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The John McHugh Story: A Tribute to the Late Singer

By Black Country Bugle User  |  Posted: June 24, 2004

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Having just returned from a trip to Dublin, a city of singers and musicians, I was saddened to learn of the recent death of one the greatest singers ever to hail from the Black Country. While D-Day ceremonies were in full swing, world famous Wolverhampton tenor, and World War Two veteran, John McHugh, passed away peacefully, aged 92, at a nursing home in Penn.

I have very fond memories of the late singer, having had the privilege to interview him for local radio, in 1997. Then a sprightly 85 year old, John was still able to knock us dead with a snippet from “Nessun Dorma”, in a voice rivalling Pavarotti’s. Not bad for a lad who was banned from the school choir for having a gruff voice!

Born in 1912, John spent his early years in Cannock Road, Wolverhampton, one of six children. During and after the Great War, times were hard, and like many of his mates, young John used to busk round Wolverhampton pubs, to earn a few extra coppers. Dressed as Charlie Chaplin, John sang outside old Wolverhampton pubs, including the “The Limerick”, near Thornley Street, “The Dan O’Connell”, in Westbury Street and “The Warwick Arms” in Little’s Lane. Singing popular tunes of the day, such as “Yes, We Have No Bananas”, John and his mates performed outside, only being allowed in to pass the hat round.

With his Irish connections, John loved music, especially popular ballads. While his contemporaries couldn’t get enough of the 1930s dance bands, John listened to the great singers of the day, such as Caruso, Richard Tauber, and John McCormack. He loved the semi-operatic numbers, like “Song of Songs”, “Because”, and “Till”, all unashamedly romantic. Luckily, a chap used to come round hiring out gramophone records for about 3d a week, so John could satisfy his addiction.

When he left school, John served his apprenticeship as a wood patternmaker, in Pipers Row. Blessed with a naturally fine singing voice, John was always singing around the house, it was just second nature to him. He told me: “I was singing in the house one day, I must have been aged about 19, when my mother said to me, ‘You know, you’ve got a nice voice really. You should have some lessons’”. Somehow, the money was found for a few lessons with local teacher, May Summerfield, and once he’d dipped his toe in the water, John was hooked.

With a few lessons under his belt, John joined a choir, and started to sing one or two solos. The handsome young tenor was soon turning female heads. And, it was at this point, that John’s future path was decreed. At the Catholic Church of Saint Mary and Saint John, in Snow Hill, Wolverhampton, John found a mentor in Catholic priest, and former opera singer, Father Grimaldi. The priest had once been leading bass singer at the New York Metropolitan Opera House, and also sang for the Pope in the Vatican choir. Father Grimaldi started teaching the young Wolverhampton chap some Italian arias, and John fell in love with opera.

John’s big break came on November 21st 1936, when he entered a talent competition at the Gaumont Theatre, for the BBC. Organised by Carroll Levis and Brian Mickey, the “BBC Amateur Hour” was the “Opportunity Knocks” of its day.

For John, it was the first time he’d faced such a large audience. Terrified at first, as soon as he started to sing, he knew he’d found his vocation. It was to be the turning point in his life, and he knocked the audience dead. John won the regional final, and was invited to London to sing in a nationwide contest, which would be broadcast live on the BBC. It was a chance in a million, and John seized it. The Black Country chap wowed the nationwide audience, and thousands of letters flooded into the BBC, making him the people’s choice and winner. What he didn’t know was, somewhere out there, a wealthy and influential woman had heard his broadcast, and been captivated by his wonderful voice. John’s life was about to change, forever.

Next week: From the Cannock Road to Rome!

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