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Platinum Becomes Her

"It's hard to describe the emotion I felt when I sat in the National Concert Hall and listened to the RTE National Symphony Orchestra play on my songs. It was as if my life's work made total sense in that joyous moment and I felt proud and honoured." Mary Black

Long, one of my favorites, I recently listened again to Mary and Emmylou Harris sing A Mothers Heart. As always, goose bumps and tears flowed. I want to share this amazing talent who sings like an angel and writes magnificently in my opinion. I have only seen her once live, in the Opera House in Troy New York, thanks to my middle son, David back in the 90’s. She electrified me that night. Her music is available and I highly recommend giving a listen if you don’t know her.

She was born into a family of musicians, on May 22, 1955, in Dublin, Ireland. Her father was a fiddler from Rathlin Island, off the coast of northern Ireland and her mother was a vocalist. Her brothers were also musical and formed their own band, The Black Brothers. Her sister Frances received much notoriety during the 90’s as a singer. This was her family! Mary began to sing at the age of eight, mostly traditional Irish music. They were a poor lot financially, but rich in many other ways. She soon performed in clubs in and around Dublin with her brothers, Shay, Michael and Martin.

When she was in her 20’s she joined a folk band and toured Europe releasing two albums. By 1982, she had developed a professional relationship with Declan Sinnott, a musician and record producer. Her first solo album was released, Mary Black. It was received very well and is still considered one of the Irish albums released in the 80’s.

Mary played and toured with the traditional Irish band, De Dannan, around Europe and in the United States. She recorded one album with them, Anthem, and it won the Irish Album of the Year award. While with De Dannan, she continued her solo career as well, recording the albums Collected (1894) and Without Fanfare (1985). These albums changed her focus a little from traditional to more modern music. Both albums received great success and the Irish Recorded Music Association (IRMA) named her Entertainer of the year in 1986 and Best Female artists in 1987 and 1988.

In 1986 she left De Dannan and struck out on her own. A year later she released her first multi platinum Irish album, By the Time it Gets Dark. Her popularity soared though, when she released the album, No Frontiers. It rocketed to the top of the Irish album charts and stayed in the top 30 for over a year, and achieved triple platinum status. She was also receiving a lot of play time in the U.S. With the lead track on that album, Columbus, she had become a National Audio Company (NAC) recording artist.

1991 found her on tour in America and her newly released album, Babes in the Wood, found here at the top of the Irish charts once again for six weeks. Her single "The Thorn Upon the Rose" reached No.8 on the Japanese singles chart after it was used in a national railroad television advert. Babes in the Wood performed well in the US and it was voted one of the top 10 albums of the year in the United Kingdom by Today newspaper. The album release brought about a sell-out tour and her first concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1992. Once again she was named Best Female Artist by the IRMA.

She was featured on the cover of Billboard magazine in a story hailing her as “a firm favorite to join the heavy-hitting ranks of such Irish artists as Enya, Sinead O’Connor and Clannad’s Marie Brennan.

Her next album, The Holy Ground, once again reached the top of the charts. She toured the US in the fall of 1993. Next, she joined force with six other Irish female artists to record A Woman’s Heart. The other artists included her sister, Frances, Eleanor McEvoy, Dolores Keane, Sharon Shannon and Maura O’Connell. Sales soared and another album, A Woman’s Heart 2, was born.

Mary is married to Joe O’Reilly who established Dara Records in 1983. They have two sons, Conor and Danny and a daughter Roisin. Danny is a member of the the Irish rock band, The Coronas, one of Ireland’s biggest bands, and Roisin is a performing artist in her own right under the name of Roisin O. They live in Dublin but spend much time in County Kerry. She also recorded with Joan Baez in the spring of 1995 for Baez’s album, Ring Them Bells.

When two of her children expressed an interest in following her into a life in music, she knew a firm chat was in order. She wasn’t opposed to them singing for their suppers (as she had) but she wanted them to fully grasp the realities and understand that it could be a really hard road and an uphill struggle. “I told them it wasn’t easy and that it’s not just about talent,” says the singer. “You have to be willing to work extremely hard — they went into it with their eyes open.”

Black is glad her family is doing well — but relieved they grew up normal and grounded. “When my biggest album came out, I had three small kids, ... I had questions about how much time I should spend on the road. At the start of my career, I used to say yes to things all the time. As I got older, I learned to say no. You can only do so much. The kids turned out okay — so I think I made the correct choices.”

Mary toured with her daughter in 2014, which she called her last international tour although, of course, she will continue to sing. “I’ve always loved singing and never dreamed I might be able to make a living from it,” she says.She also released her autobiography, Down the Crooked Road, (ISBN 9781848271876) published in October of 2014.

Ih her book, Black recounts the stress of international success. The book is a wrenching read, with Black also recalling her poverty-afflicted childhood — an upbringing that, in places, reads like something out of Dickens. She was just eight when she took over the running of the family household on Charlemont Street in inner Dublin, so that her mother could work as a cleaner.

As a teenager, Black worked six days a week through her holidays, to pay for her school uniform and books. Even before her life in music, she had dragged herself up by the bootstraps. “As a child, I thought our family was rich and they were poor,” she writes of the destitute neighbours she glimpsed from her window. “As I got older, I realised we were all poor on Charlemont Street, there were simply different levels of poverty.”

Black was badly treated by the nuns who ran her school — they looked down on her lower-working class background, a slight that cast a shadow well into adulthood. Worse yet was the treatment meted out to her younger brother, kept bed-bound in a hospital presided over by religious orders on the spurious grounds that he was prone to ‘seizures’. “It turned out the hospital received money from the government for every child that was in its care. Many believed the hospitals purposely kept children in for as long as they could, in order to receive the maximum funding.”

“The idea for the book really started with my daughter,” Black says. “She was interested in the stories about my parents, the things that happened when I was a kid, what the house where we grew up looked like. “It’s quite an undertaking: you go through these things so deeply, you are nearly there again in your mind. I understand that my life is not necessarily that unique or interesting, and that not everybody might be interested. It’s really for fans”.

What Hi-Fi? Magazine considered Black’s voice to be so pure, that it was used as an audiophile benchmark for comparing the sound quality of different high fidelity systems. Michael Leahy, music critic and lyricist, once said: "Over the years, Mary Black has come to define what many people see as the essence of Irish woman singers: profound, slightly ethereal and beyond the reaches of trends.” Black is held in the highest esteem in her native Ireland and beyond and is generally regarded as one of the most important Irish vocalists of her generation.

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