The Chieftains - Biography

By Scott Feemster

Since the early 1960's The Chieftains have maintained a high profile worldwide as the principal interpreters of traditional Irish music. Many credit the success of Celtic music in mainstream culture to the influence the group has exerted over their four-decade career. Although traditional at their core, The Chieftains have always shown a remarkable willingness to collaborate with musicians from various musical backgrounds


            The original members of The Chieftains included Dublin-born uilleann piper Paddy Moloney (who would quickly emerge as the leader, producer, and arranger of the group), fiddler Martin Fay, flutist Michael Tubridy, tin whistler Seán Potts, and bodhrán player David Fallon. The five men had been playing off and on together in various incarnations in and around Dublin since the late 1950's. The most notable of their efforts was Ceoltoiri Cualann, a folk ensamble directed by celebrated Irish musician, composer, and broadcaster Seán Ó Riada. In 1962, Moloney, Fay, Tubridy, Potts, and Fallon were approached by the Claddagh record label to record an album of traditional Irish folk music in the form of a small ensemble.  The new band chose the name The Chieftains in tribute to John Montague’s collection of short stories, Death of a Chieftain (1964), but originally intended the group to be a one-off project.


Their debut album was released in 1963 as The Chieftains (1963 – Claddagh/ Shanachie), but was later released as The Chieftains I by Shanachie Records. The songs of their debut are traditional, spare instrumentals, which was very much at odds with much of the music that was coming out of Ireland at the time. Irish music had veered toward sing-along anthems in the vein of Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, but The Chieftains were more interested in stripping away the musical wheat from the chaff.


It would take another five years before The Chieftains released their second album, but meanwhile the band played sporadically and changed their line-up. David Fallon stepped down as bodhrán player and was replaced by Peadar Mercier, and the group gained a second fiddler – Sean Keane. Both newcomers had been members of Ceoltoiri Cualann. The Chieftans 2 (1969 – Claddagh/Shanachie) was released in 1969, and showed a considerably more confident band churning out an upbeat collection of traditional jigs and airs. The album was noted at the time for its excellent sound and stereo separation, as well as the quality of the music itself. The Chieftains 2 did better commercially than their debut and the group started to get noticed outside of the folk and Celtic music realms.


            Just two years later in 1971, Chieftains 3 (1971 – Claddagh/Shanachie) was released. By that time the group was gaining a wider audience in both the U.K and in North America. In 1972, they made their American debut, starting in New York and then embarking on successful nationwide tours in 1973 and 1974. Celebrities such as Peter Sellers, Marianne Faithfull, and Mick Jagger were also singing their praises. Sellers wrote liner notes on their next album, Chieftains 4 (1974 – Claddagh/Shanachie), which was released in 1974 and marked a distinct change in the ensemble’s sound. The songs of their fourth album are deeper, flecked with touches of the much-vaunted Irish melancholy. It was their most successful album thus far. “Mná na hÉireann (Women of Ireland)” became a popular song on British radio and went on to be used in the Stanley Kubrick 1975 film Barry Lyndon.


Prior to recording Chieftains 4, Maloney decided he wanted to add another texture to the band’s sound. Harpist Derek Bell joined on even through he was also a member of the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra and would split his time between the two groups for years to come. It's interesting to note that Moloney picked a new member from Northern Ireland during the time of “The Troubles” in that embattled part of Ireland. One wonders if this was a subtle, musical way of expressing Irish unity amidst the turmoil.


            By 1975, The Chieftains were bona fide stars in Ireland and Great Britain, and a growing name in the rest of the world. In 1975, they were voted Group of the Year by the British music weekly Melody Maker and played a sold-out show at London's Royal Albert Hall. That same year the band released Chieftains 5 (1975 – Claddagh/Shanachie). Mercier left the group, and was replaced by bodhrán player and vocalist Kevin Conneff. For the first time, The Chieftains had a skilled vocalist; Conneff could lilt (an Irish form of wordless vocalizing) and sing in the sean-nós stylized manner combining both Gaelic and English words. Conneff and the rest of the band released the album The Chieftains 6: Bonaparte's Retreat (1976 – Claddagh/Shanachie) in 1976, which also featured guest vocals from singer Dolores Keane. Some critics at the time found the album to be a bit overambitious, but in retrospect it seems the band was continually trying to expand its sound while keeping true to their roots.


            Chieftains 7 (1977 – Claddagh/Columbia), was the band’s first released on the major label Columbia Records and garnered the group their first Grammy nomination in the Ethnic Recording category in 1978. The album marked another first for the band in that each member arranged a song, which was usually done by Moloney on all of their previous albums. The group's next album, 1978's The Chieftains 8 (1978 – Claddagh/Columbia) marked another turning point in the band as it was the last to feature Tubridy and Potts. Upon the two musicians leaving the group, Moloney seized the chance to change the sound and texture of the band and approached long-time friend and collaborator flutist Matt Molloy (The Bothy Band, Planxty). The first album to include Molloy, 1979's The Chieftains 9: Boil the Breakfast Early (1979 – Claddagh/Columbia), showed a higher energy and earned The Chieftains another Grammy nomination. That same year, the ensemble played the biggest show of their career performing before Pope John Paul II and a crowd of 1.35 million people at Phoenix Park in Dublin.


During the late 70's and into the 80's, The Chieftains’ music appeared in many film and television productions, such as the French/Irish film The Purple Taxi, the Irish television documentary Ireland Moving, the celebrated Canadian film The Grey Fox, the unreleased Tristan and Isolde, and the French/Irish television miniseries The Year of the French (an adaptation of the novel by Irish author Thomas Flanagan). The group even appeared on-screen as musicians in The Year of the French. In 1979 they appeared on the American late night comedy show Saturday Night Live, which further exposed the American public to the charm of The Chieftains’ music.


            By the 80's, the popularity of The Chieftains had spread worldwide and they were invited by the Chinese Exchange Minister to be one of the first Western groups to perform in mainland China. Their 1983 visit to China was documented in the live album and video The Chieftains in China (1987 – Claddagh/Shanachie), and featured the band playing on top of the Great Wall and collaborating with Chinese musicians. In 1983, the group was also asked to be the first group to play in the United States Capitol Rotunda at the invitation of then-Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O'Neill and Senator Edward Kennedy. In 1986, the group released a concept album / soundtrack for the National Geographic special Ballad of the Irish Horse (1986 – Claddagh/Shanachie), and also began to incorporate Irish stepdancers into their live performances (a move that sparked the re-birth of step dance and eventually led to the Riverdance phenomenon).


In 1986, The Chieftains collaborated with fellow Irishman Van Morrison on the album Irish Heartbeat (1988 – Polydor), which prooved to be a worldwide success and was nominated for a Grammy that same year. The following year, they released Celtic Wedding: Music of Brittany (1987 – RCA Red Seal), a celebration of their Celtic brethren in France's Brittany region. In 1988, the group collaborated with actress Meryl Streep on the children's album The Tailor of Gloucester (1988 – Rabbit Ears). The Chieftains wrapped up the 80's in grand style by celebrating their 25th anniversary with the release of A Chieftains Celebration (1989 – RCA Victor), which showcased a mixture of the sounds the band had dabbled in throughout their career.


            The Chieftains entered the 90's as the best-known Irish traditional folk band in the world and continued contributing to soundtracks for films such as Rob Roy, Circle of Friends, Three Wishes for Jamie, Treasure Island and Far and Away. They continued producing albums and collaborating with an ever-expanded worldwide network of friends and colleagues. The group released An Irish Evening: Live at the Grand Opera House (1992 – RCA Victor) recorded in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1992 with guests Roger Daltrey of The Who and American “folkabilly” singer Nanci Griffith. The following year, the band recorded Another Country (1992 – RCA Victor), a collaboration with several American country music artists, which shows the ties that bind traditional Celtic music to country. Both albums received Grammy awards. During this period, The Chieftains also released their first holiday collection, The Bells of Dublin (1991 – RCA/BMG), and a collaboration with the Belfast Harp Orchestra The Celtic Harp (1993 – RCA/BMG), which celebrated the work of Irish composer Edward Bunting.


In 1995, the band released what would become their best selling album, Long Black Veil (1995 – RCA/BMG), with many guest vocalists including Sinead O'Connor, Van Morrison, Sting, and members of the Rolling Stones. Rather than making a pop album, The Chieftains played their usual sparkling arrangements of traditional Irish folk songs and had the pop singers adapt. The album went gold and earned the band another Grammy award. The Chieftains again wandered further afield for their 1996 album Santiago (1996 – RCA Victor/BMG), which explored the cultural connection between Ireland and Spain's Celtic region, Galicia. In 1999, the band composed the soundtrack for The Long Journey Home: The Irish in America (1999 – BMG), the PBS documentary detailing the plight of Irish immigrants in the New World and their eventual acceptance into American society.


            The Chieftains returned to what they did best with the traditional Water From the Well (2000 – BMG/RCA) in 2000 and an accompanying live DVD. Later that year, the group was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Irish Music Magazine. That honor was followed by the release of the compilation album The Wide World Over (2001 – BMG/RCA), a collection spanning the band's 40-year career. Also in 2001, long-time fiddler Martin Fay went into semi-retirement, only playing Irish engagements with the band.


The honors bestowed upon the band kept coming in the new Millennium. In 2002, they won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the BBC2 Folk Awards, which was broadcast all over the British Isles and featured a performance by the band with two of the original founding members – Michael Tubridy and Sean Potts. The Chieftains kept up their spirit of musical exploration by releasing Down the Old Plank Road – The Nashville Sessions (2000 – BMG/RCA) in 2000, a collaboration between the band and noted American bluegrass musicians such as Del McCoury and Alison Krauss. A companion DVD of a live performance at the famed Ryman Auditorium in Nashville was released in 2003.


             Tragedy struck the band in 2002. As the band was preparing to return to Ireland after an American tour, harpist Derek Bell died suddenly in Phoenix, Arizona. The group, now paired down to four members, carried on and played more shows promoting Down the Old Plank Road. Upon The Chieftans’ return to Ireland, they held memorial concerts to raise funds for a University of Limerick scholarship program in Bell's name to assist young musicians. They also released Live From Dublin: A Tribute to Derek Bell (2005 – RCA Victor) in 2005. The Chieftains remain one of the world's great musical treasures.

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