Tommy Fleming tells Fiona O’Brien why he plans to retire in five years, after 25 years on the road, and about the things he wants to check off his bucket list before he reaches the grand old age of 51.
Tommy Fleming is celebrating his 25th year in the music industry this year, and is doing so by mixing it up a bit and returning to acting… after 16 years. The play, a musical about emigration and an Irishman’s experience of Camden from the 1960s to 1989 is coming to the UK this autumn, but before that its back to the day job as he tours with his concert. The Sligo entertainer has another bit of news to drop as well. He has just announced his retirement – albeit it’ll be five years from now.
“In five years time, I’ll be 51 and it will be 30 years since I started my professional career. I’ve been telling everyone that it’s as good a time as any to call it a day,” he says. So what does he want to achieve over the next five years then, one wonders.
He doesn’t hesitate: “A Grammy would be nice. And a collaboration with Barbara Streisand.”
Tommy’s reasons for calling his retirement is so that “he can go out while still on top and to make sure that his fans don’t grow tired of me.”
“I don’t want to be that singer who is celebrating 50 years on the road, without having anything really new.”
There’s no fear of him slowing down quite just yet, as he dies have his mini UK tour to get through, including a St Patrick’s Day gig at the Beck Theatre in Hayes. “I suppose it is the norm for us singers to spend most St Patrick’s Days outside of the country, and it’s nice to be able to bring that bit of Ireland to those outside the country.”
Emigration resonates with Tommy at the moment: he has just finished a theatre run with Paddy in which he plays the lead. It’s about an Irishman’s experience of moving to London in the mid 1960s, and follows his journey right through until 1989.
“It was so well received which I was delighted with as it was my first time returning to acting in 16 years.
“It’s set in Camden, and it is something that every Irish person can relate to, we all have or know someone who was forced to emigrate.
“At first I was nervous, I put myself under a lot of pressure. It’s a musical, as well as a drama, and I was anxious that people would be coming to see Tommy Fleming the singer, with a bit of a story behind it.
“But thankfully, the feedback has been good. Obviously it drew in fans of myself, but the biggest compliment was afterwards when people said that after five minutes they didn’t even realise it was me anymore.
“I based him on my father and uncles, who all spent time in England.
“It’s almost in phases. The first stage of Paddy is quite young and naive, and it reminded me of the kindness and gentle qualities of my father.
“Then as Paddy grows used to London life, he becomes quite hardened and that drew influences from my uncle. “And then in the latter stages, I can’t say much more than he was quite like my other uncle, a bit of a bollix!”
Tommy has only recently started to speak about his father, and the circumstances that surrounded his death. Just weeks after celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, Tommy’s parents Annie and Paddy passed away on the same day. His mother had been in ill health and Tommy and his siblings managed to spend time with her in the week before her passing.
But on the day she died, his father was also in hospital, and while the family was at home sorting out her funeral arrangements, they received a phone call that night that their father had also passed away in hospital. He is open about the guilt his family feels for not having been with his father during the last moments of his life. At the same time he says that the manner of his dad’s passing also summed up his gentle and unassuming character.
It has propelled him back on to the road with his show and has made him realise that he wants to explore doing more acting once he has retired from singing.
“The show is coming to the UK coming up to autumn which I’m really excited about. Some people said we should have it in the West End, but I don’t think it’s quite ready for that yet.
“It’s a lovely play, it has a big cast and I’m the only actor that doesn’t double up, there’s near thirty characters in it.
“I think it will likely be shown in Watford, but we’re just finalising all the bits and pieces at the moment, but I can’t wait to bring it to an emigrant audience in England.” And is Tommy looking forward to coming back as Tommy Fleming, the singer himself?
“Yes, I really enjoy it, and there’s a lot more freedom on stage when it is you being you. The theatre is a lot more disciplined in its nature.
“The show has changed quite a bit, you have to try something different to keep it fresh, and I’m doing a lot of talking and telling stories behind the songs in between tracks.”
Tommy credits his success to the lucky break he got when the legendary Phil Coulter scouted his talent in Westport as a young man in his 20s. Twenty five years on the road later, Tommy can’t believe the confidence he had when all of a sudden he found himself breaking away from the pub scene and playing venues such as the National Concert Hall, Cork Opera House and Carnegie Hall in New York.
“I was thrown right in at the deep end, but it was the best education I could have ever had. Phil taught me an awful lot. But I suppose at that stage in your life you’re a bit cocky. Young people always take the biggest risks don’t they?”
Tommy Fleming plays Birmingham on March 15, Bristol on March 16 and Hayes on March 17