Irish musical theatre superstar Colm Wilkinson has got up close and personal with some of the biggest showbiz legends and leaders in the world - from Frank Sinatra to Tom Cruise and Barack Obama.
The Bring Him Home singer from Dublin’s Drimnagh even met Elvis, and offered to give the ‘King of Rock and Roll’ singing lessons.
Power-house performer Wilkinson, who recently moved back from Toronto and has just released a self-penned song called Harcourt Street, admits he wasn’t a fan of Presley.
“I was into black dudes like Ray Charles, Little Richard and Wilson Pickett, so when Elvis came to see our band it wasn’t a big deal for me, he wasn’t the big legend he turned out to be later on,” Colm says in an exclusive interview.
It was 1969, and Wilkinson, who went on to hit the big time himself in Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera, was performing at a hotel in the Bahamas as the lead singer in an Irish showband called The Witnesses.
“Presley came to stay in the Paradise Island hotel that we were working the lounge in,” Colm recalls. “We were doing three or four shows a night and your woman, Priscilla, would come down to look at the band with her entourage, three or four women that she used to hang around with.
“She said, ‘I have to get Elvis down to hear you guys’. She loved the band. Lo and behold, one night we get the word that he’s coming in. I’m being disparaging here, but I wasn’t excited about that. Now, if they said Ray Charles is coming in, that would have been a different vibe altogether.
“Elvis arrived and sat about two tables away from the front. There was a guy in the band who used to take the Mick. He started impersonating Elvis and Presley was killing himself laughing.
“The rest of the guys in the band hung around afterwards to say hello to him, but I had something to do. I wasn’t being disrespectful, I just had something else to do and I wasn’t that much interested in him.
“I was coming in the next afternoon to set my guitar up for the evening and as I walked through the lobby he was there with the Memphis Mafia guys. He spotted me, waved and walked over and he started complimenting me on my singing.
“I swear to God I said to him, ‘I’m giving singing lessons up in room 4670, if you want to drop up.’ We ended up having a great laugh and a great conversation. He was a really, really nice dude, a very handsome lookin’ dude.”
After shooting to fame playing Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, in which the show-stopping song, Bring Him Home, was written to suit his voice, Wilkinson became a magnet for superstars who were in awe of his performances – and he finally got to meet his own idol Ray Charles.
“When I got into Les Miserable it was just gates open,” he says. “It was unbelievable. I got to meet all these people, including Ray Charles. I got to hold on to his hand, I was crying, I got to tell him how much I loved his music.”
Sammy Davis Jnr is another of his favourite singers that he feels blessed to have met in person. “There was never anything, or has been anything like him ever again. He was just an all round entertainer, an amazing singer, amazing dancer, amazing talker. He was just an incredible talent,” Colm says.
He was equally impressed by Frank Sinatra, who he said disapproved of the Page 3 girls in the British tabloids. “I could not have met a nicer guy,” says Colm who met Ol’ Blue Eyes in London. ”He was very natural, made us at home and couldn’t do enough for us. I was addressing him as Mr. Sinatra, but he ended up by telling me to call him Frank - and he called me Colin, which was the nearest he could get to Colm.”
In 1989, Wilkinson relocated his family to Canada when he was offered the title role in the original Toronto production of The Phantom of the Opera.
“We had a great lifestyle in Toronto that we were fortunate to be able to afford because I worked consistently in Phantom,” the father-of-four says.
“I was fortunate enough to be able to make a reasonable amount of money. Actors and singers (in musical theatre) don’t make a lot of money, songwriters make a lot of money, the guys who write the musicals make the bread. Look at Cameron Mackintosh, he’s a billionaire.”
Wilkinson, who is one of 10 children, and his wife, Deirdre, had always intended to return to their native Dublin. His nostalgic new song, Harcourt Street, is a love letter to the city, a trip down memory lane in the Dublin of his youth as he set out on the adventure of life.
Colm Wilkinson’s new song, Harcourt Street, is available now on all digital platforms
via Sunday World