Carmel Quinn, Irish singer and storyteller, dies at 95

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Carmel Quinn, Irish singer and storyteller, dies at 95
With the gift of gab and a voice that some compared to Judy Garland’s, she performed at the White House, first for John F. Kennedy and then for Lyndon B. Johnson.

by Katharine Q. Seelye

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Carmel Quinn, a blue-eyed, flame-haired Irish singer and storyteller who packed Carnegie Hall on St. Patrick’s Day for a quarter-century and regaled her audiences with tunes and tales from the Old Country, died on March 6 at her home in Leonia, New Jersey. She was 95.

The cause was pneumonia, her family said.

Quinn, who was born and raised in Dublin, came to the United States in 1954 and won an audition on “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” the next year. Those auditions were famous for their rigor: Others who passed them included Pat Boone, Tony Bennett and Connie Francis; those who flunked included Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly.

Quinn became a regular on another Godfrey television show, “Arthur Godfrey and His Friends,” for six years while rotating through other popular variety shows of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, including “The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Mike Douglas Show” and many more. Much later, she showed up on “Live With Regis and Kathie Lee.”

With the gift of gab and a voice that some compared to Judy Garland’s, she performed at the White House, first for John F. Kennedy and then for Lyndon B. Johnson.

The standard Irish songs in her repertoire included “The Whistling Gypsy,” “Galway Bay” and “Isle of Innisfree.” In later years she filled out her act with a patter of anecdotes about life in general and amusing relatives in particular. One was her Aunt Julia.

As Quinn told the story, Aunt Julia always wore her hat in the house so that if someone came to the door whom she didn’t want to see, she could say, “I was just on me way out.”

Quinn disapproved of bachelors. “Make you sick, they would,” she would say, “out there sowing their wild oats and praying for a crop failure.”

And her way of bringing people back down to earth if they got too big for their britches was to call out loudly: “Sorry to hear about the fire in your bathroom. Thank God it didn’t reach the house!”

But holding pride of place for Quinn were her concerts at Carnegie Hall. They began in 1955, when she was approached by a group that wanted to raise money for a hospital in Ireland. Godfrey built an audience for her that first year, instructing his radio listeners, “Now, you get out there and go to Carmel’s concert.” But after that, she was draw enough on her own. She gave benefit performances each St. Patrick’s Day for more than two decades, and they all sold out.

“The night of the concert, you couldn’t get in the place,” she told The New York Times in 1975 on the eve of the 20th anniversary of her first St. Patrick’s Day show. Hers was initially a solo act, but she later included groups like the Clancy Brothers and the Chieftains, their spirited performances turning Manhattan’s prestige concert stage into an old-fashioned Irish music hall.

Writing after her St. Patrick’s Day show in 1969, Robert Sherman of the Times called her “a breezy hostess and a totally engaging singer.” Her music, he said, would “warm the cockles of any son, daughter or passing acquaintance of the auld sod.”

Carmel Quinn was born on July 31, 1925, and grew up in Phibsborough, a now trendy neighborhood on the north side of Dublin. Her father, Michael, was a violinist and a bookie. Her mother, Elizabeth (McPartlin) Quinn, a homemaker, died when Carmel, the youngest of four siblings, was 7.

Carmel sang with local bands and studied for a while at a teachers college, but she dropped out when she started winning singing engagements. Then she left for America.

She married Bill Fuller, a colorful Irish music impresario, in 1955. As more Irish were coming to America, Fuller opened ballrooms in New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, and she sang in many of those venues.

The couple initially lived in the Bronx, but they would take Sunday strolls over the George Washington Bridge and soon found a small brick house in Leonia, just across the Hudson River. They separated in the early 1970s, and she lived in the same house for the rest of her life.

Quinn is survived by two daughters, Jane and Terry Fuller, and a son, Sean Fuller; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Her son Michael died of a heart problem in 1988.

Her love of being onstage took her to cabarets, clubs and off-Broadway. She starred in several musicals, on the road and in summer stock, including “The Sound of Music,” “Finian’s Rainbow” and “The Boy Friend.”

She also presented revues of her own work at the Irish Repertory Theater in Manhattan: “Wait ’Til I Tell You” in 1997 and “That and a Cup of Tea” in 2001, in which, Neil Genzlinger of the Times said, she demonstrated “a Jack Benny-like gift for comic timing.”

She continued to perform until she was 88. But it wasn’t all laughter and song. One of her final performances was in November 2013, after the death of Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Quinn took the stage at the Irish Rep and recited his “Aye” and “Old Smoothing Iron,” evoking the working women she knew so well. She received standing ovations.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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