The Greening of L.A.'s Musicians : They're All Irish on St. Paddy's--Some Even the Reel Thing

Times Staff Writer Oh! I wear a bunch of shamrocks

and a uniform of green, And I'm the funniest-looking Swede that you have ever seen. There's O'Briens and Ryans and Sheehans and Meehans they come from Ireland, But by Yimminy I'm the only Swede in MacNamara's band .

--Fourth and obscure stanza from the tune, "MacNamara's Band."

Irish bandleader Des Regan doesn't remember having any Swedes in his band, but over the years he's hired musicians with all sorts of ethnic backgrounds to play Irish music.

"I must have used hundreds of guys who weren't Irish," Regan said last weekend between sets at his Irish pub in Burbank. "When I came out to Los Angeles I was very disappointed. I expected L.A. to be jumping with Irish bars and music. I only found one place on Beverly Boulevard."

The Real Thing

Today, Regan's four-piece band consists of musicians from Ireland, and is one of a handful of authentic Irish bands that will be performing for St. Patrick's Day celebrations in the Los Angeles area.

In fact, most of the bands that'll be playing "MacNamara's Band" and other Irish-type tunes for Sunday's holiday and the days before aren't really Irish at all.

Regan found this out 13 years ago when he came here and started his band. He had played with Irish musicians in Boston after moving there from his native Galway in 1955, but found few here.

"When I came here we got a lot of guys from the country-and-Western field, drummers and guitarists," Regan said. "That's mostly where they came from. Prior to two years ago, though, we only had a couple of Irish-Americans."

Regan, who plays "an Irish-style accordion (with buttons on the side instead of keys)," met another accordion player from Dublin and started his band in Los Angeles.

"There were just the two of us," he said. "Then I picked up American musicians attuned to Irish music. Now there's a whole group of young Americans who have gone to Ireland to learn the traditional music and become experts."

Regan, who moved his pub from North Hollywood to Burbank three years ago and also started a travel agency for tours to Ireland, performs at his place on the weekends but also plays private parties for organizations and clubs.

"On St. Patrick's Day, how many people know the difference (in a band's ethnic origins)?" Regan said. "You could have a group up there humming and they wouldn't know. Most of the people you see (celebrating) St. Patrick's Day aren't Irish anyway. You get so many people coming out of the woodwork for one day, and then they fall back into their regular life the next day."

St. Patrick's Day in Ireland, according to Regan, isn't at all like it is in the United States. It's not nearly such a celebration.

"Back home it's not celebrated in the same way," Regan explained. "It's not as jovial; it's more of a Holy Day. People go for a drink or two after Mass, but they do that on Sunday anyway."

Wetting the Shamrock

But St. Patrick's Day in Ireland also has a special significance for people who like to drink, Regan said. "You go off, give up drinking for Lent, but it's commonly accepted that you'll wet the shamrock on St. Paddy's. People don't consider that you fell off the wagon. It's not considered breaking the fast. It's just accepted for the day."

Regan, who shortened his name from O'Regan, noted that a recent growing influx of Irish musicians in Los Angeles "has put the Irish name a lot more in the spotlight on the West Coast."

He added: "The musicians are the greatest ambassadors for Ireland. One of the largest Irish populations is here on the West Coast, but it is scattered. One Saturday night we might get 50 people in here from Ireland; the next, 10."

One of the young Irish musicians to emigrate to Los Angeles is Jimmy Shivenan from Charlestown in County Mayo. He has played saxophone and guitar (he also sings) with the Regan band for about a year and a half.

Shivenan and his wife were en route to Australia five years ago when they stopped in Los Angeles to visit friends and decided to stay.

Japanese Aficionado

Shivenan recalled being surprised not long ago by the interest of a Japanese visitor in their traditional Irish music.

"One night, there was a guy from Japan who came in and he spoke very little English," Shivenan said. "He had his fiddle and wanted to know if he could play with us. He picked it up and played the traditional music with us."

Said Regan: "Here we're Irish 365 days a year. But on St. Patrick's Day everybody is. I've always thought it was a great compliment for the Irish that all these people want to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, a compliment for such a small country, 300 miles long by 150 miles thick."

Gerry O'Beirne, another of the young musicians to move to Los Angeles from Ireland, plays with an Irish group called Train to Sligo, currently one of the most popular Irish bands in the L.A. area.

O'Beirne, though, is the only Ireland-born musician in the group. He comes from Ennis in County Clare. The rest are from the United States but have studied traditional music in Ireland, he said.

Thom Moore, who started Train to Sligo, is a fifth-generation Californian from Catalina, but he spent 10 or 12 years in Sligo, Ireland. The name of the band is taken from the first line of one of Moore's original songs, "The Scholar." He wrote it for his daughter, who "used to take the train to Sligo from Dublin to go to school."

Names and Birthplaces

O'Beirne ticked off the names and birthplaces of the other Sligo band members: "Singer Janie Cribb is from Colorado, but she grew up in Ireland; Jerry McMillan is from the Bay Area, but he spent a lot of time in Ireland and still goes every year; Paulette Gershen is from West Los Angeles, but she's the best tin-whistle player in America, and Judy Gameral, who plays the hammered dulcimer, is from Beverly Hills--both of them have spent a lot of time in Ireland."

O'Beirne, who has lived in Los Angeles for only two years, has just returned from a national tour with musicians Kevin Burke and Andy Irvine. Every Thursday he plays a single engagement at Gorky's in downtown Los Angeles, and writes many of his own songs.

O'Beirne plays guitar and does some of the arranging for Sligo, which is booked solid for the three-day St. Patrick's Day celebration. The group also did the sound track for the current film, "Heaven Help Us."

"On St. Patrick's Day everybody is as Irish as I am," O'Beirne said. "It's laissez faire for a really good musician. We're happy to play for the St. Patrick's Day parties, but we play Irish music the year round. St. Patrick's Day is just a nice event for us."

Irish Outnumbered

Pat Zicari, assistant to the president of the Musicians Union's Local 47 on Vine Street, said the union has no statistics on how many musicians from Ireland are working in the Los Angeles area, but he estimated that "out of probably 150 bands that will be playing Irish music over the St. Patrick's Day weekend, about 20 actually are Irish. And that might be a high estimate. But there are enough Jewish and Italian guys who play Irish music."

According to union rolls, there are 16,000 union musicians in Los Angeles County, 14,500 of them "in good standing."

"These guys are professionals--they can play any kind of music, whether they're Irish or Italian, Jewish or Chicano or black," Zicari said. "In fact, that's the new motto of our union: 'We're the Professionals.' We're going to be using it nationwide now. We never had a motto before.

"And that's the truth about being professionals," he added. "You can call up from the Yellow Pages and get a group of plumbers and carpenters who'll play all evening for $250, but they will sound like plumbers and carpenters."

"With the St. Patrick's Day thing, you've got to realize that three-fourths of the patrons aren't Irish, but they have Irish whiskey, wear shamrocks and are Irish for the day. It's the same for the musicians. I know an Italian trumpet player who is one of the best mariachi players around. The good musicians can play anything."

Populist Pleasures

Zicari believes that all the holidays blend across ethnic boundaries. "Everybody likes to celebrate anybody's holiday now. Anytime you get to celebrate, it's fun to do. I don't think there are any especially ethnic holidays anymore."

Trumpeter Tony Horowitz, also a union official, noted that "20th-Century music is not only colorblind, but ethnic-blind too."

Horowitz continued: "I am of the Jewish faith, and as such I play a lot of bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings. But I rarely work with all Jews in my band--I don't think I've ever worked with all Jews.

"When I worked with Ray Charles I was one of three white guys in the band, and I played first trumpet. I worked my first road gig with Louis Prima, God rest his soul, and I was with him until he died. Now that's about as Italian as you can get. That's the beauty part of my business: He who speaks music is a cosmopolite."

Horowitz said his 15-year-old son Eddie has the best outlook on musicians. "He thinks all the cats playing Irish music here, or whatever, are Americans, whether they're from here or not. They live here. America speaks music."

Bandleader Steve Hideg, who came to the United States from Hungary in 1957, agrees that music is so international that it has no real ethnic barriers.

Cultural Crossovers

"We have a melting pot in this country, especially here," Hideg said. "We have many cultural crossovers. Just because somebody is black doesn't mean he can't play Irish music, or that somebody like me, with a heavy accent like mine, can't play American jazz. When I play music, I don't have an accent--I sound like an American drummer.

"To offer a service to people, you have to be flexible," Hideg said. "Mostly we're performing for Irish-Americans, so we don't have to be that real. What we have to be able to do is play authentically. We play Octoberfests, Jewish weddings, all kinds of things. That's how I became an ethnic specialist."

Hideg and his musicians play many kinds of music: jazz concerts each year in schools of the Los Angeles Unified School District, parties for the movie industry and the Grammy awards, and they've just finished a Miller beer commercial.

"If you want to make a living out of this business, you play authentic music," Hideg said. "You should learn to respect all styles of music, and you're judged on the quality of the music. Music is an international language, the only international language everybody understands."

Seven Gigs in Four Days

Bandleader Clark Keen, whose orchestra played the December Irish-American ball when Irish Ambassador Tadhg O'Sullivan was visiting here, has seven St. Patrick's Day gigs in the Los Angeles area over the four-day period, but none of his musicians is Irish-born.

"Oh, no," Keen said, "they're not Irish, they're just going to play Irish music. And they can play it very well. We put out Irish bands on St. Patrick's Day, German bands for Octoberfest, but that doesn't mean they're Irish or German. We usually send out one guy who really knows the music and the rest are ringers, but good musicians."

David Wilcox of Pasadena, who specializes in international folk music as a duo with his wife, Roberta, usually plays St. Patrick's Day gigs and is almost always thought to be a bona-fide Irish musician.

"I know 72 Irish songs," Wilcox said, "and everybody thinks I'm Irish because they say I sing like an Irishman. Maybe I have some Irish ancestors somewhere back, but I was born in Pasadena, and my wife in Santa Monica."

Roberta Wilcox plays the violin (she also teaches) and David plays the guitar and does the singing.

"I can sing in five different languages," Wilcox said. "We've played in German restaurants, Scottish, Irish, Mexican and Italian. Once I actually got kicked out of an Italian restaurant for drawing in too many Irish people.

"An Irish guy came in and asked if I could sing any Irish songs. I said, 'Sure,' " Wilcox said. "He brought in a bunch of Irish friends, and after about a week, the owner let me go. He said I was spoiling the Italian atmosphere at his restaurant."

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