John Whelan was raised on Irish fiddle and pipe music in Dunstable, England, the home of a large Irish community. John started playing the accordion at the age of eleven. His father, a musician, had chosen the instrument for him. He studied under teacher, Brendan Mulchaire, a well known fiddle player, and was strongly influenced by musicians Joe Burke and Paddy O’ Brien.
In 1971 he won his first All Ireland title playing The Cuckoo Hornpipe and The Concert Reel. Having won numerous accordion championships by the age of 14, John recorded his first album, Pride of Wexford, in honor of his father, which is still in print.
John began performing professionally at the age of twelve. For his first gig, he played a few sets at a fundraiser, earning twelve pounds. He eventually immigrated to America, where he has enjoyed a successful courier with many best selling album releases and concert tours.
While interviewing John, I was curious to know what his most memorable performances were. Good and Bad. “I played at the Fleadh in Enniscrthy,” John says, “It was an overseas concert and there were over one thousand people. Both my father and grandfather were there listening to me perform.”
Family values are important to him, and may have influenced his decision to actually walk out on a gig.
“My most awkward gig experience was in New Jersey,” John explained. “My friend set up a gig at a pub in either 1983 or 1984. It was a biker bar. I walked in and set up to play and lasted about 15 minutes before walking out because the environment did not feel safe.”
John Whelan believes that to be a successful musician, you must have musical integrity, professional integrity and respect for your audiences. Also, you have to like what you are doing. Whether you have thousands of people or five people as an audience, you still play the same show and enjoy it just as much.
I asked him, “If you could bring one musician back from the dead to play one set of tunes, who would it be and why?” After taking a few seconds, thinking of an answer, John responded, “Joe Cooley.”
Joe Cooley was a powerful influence on Irish accordion music in the 20th century. “I met him when I was 13, right before he passed away,” said John. “I never really got to play with him.”
I always enjoy playing tunes with John, whether we are at a gig, session or even a diner! Here's a video of John and I performing at the Dublin Ohio Irish Festival in 2012 and another of us performing with Paddy Keenan at Carrefour Mondial de l'accordeon in Montmagny, CA last summer.
He is a very fun person to be around and has amazing talent on the accordion.
John currently tours with the John Whelan Band plus solo performances. For more about John, his life and music, including tour dates, visit his website: johnwhelanmusic.com