the family.
His Mother is one of fourteen children and Jack has over fifty first cousins just on her side, “Christmas’s were pretty busy in my Granma’s house, I can tell you. I went to the local church and the local Catholic school and all that, and, even among my peers, I always remember feeling more staunchly proud of being Irish than my friends did. I didn’t know whether that was something in my blood. I’ve always felt a great affinity with my Irish ancestry and I’ve always been proud of my Irish ancestors.”
It is Clare that Jack often visits, spending time with his cousin Ged Foley who is also a well known musician, playing in the past with Scotland’s Battlefield Band, England’s House Band and the super group, Patrick Street. He is also the organiser of the East Clare Fiddle Festival.
A big inspiration for Jack has been the great Irish tenor, John McCormack from Westmeath who died in 1945. McCormack learned his trade in Milan under Vincenzo Sabatini who said on hearing him for the first time ‘I cannot place your voice, because God did that’. For his operatic debut in Savona in 1906, McCormack didn’t want to appear different to his audience and sang under the pseudonym Giovanni Foli (taking his wife’s surname, Foley, and adapting it to Italian) which is like an Italian version of Jack’s name:
“The man had one of the most beautiful instruments, one of the most beautiful voices that ever existed. He was a great influence on me growing up. I love his story. When I first started singing, doing the odd concert in the church hall and that kind of thing, people would say: ‘My Goodness, you have a wonderful pure voice like John McCormack’. I always took that as a huge, huge compliment obviously.”
It was by a chance meeting a few weeks ago in Convent Garden that Jonathon Brosnan, an artist manager and promoter, was so impressed by Jack’s live street performance, he offered him the opportunity to take his musical career further as a personal manager.
Jack and Jonathon with the support of top video producer Stuart Sharp, have been working on some new promotional videos. Stuart has produced “ Behind The Scenes” a personal video introduction from Jack, followed by his new version of the famous Mario Lanza song Be My Love with the astounding breathtaking top C ending note.
Other new promotional videos include Nella Fantasia, Music of The Night, and Maria. Jack has also released two albums with a selection of standard hit songs, Broadway and Opera greats. Jack has also appeared with The Royal Opera, Carl Rosa Opera Company and Grange Park Opera, and starred in musicals such as West Side Story, Anything Goes and Pirates of Penzance.
For more information on Jack, you can go to: http://www.smoothclassics.co.uk/.
Personal Manager: Jonathon Brosnan 0778 666 3999.
For more information on Cancer Research UK, you can go to: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/.
For more information on Music in Hospitals, you can go to: http://www.music-in-hospitals.org.uk/.