Saturday 25 January 2020

What put The Corrs manager in Mandela's cell?

The man behind the foursome opens up to Liam Collins about a 10-year project finally coming to fruition

WHERE IT All BEGAN: The Corrs' manager John Hughes Photo: David Conachy
WHERE IT All BEGAN: The Corrs' manager John Hughes Photo: David Conachy
From left to right, Jim, Sharon, Andrea and Caroline Corr, who were asked to play at a South African Freedom Day celebration in London's Trafalgar Square
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Louis Walsh is probably the most famous band manager in the business, and Paul McGuinness the most successful. But behind the scenes there is John Hughes, a man who has, until now, kept himself well hidden from public view.

Ensconced in a worn leather armchair in the sitting room of his south Dublin home, surrounded by framed gold discs of The Corrs' hits, this tall, rangy 60-year-old has certainly had his day 'in the sun' -- except that he doesn't venture into it.

Hughes prefers the shadows, the dark interior of a recording studio, the back-stage off-limits area of a stadium, the anonymity of crossing the street in Glasthule towards Caviston's restaurant dressed in dark clothes and a straw hat on one of the few sunny days of the Irish summer.

Even he seems a trifle surprised that at last he's breaking the habit of a lifetime -- his silence.

"I don't know when I talked about myself so much," sighs Hughes, who presided over the rise of The Corrs and turned the group into one of the biggest pop acts in the world.

If he has other obsessions apart from the music, they are the diverse icons of Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela.

And it is to promote a stunning five-minute video and nine-minute piece of music called The Mandela Suite that has led the reluctant manager to put himself in front of the footlights for a change.

For Hughes life is all about connections. His inspiration comes from fragments of songs, speeches and books which he memorises or marks in highlighter pen so that he can go back and consult their wisdom.

In the case of Nelson Mandela, it was something the South African statesman said when Hughes and the various Corrs met him at his birthday tribute in London more than a decade ago.

"Music," he said, "is a great blessing, it has the power to elevate and liberate us, it sets people free to dream, it can unite us to sing with one voice. Such is the value of music."

He decided he had to get them down on tape so that other people could hear them in a creative setting. Now, many struggles later, he is bringing it to life again cocooned in the lush piece of music that is The Mandela Suite.

John Hughes has been in the music business for almost as long as he can remember. He grew up in Sandymount "before it was Dublin 4", and his family came from a long line of drapers. Hanging proudly among the paintings and pop memorabilia in his sitting room is an old black and white print of the shop with suits hanging in racks below the nameplate of Hughes 'gentlemen's outfitters' at No 127 Capel Street.

His teenage years were spent playing at dances in Wanderers Rugby Club before eventually graduating to a short-lived Dublin band called Ned Spoon.

After that came a group, founded by himself and his brother Willie, called Minor Detail and finally The Hughes Version, in which Jim Corr played keyboards.

It was while working as musical co-ordinator on Alan Parker's film The Commitments, filmed in Dublin in 1991, that he met the rest of the Corr family. Sharon and Caroline got small parts in the film as musicians, and Andrea, who harboured theatrical ambitions, was the voice of Sharon Rabbitte.

Hughes played a pivotal role in turning the Corrs into a family band that went on to sell millions of albums around the globe, filled stadiums and arenas, and hung out with Bono and U2.

"I never intended to become a manager -- I just failed at everything else," Hughes says, self-deprecatingly.

Within a couple of years The Corrs were the support act

on Celine Dion's worldwide 'Falling Into You' tour. According to the legend, they were recording in New York when Hughes 'accidentally on purpose' bumped into the legendary Canadian producer David Foster and persuaded him to work with the Corrs -- and that's how they got signed to Atlantic Records.

The result was their first album Forgiven, Not Forgotten, but it wasn't until their 1997 album Talk on Corners that they really hit the big time.

That album, re-released the following year, produced a string of international hits like So Young and Runaway.

Hughes looks back on a lot of hard work and dedication combined with relentless touring, rather than living the famed "rock and roll" lifestyle. He doesn't drink or smoke and, as the 'fifth member' of The Corrs, he did almost everything, travelling the world, attending recording sessions, paying painstaking attention to every detail of the band's business.

Between times he got home to his family in Dublin, but he credits his wife Marie with holding the family thing together during those hectic years, even leaving it to her to buy the house where they now live without him ever seeing it.

Then, during a big dinner hosted by the businessman Tony O'Reilly at his Co Kildare mansion back in the late Nineties, Hughes and some of the guests at his particular table got to debating 'the youth of today.'

Apart from Hughes and another young woman, there was a general belief that young people lacked education and culture and were obsessed with rock music and sex.

"Who are you?" asked the woman when the discussion finally waned.

"John Hughes. I manage The Corrs. Who are you?" he replied.

"Melanie Verwoerd. I'm the new South African ambassador to Ireland."

"This is going to cost me," he said.

Some time in the year 2000, when The Corrs were probably the biggest pop act in the world, he got a call from her to ask if they would play the South African Freedom Day celebration in Trafalgar Square, London.

The payoff was that they would get to meet Nelson Mandela afterwards.

"We'll be there," he replied, asking for and expecting nothing more.

When he did speak to him, Hughes was struck by Mandela's belief that music "can unite us to sing with one voice".

"I don't want to lose what Mandela said," he told Melanie afterwards. "Can you help me?" He wanted to get those words down on tape, and permission to use them in a piece of music.

As for Melanie, who would become better known in Ireland as Gerry Ryan's partner, Hughes says: "Everybody knows her. I have seen her work, she is just so capable and so strong and in Africa she commands such respect."

Melanie takes up the story: "When John asked me to get involved, I said: 'This is going to be real hard,' but I didn't realise it would take four years and I don't think I have ever been asked to do something so difficult. Nelson Mandela had never agreed to put his voice to something before.

"The great thing about John is he never asked for anything; other people have asked me to get books signed or things like that ... he is unique in that he wanted nothing, he is driven by something bigger -- that is why I find it so inspiring. I have heard the piece of music so many times and watched it develop. It is really brilliant."

"None of it was premeditated," says Hughes, admitting that what started out as "a simple little piece of music ended up as this monster".

But it was in two halves, and for months Hughes agonised about how to join them together to unify the piece, but nothing seemed to work.

"Why not a door slamming?" Andrea Corr suggested after she had listened to it.

"Perfect," said Hughes, "the door of a prison cell."

After that only one prison door in the world clanging shut would do -- the door to Nelson Mandela's cell in Robben Island.

That's how he and Melanie ended up with a caretaker and his recording equipment alone on the island recording the poignant sound of the cell door clanging shut, a sound that Mandela heard thousands of times during his years of incarceration.

When he told his friend Bill Whelan the project was finished, the reply was, "You're only halfway there ... it needs words."

So he enlisted a young Irish composer, Anna Rice, who translated Nelson Mandela's words into the 11 official languages of South Africa, which were sung by Nono Madolo backed by the Mornington Singers -- a choir based in Dublin -- who sang each passage phonetically.

The result, as Hughes says, is "this huge piece of music".

It is included on an 11-track album called Wild Ocean II -- produced by his friend, the highly rated Billy Farrell and released worldwide this weekend by Universal music.

After 10 years spent making this piece, Hughes still sits enraptured as the sound comes cascading out of the speakers in his home -- powerful choirs, swooping guitar riffs, the vibrant sound of Africa and the eerie clang of the cell door.

"There are 10 years of my life in this. Now it is done, it's ready to go," he says solemnly.

Sunday Independent

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