Not bad for ‘a girl from the Bronx’
Joanie Madden of Cherish the Ladies told David Hennessy about 38 years of the band, the loss of Mick Moloney and the time they played for Bob Dylan.
Cherish the Ladies, the Irish- American traditional supergroup, come to the Irish Cultural Centre this weekend.
The group, led by Joanie Madden, was put together in 1985 by the late Mick Moloney with the intention being to only play a series of celebratory gigs.
On 5 January, the band marked 38 years in existence.
They have toured the world and played on many revered stages.
Joanie could never have foreseen any of it happening for her, ‘a girl from the Bronx’.
Of course the line-up has changed over the years. One who launched herself as singer with the band was Heidi Talbot, now a well known solo performer.
Band members have come and gone but this has never been because of a falling out, just that ladies were starting families. Former members often join the band when they can and this will be the case when they play in London.
Joanie told The Irish World: “We’re so delighted to be coming back to London.
“It’s been years.
“It must be 10, 15 years since we’ve been in London.”
It was shortly after Joanie became the first American to win the All- Ireland for tin whistle that Mick Moloney approached her to form a band to celebrate the brightest females on a male dominated scene.
“We got together to do a couple of concerts in New York City.
“A bunch of us had done very well at the All- Irelands and Mick called me up.
“I had gotten lucky, won three All- Irelands.
“Mick had gone to Philadelphia, the Irish Musician Society and in over 110 years, there was 3200 members and not one of them was a woman.
“He thought it was just amazing to see the huge role change where now women were not just playing the music, but beating the boys.
“He thought that this should be celebrated and I suggested the title ‘Cherish the Ladies’ because it was the name of an old Irish jig, and never thinking that it would be anything more.
“Those three concerts sold out, we recorded an album and that was chosen by the Library of Congress as the best folk album of the Year.
“And through that we received a grant to go on a two week tour- And 38 years later, we’re still at it.
“It’s just amazing.”
Mick Moloney, who played such a role in the band’s formation, passed away last year at the age of 77.
“What he did for Irish music in America.
“He took the music, and he got it onto the main folk stages all across America.
“And he led tours around the world, bringing Irish American musicians.
“But Mick was so influential in all of our lives.
“Talk to Eileen Ivers and Seamus Egan from Solas.
“He was a huge mentor to Seamus and to me.
“When we started Cherish the Ladies, he came on the road with us and I was the MC.
“And he critiqued me every night on what we should do and what we didn’t do, because what the hell did I know?
“I was just a kid, that had never been on a stage in my life but he was there all the way.
“And we were the best of friends throughout my life.
“But the greatest thing I heard was it was in Mick’s will that I was to organise the concert in the even of his death, he left me in charge.
“We’re going to do something in New York City at the Irish Art Centre in April for Mick.
“So that meant a lot to me.
“He played with everybody, he was so well respected.
“He was a scholar and he was incredible. His mind was incredible. His banjo playing, his mandolin playing and his mentoring to all the young Irish.
“He really was wonderful.
“Plus his field recordings that he went around and did of all the musicians that came to America, now they’re all archived in New York University.
“He went around and made it a point to talk to them all and archive them all and get them on record given they’re history.
“He was an amazing, amazing man.
“It was just a shock to all of us that he was gone, just like Seamus Begley.
“Actually Mick ran a series at the Irish Art Centre called Masters in Collaboration and I brought Seamus Begley out there and Mick interviewed us.
“These guys gone, it’s just such a blow to the music that these legends- huge, huge, huge figures in music- are gone.”
Seamus Begley passed away earlier this month.
“Myself and Seamus were great buddies.
“Last July I had a bus tour down in Dingle and brought Seamus in to perform for us and had a session and the craic with him.
“He was just one of a kind. What a singer, my favourite singer, my favourite Irish singer of all time.
“Even from a girl from the Bronx who doesn’t understand one word of Irish but to hear him, he was just incredible.”
Seamus and Mick have certainly left incredible legacies. Did Joanie get a sense of how proud Mick was that Cherish the Ladies had gone on to such success and longevity? “He was extremely proud.
“He always said, ‘Joanie, your leadership, and how you’ve kept the band together…’
“Even when we started in the 80s, there was no scene, there wasn’t a network, there was no Internet.
“But we just kept at it. And I’ve just been surrounded by the greatest girls and my best friends in life.
“I think nobody sounds like us and we don’t sound like anybody.
“But I think we have so much fun on stage. I surrounded myself with just great musicians.
“I think the appeal is that people have a great time when they come to our shows and I think that’s been the secret to our success.”
Joanie was born in the Bronx, New York. Her father Joe played the accordion and the musical upbringing is something the band’s members have shared.
“We’re all daughters of musicians.
“In my own case, my father was an All- Ireland champion on the accordion and I grew up in the Bronx, listening to him.
“My story is very much like the London- Irish: It didn’t matter we weren’t in Ireland, we were an Irish household.
“Growing up with Irish parents and in the Irish music, the Irish culture was all very important.
“It was very important to my parents being immigrants that the culture be passed down.
“We were big supporters of the music and the GAA.
“All my brothers played (GAA) and so did I when I was young.
“We all were very much involved in football and Irish dancing and Irish music.
“Just like London some of the greatest Irish traditional musicians in history emigrated to America and I grew up learning from the best, not that I ever took lessons from them, but they were so good to me.
“They wanted to pass down the music and they wanted to see it succeed in America, and these guys they gave us the most precious gift they had.
“Especially my father, the music to him was everything.
“He had a band for years and as soon as I could play two tunes, I was in the band.
“Then my father wondered why the hell I became a bandleader!
“But if you asked me would I ever in a million years think that I would- the girl from the Bronx- be making my living playing traditional Irish music and touring all over the world, I would never thought this could possibly be.
“But the amazing thing is the appeal of Irish music to every ethnic group in the world, everybody loves Irish music, there’s something that touches them and they love the craic and the music and the song and the dance.
“So, it’s all wonderful, and we’re delighted that everything’s gone so well and that we have had such a great run of it.”
A big part of Cherish the Ladies’ live show is the accompanying Irish dancers.
“Since day one, we’ve always had three dancers.
“Way before Riverdance or Lord of the Dance or any of those shows, we carried dancers with us and in America, it’s four dancers on the road with us.
“The dance is a huge part of what we do.
“When we were starting Cherish the Ladies, so many of my buddies were dancers, and you could have the music and you can have the song, but when you bring out that dance element, and just the visual aspect.
“I surround myself with the best dancers going and world champions, and it’s been a big part of our success.”
The Kildare singer Heidi Talbot was the band’s singer for years and is now well known in her own right.
“The funniest thing was our dancer, Eileen Golden who danced with us for 25 years, told me, ‘You know, I have a tenant in our basement and she’s singing all the time. And she has a beautiful voice’.
“We gave Heidi a chance and she was this shy, quiet girl, but by God, can she sing and she was with us for five years before she headed back.”
The line-up has changed over the years but due to family reasons and not any fallings out.
“But what happened with the line-up changes with Cherish was mainly babies, the babies came along.
“And all the mothers would say, ‘Oh, I’m not going anywhere. As soon as I give birth, I’ll be back’.
“The same thing has happened us now with Katie, our piano player, Kathleen Boyle, and Katie’s from Glasgow and she’s just had her first baby.
“We’re just delighted to have her back with us this weekend.
“The baby’s eight or nine months now that she can go away for a weekend.
“We’ve missed playing with her terribly, but we’re just delighted she’ll be with us in London and Glasgow.
“We’ve never fallen out with anybody.
“Eileen Ivers was with me for the first seven years and then she got an offer to do a Hall and Oates world tour and then Riverdance came along, and she was with them for years.
“You can’t stand in the way of people.
“I got offered Riverdance as well.
“But I told everybody (in Cherish the Ladies), ‘Listen, if you quit your jobs, I commit myself to you’.
“I got offered the Lord of the Rings soundtrack and things that I’ve had to turn down because of commitments with the band, but down through the years, I stuck with the one horse and I’ve ridden it all the way, and I’ve still managed to have a very successful solo career.”
The band has had many highlights but Joanie can think of only one moment that stands out above all others for her. It was the time a 95 year old woman turned out to be Bob Dylan.
“God, there’s been so many highlights from the White House to the Olympics, but if I had to say one gig, it was the private party for Bob Dylan’s 35th anniversary in the music business.
“We were playing in Tommy Makem’s pub in New York City and we didn’t know. We were told we were playing for a 95th birthday party and we’re sitting down on the beer barrels to surprise this 95 year old lady.
“And then the guy comes down and tells us we’re playing for Bob Dylan.
“We got on the stage and I fell off the stage.
“It was so small and we were having a heart attack and I fell on to this man and it was Eric Clapton.
“That’s how the day started.
“We were playing for the Eagles and for the Stones and for the Beatles, George Harrison was there. You name it: Joe Cocker, Emmylou Harris. I can’t even think of all the people that were there.
“And there was Bob Dylan roped off and then his bodyguard came over and asked to meet me and I went over and met Bob Dylan and hung out with him for the night.
“He sang Clancy Brothers tunes.
“When are you going to get that?
“And we’ve no pictures.
“We came out of Tommy Makem’s Bob Dylan in the middle, his arm around Liam Clancy and his arm around me we were the last three to leave the place. And I have no pictures.
“We didn’t know what we were going to, think we had a camera?
“I’m just so delighted that we managed to have this fantastic band and make so many people happy who come out to our shows and forget about their worries for a few hours.
“We promise we’re going to put on a great show for you.
“We’ll be looking for that standing ovation in London and we’re going to work very hard to get it.”
Cherish the Ladies play The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith on Sunday 29 January.
They also play Glasgow Royal Concert Hall as part of Celtic Connections on Tuesday 31 January.
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