By David Hennessy
Tommy Fleming has sung on many of the world’s finest stages, including Carnegie Hall in New York where he has performed numerous times as he has toured the world as lead singer with De Dannan or with Phil Coulter.
But Tommy has also overcome great adversity, coming through a horrible car crash that threatened both his life and his career and more recently, losing both his parents in the same day.
Following the sudden loss of both his mother and his father, Tommy wanted to be distracted and to escape and set about his writing his story, the autobiography Let Me Begin.
“At the time, it was very therapeutic for me because that summer [2012, both Tommy’s parents passed on March 30 that year], all I did was throw myself into work because I didn’t want to be thinking about it, I didn’t want to be reminded of it, I didn’t want any of that. I threw myself completely into work.”
As tough as it was to lose both parents at once, Tommy writes in his book of a comfort knowing that they at least were together: “It was months later that we started, my siblings and I, to think (it was nice) one of them wasn’t left behind, wherever their journey has taken them, they’re together. We look at it now, almost three years down the line and we celebrate their life now instead of mourning their passing which is a huge difference. Christmas time was an awful time the first year, I think you just say to yourself you don’t have parents anymore which is a strong sentence to come out. Six months later, I was in Australia and that’s when I found it a bit easier. I couldn’t travel to Australia that November because I just found it too tough.
“It’s not as raw, it’s not near as raw as it was. They’ll never be forgotten, they were two amazing people.”
Now Tommy is set to release his first studio album in six years, Begin, with help from producer Mike Moran who has worked with greats such as Queen and Freddie Mercury. September will also see him touring the UK. It was on his last UK tour that Tommy received a phone call telling him that he had to return home as his mother wasn’t well. She had had a second stroke. It was a phone call that changed everything.
“I was always very dubious about doing the UK tour (again) because I just feel it brings back a lot of memories of a tough time in my life. It was a week before that I was in London doing the Shepherds Bush O2 and I got the phone call from my sister saying I needed to come home. I went out, did the show which was hard enough for me to do and then went home and a few days later my mother died and my father died that night.”
Having returned home to be with his hospitalised mother, Tommy actually had to fly back to the UK to try to finish the tour as he was contractually obliged: “We did every show I think except Nottingham and Newcastle so I was constantly flying, trying to find the nearest airport to whichever city I was in to get into Dublin, Belfast, Shannon, whichever airport would take flights from that city would do. It was mental to be honest with you. I probably should have pulled the tour at the very beginning.
“The last place I wanted to do was be on a stage, the last thing I wanted to do was sing but unfortunately contracts held me to keep the shows going. You couldn’t not. You had to try and keep going for the sake of each side.”
It was in 1998 that Tommy came close to death himself. It was after recording his second solo album Restless Spirit that Tommy, who was locked into a contract with a poor manager, that he realised there was no budget for promotion. Trying to rescue things, Tommy committed himself to interviews in all corners of Ireland. It was during this hectic time that he fell asleep at the wheel and could have died. He broke his neck but made a recovery after wearing a brace for seventeen weeks.
However, things could have been much worse if he had gone to bed as he wanted to, thinking there was no serious damage: “Absolutely, it could have been a case of not waking up, it could have been a case of waking up in complete paralysis but by the grace of god, I went to hospital and they diagnosed the broken vertebrae.
“Luckily, I’m not a person who goes back and says, ‘what if?’ On this one I do because there is a possibility that I could have died, I could have been paralysed for life, all of those things. When I look back on things like that or when something shitty happens, I say: ‘Look, it could have been worse in ‘98.”
Doctors gave the singer the choice between an operation or wearing a brace to repair the break. Neither came with any guarantees but realising the surgery could damage his vocal chords, he chose the brace which was very uncomfortable: “I didn’t sleep. I had a reclining chair that I used to sleep in, the bed was no good to me, and I used to basically either drink half a bottle of whiskey or go for a few pints and that would help me sleep. That was a problem in itself. The other alternative was sleeping tablets but you can’t go down that road either so you were caught between a rock and diamond. Eventually, you kind of got used to it and you slept.
“The only thing I could do during the day was watch television and listen to music and that’s why I have an absolute hatred of daytime TV and that has stuck with me for 16 years because that’s all I could watch, crappy daytime TV. There’s only such of that you can do. I just found myself very, to a degree, isolated because everybody was at work.”
It was Tommy’s mother and family that helped him through this time: “In fairness, my mother was the best nurse I could have had but she was killing me with kindness. When I look back on it, it was a tough time but it was one of the best educations I’ve ever had in life. I realised people who were supposed to be friends, I was no use to them anymore so they disappeared out of my life very quickly and the people who mattered stayed, and those people are still there today.”
However, even when fully recovered, Tommy still felt the strain of bad contractual agreements and needed to get away. This is when a trip to Sudan with the charity GOAL gave him a valuable opportunity that had a profound effect on his life.
“I had a load of crap in my life at that time. I had a really bad manager, the record company were terrible, basically I was surrounded by suits and nobody could do their job. I didn’t have the know how to get rid of them so I disappeared, I ran away actually. I actually ran away and I went to Sudan with GOAL. I went the day before 9/11 in New York and that changed everything because I was only meant to go for a couple of weeks and then go home, I ended up staying until Christmas. I ended up falling in love with the place.
“I had room to breathe and I had plenty of time to put a plan in my head and the plan was to basically just get rid of all the crap in my life, get rid of the people who were bringing me down and I did that over a period of years, that didn’t happen overnight. By the end of 2003, I had that sorted and from then on, I’ve never really looked back to be honest with you.
“It’s still a plan to go back (to Africa), I’ve been trying to convince (my wife) Tina to come back with me but I think there’s way too many snakes and bugs and things and not enough five star hotels for her. I will go back, I will.”
Tommy admits in his autobiography that his biggest errors in his career were signing agreements against the judgement of those who had his best interests at heart. His career was only starting when he got tied into a contract without knowing it obliged him for good. What would he advise anyone in a similar situation? “It doesn’t matter how much it costs, if you have to beg, borrow or steal for the money, get a good lawyer and a lawyer that knows the business. Listen to every word they say and if they say don’t sign, don’t sign.
“The contract I was locked in to, I thought it was a five year contract but it was in fact perpetuity which I didn’t understand. Perpetuity means forever and that basically is what I was locked into. You just have to take the courage and take the step and say, ‘no, not doing it’.”
In spite of this manager taking a huge percentage, in all these years, Tommy managed himself: “I did it all myself anyway and then there was a huge percentage of my earnings being taken out. When I say earnings, I wasn’t getting any so everything was going to him and at the end of the day, I was as well just to give up at that point.
“I felt like I was just kicking a can down the road and I was completely frustrated by it and when eventually myself and Tina took charge of everything, all of a sudden everything changed, everything moved, everything started to fall into place.”
For the full interview, see the August 23 Irish World.
Tommy Fleming’s new album Begin is out on October 3.
Tommy Fleming tours the UK in September, playing Cardiff The Gate Arts and Community Centre on September 4, Solihull Arts Complex on September 5, London Irish Centre on September 6, St Patrick’s Church in Bristol on September 7, Our Lady of the Sea Catholic Church in Cheshire on September 8, Falkirk Town Hall on September 10, Oran Mor in Glasgow on September 11, Tyneside Irish Centre on September 12 and Chorlton Irish Club on September 13.
For more information, go to http://www.tommyfleming.net/.