TORONTO - Few would have expected Dublin-born tenor Colm Wilkinson to record mostly classic soul and pop for his new album, Some of My Best Friends Are Songs.
After all, Toronto-based Wilkinson is internationally celebrated for such music-theater roles as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables in London and on Broadway, Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ Superstar in Dublin and London, and the lead in Toronto's production of The Phantom of the Opera.
But in the '70s, Wilkinson performed around Ireland with one of the best Irish soul bands of the era, the Action, as well as with the jazz-styled Jim Doherty Quartet and such showbands as the Chris Lambe Showband and the Witnesses.
"People will probably be surprised, but I wanted to do something of this ilk," the performer says. "With the showbands, we were human jukeboxes, imitating Elvis Presley and whatever was a hit at the time. With the Action, I did James Brown, Mose Allison, and a lot of blues."
Available since Nov. 7 in select music-retail stores in New York and Toronto and via his web site, the self-financed album, released through his own DC Jass Music Group, is Wilkinson's first solo set since Stage Heroes (RCA) in 1989. He is now negotiating to have it more widely distributed.
The record includes Wilkinson's take on such standards as "Red Sails in the Sunset," "Funny How Time Slips Away," and "A Song for You," plus three superb originals and a song penned by his singer/songwriter son, Aaron. The combination of Wilkinson's perceptive vocals and the production of Danny Greenspoon sets the recording apart, but the album also features brilliantly conceived covers of Cat Stevens' "Father and Son," Clifford T. Ward's "Home Thoughts From Abroad," and U2's "MLK/I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."
The cover art features a photo of Wilkinson outside his parent's house in Dublin at age 13, and the recording is dedicated to his parents. "They were the catalyst for the album," Wilkinson says. "My dad was playing 'Red Sails in the Sunset' on the piano when he met my mom. Aaron and I used to perform 'Father and Son' at concerts."
Wilkinson says tackling U2 repertoire was daunting. "I had two ideas for the track, so I went to see Bono. I said, 'This is the way I'm going to do it, and this is another, gospel, version. What do you think?' He suggested that I do it the slow way; that really brings out the lyrics."
Music has been part of Wilkinson's life since growing up in Dublin in a household of 10 children. "I used to steal my father's banjo and play it," he recalls. When Wilkinson joined the Witnesses in 1968, he began working abroad; he met Presley in 1969 while playing the lounge at the Paradise Island Hotel in Nassau. "Elvis sat four tables from the stage," he recalls. "I did 'I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,' and I could hear him saying, 'Oh yeah, man.' He recorded the song later [on the 1973 RCA album Elvis]."
In 1972, Wilkinson took on the role of Iscariot in the Dublin production of Jesus Christ Superstar. After six months, he took the same part in the London production, staying for two years. "My mother wouldn't talk to me for six months after I took the part," he recalls. "She said, 'Do you not realize what that man did to our Lord?' She eventually came to see the show and loved it."
For the next decade, Wilkinson worked in musical theater in London and Dublin. Notably, he co-starred with U.S. singer/songwriter Dory Previn in Children of Coincidence in Dublin and performed the role of Che on the 1978 U.K. cast recording of Evita (MCA).
Evita co-writer (with Andrew Lloyd Webber) Tim Rice says, "We were so impressed with him in the London production of Superstar, we thought, 'We must give him a go.' He has a sensational voice."
During this time, Wilkinson also played cabaret/pub dates throughout Ireland, billed as "Colm C.T. Wilkinson." He recalls that Les Miserables co-director Trevor Nunn once asked him where he learned to project his voice. "I said, 'Trevor, I'm used to working pubs in Ireland with guys with five pints wrapped around themselves, screaming at the top of their lungs.' "
In 1977, Wilkinson had several Irish pop hits, including "There Was a Dream" and "First of May," both on the Release label. He issued the album Colm C.T. Wilkinson on the Solo label in Ireland. A year later, he represented his home country in the Eurovision Song Contest.
It was Rice who, in 1985, suggested Wilkinson be brought in to play Valjean in the London production of Les Miserables. Rice recalls, "They were having trouble finding someone, and I said, 'Surely you've tried Colm Wilkinson?' They hadn't. He got the role, and the rest is history." Wilkinson went on to debut the role on Broadway in 1987 and performed it last summer in Shanghai. In 1989, Wilkinson came to Toronto to take on the lead role in The Phantom of the Opera. Initially contracted for six months, he stayed in the wildly successful production for five years and then moved to the city. "We brought 22 suitcases with us," he recalls. "I liked Toronto very much. It's a hard city to replace, because it has so much going for it."
The Colm Wilkinson Fan Club
Canadian Premiere Tour
"Broadway And Beyond The Concert