Born May 22, 1955, in Dublin, Ireland; daughter of Kevin Black (a plasterer) and Patricia Daly; married Joe O'Reilly (manager of a record label); children: Roison (daughter), Danny, Conor. Addresses: Home--Dublin, Ireland. Publicity--Shock Ink, 1108 16th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37212. Record company--Curb AG, 47 Music Square East, Nashville, TN 37203.
Sustained effort and an elegiac voice have enabled singer Mary Black to emerge as one of Ireland's top musical exports. With a silky, controlled vocal style that leaves listeners breathless, her music seamlessly blends traditional Irish folk, conventional pop, country, and rock and roll. She began her career in the late 1970s as a folk singer working with General Humbert and De Dannan, both successful Irish folk acts. Branching out from her folk beginnings, she has capitalized on her interest in music of many styles and resists being confined by the limits of any single genre. Folk-tinged versions of blues artist Billie Holiday and pop composer Burt Bacharach complement her otherwise ballad-laden repertoire, and she has been named Ireland's female artist of the year twice, garnering several gold and platinum records along the way. Black's notoriety in the United States has been limited by the lack of a major label record deal, though that barrier was overcome in 1994 when her husband and manager, Joe O'Reilly, negotiated a deal with Curb Records, an Atlantic subsidiary based in Nashville. Black's 1995 Curb release, Looking Back, reached the Billboard Top Ten in the world music category in April of 1995 and signaled a high-water mark for her career in the United States.
Through the use of artful arrangements and talented backing musicians, Black has moved beyond Dublin's pubs to London's Royal Albert Hall. She shies away from songwriting, admitting that her talents do not include the necessities for penning emotive melodies, but has taken full advantage of a wealth of Irish songwriters pleased to have Black perform their works. She told a reporter for Glasgow, Scotland's Herald, "I can honestly say I'm not a songwriter. Sure, I could write some sort of a song ... but I think it's a talent, an inspiration, and I feel I don't have that gift, I just don't have it." Black noted in the same interview, "Ireland is small enough to get to know people, and all the Irish songwriters I work with are friends. They don't write for me; they're inspired, not commissioned." Quick to point to the quality of her band and the direction she has received from her husband as crucial to her success, it is nevertheless her own voice that has brought her critical acclaim.
Raised in Dublin, Black was perhaps destined for a career in music. Her father was a fiddle player from Rathlin Island, off the Antrim coast, while her mother, a Dublin native, sang traditional Irish folk songs. The pair nurtured in their five children a healthy bent for music that led to a successful family act, appropriately titled the Black Family. The Blacks enjoyed some success in Dublin's folk music scene and released two albums. Black commented to a reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "[Music] was a very strong, big, big, part of our growing up. My parents had very strong musical sort of leanings, but neither were professional. They both literally did it for the love of it, and that's why I went into it. And I still feel that's why I do it."
In the 1970s Black landed her first professional gig with a folk group known as Terrace, which would later become General Humbert. The band released two albums and toured Europe, enjoying the benefits of a folk revival that also gave rise to Irish talents Christy Moore and Van Morrisson. In 1983 Black joined the well-known folk outfit De Dannan, who were looking to replace their singer. This experience afforded her the opportunity to tour the United States on four separate occasions while also contributing to many successful records. Though the band's fan base was largely European, De Dannan's solid musicianship and energetic renditions of traditional Irish jig-and-reel tunes helped establish a solid following among Irish Americans anxious for native sounds.
Black's star began to rise after appearing on an Irish television program known as Christy Moore and Friends. Though she never actually saw the program--her wedding took place the day it was aired--she learned of her newfound appeal. At the insistence of her new husband, an employee of Ireland's Dolphin Records, a solo project was planned. Black's music did not correspond with that of other artists promoted by Dolphin, so O'Reilly established a subsidiary label, Dara Records, to promote her talents. Noted musician and producer Declan Sinnott was brought in to produce and assist with the arrangements for the record, and Black and Sinnott have been working together since. The self-titled release hit Irish record stores in 1982 and went gold, earning Black an Irish Independent Arts Award for Music.
By 1986 Black's fondness for traditional folk had begun to wane, and she left De Dannan to focus full time on a solo career. Black admitted in the Irish Times, "The folk singer images used to drive me crazy. Although folk and traditional have had a huge influence on me and I would never turn my back on that, I didn't want to be confined to one area of music, I wanted to explore." She counts innovative folk/rock artist Sandy Denny among her most important influences and sees similarities in their styles. "I think that folk flavor, from where [Denny] started off, was always there with her, even though she tried different things. And I'd like to think the same thing goes with me," Black told the St. Louis Post- Dispatch.
During her stint with De Dannan, Black had released three solo albums: Mary Black (1982), Collected (1984), and Without the Fanfare (1985). No longer committed to the band, she wasted no time in recording a fourth solo album. Her 1987 LP, By the Time It Gets Dark, rewarded her efforts in spades, achieving multi-platinum status in Ireland. Each of the singer's ensuing releases, including No Frontiers (1989), Babes in the Wood (1991), and The Holy Ground (1993), has gone platinum, though in Ireland that accounts for 15,000 copies sold, rather than the one million required for platinum certification in the United States.
Critics in Ireland and elsewhere describe Black's eclectic brand of music as a sophisticated blend of folk, country, and pop, but many wonder where her recordings fall in the commercial spectrum. Too Irish to be considered country and too country to be categorized as Irish, Black's records nevertheless draw attention from both camps as well as from adult alternative and public radio listeners. "It's hard to get airplay because I'm not strictly folk and I'm not jazz and I'm not rock and I'm not pop. I'm a mixture of a whole load of things," Black told the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Advocate. She also faces some close competition from her younger sister, Frances, whose own career has shown signs of taking off following the 1994 release of her first album.
Despite being Ireland's biggest-selling female artist, Black struggled initially for notoriety outside of Europe. Hit singles in Japan, Australia, and New Zealand gave rise to tours of those countries, though success in the lucrative U.S. market was slow in coming. The pace of her career was just fine with Black. She told Billboard, "[My band and I are] not in any hurry to conquer the world. We're not 18-year-olds looking for the big deal or the big break. We've done it our way, and feel we should wait for what suits us."
In 1994 Atlantic Records rewarded Black's patience by offering her a deal for U.S. distribution through one of its affiliate labels, Curb Records. It was an opportunity a long time in the making and one that the singer could not refuse. She did have a U.S. deal prior to Atlantic, but it was through an independent label, California's Gift Horse Records, that lacked the necessary promotional abilities to secure even wider audiences for her music. For Black's major-label debut, she was joined by Carl Geraghty on saxophone, Garvin Gallagher on bass, Pat Crowley on piano and accordion, Dave Early on drums, and Frank Gallagher on fiddle, synthesizer, and whistle. Declan Sinnott also continued his long-standing association with Black and played guitar.
Black's contribution to A Woman's Heart, a compilation album of Irish female artists, helped it become the most successful record in Irish history. Further good fortune came in March of 1995, when Black cohosted a cable TV special on the Nashville Network (TNN) with country legend Emmylou Harris, titled The Music of Ireland. This appearance was carefully planned to coincide with both St. Patrick's Day and the release of Looking Back. Harris herself has enjoyed success in Ireland, as have other country artists, many of whom regularly include stops in Ireland on their tour itineraries. The admiration is shared on both shores; as Black observed in USA Today, "The Irish people are very open to all kinds of music, and very respectful of talent. When I first came [to the United States] I was amazed at the respect musicians had for Irish music and talent."
Black's comfortably organic voice comes at a time in music when listeners are rediscovering the allure of dressed- down harmony and understated delivery, as witnessed by the rise of such artists as Sheryl Crow. Black noted in Billboard, "More people are turning to real music and instruments, and melodies and words are becoming more important again." With a major-label deal in place in the United States, Black is hopeful that her own melodies and words will reverberate strongly among American music listeners. Her 1995 release, Looking Back, would no doubt move her in that direction.
by Rich Bowen
Mary Black's Career
Began career with siblings as member of band the Black Family, c. 1965; joined Dublin-based Irish folk group Terrace (name later changed to General Humbert), c. 1977; released self-titled solo album on Dara Records, 1982; member of traditional folk group De Dannan, 1983-86; released U.S. major label debut, Looking Back, Curb/Atlantic, 1995; appeared on television special The Music of Ireland, TNN, and embarked on North American tour, 1995.
Mary Black's Awards
Named Best Female Irish Artiste, Irish Recorded Music Awards polls, 1987 and 1988; Irish Independent Arts Award for Music, 1982, for Mary Black; honored at a Tavern on the Green dinner, 1995.
- Selective Works
- Solo albums; released in Ireland on Dara Records Mary Black, 1982, released in U.S. on Gifthorse, 1992.
- Collected, 1984, released in U.S. on Gifthorse, 1992.
- Without the Fanfare, 1985, released U.S. on Gifthorse, 1992.
- By the Time It Gets Dark, 1987, released in U.S. on Gifthorse, 1994.
- No Frontiers, released in U.S. on Gifthorse/Curb, 1990.
- Babes in the Wood, released in U.S. on Gifthorse/Curb, 1991.
- The Holy Ground, released in U.S. on Gifthorse/Curb, 1993.
- Looking Back, Curb/Atlantic, 1995.
- With De Dannan Song for Ireland.
- The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Colin Larkin, Square One Books Ltd., 1992.
- Periodicals Advocate (Baton Rouge, LA), March 17, 1995.
- Baltimore Sun, March 17, 1995.
- Billboard, August 28, 1993; April 15, 1995.
- Daily Telegraph (London), October 15, 1991; November 28, 1992.
- Daily Yomiuri (Japan), June 15, 1991.
- Evening Standard (London), June 11, 1993.
- Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), May 9, 1992; December 10, 1993; January 13, 1994.
- Irish Times (Dublin), September 10, 1994.
- Rolling Stone, January 24, 1991.
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 4, 1993; June 12, 1994.
- San Francisco Chronicle, April 5, 1991.
- Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), March 13, 1994.
- USA Today, March 31, 1995.
- Washington Post, April 20, 1988.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Shock Ink publicity materials, 1995.