Saturday, January 30, 2010
John Mahon - Distinguished Alumni
It was no hollow cliche Friday morning when John Mahon told a gymnasium full of St. Thomas Aquinas High School students that dreams do come true.
A 1973 Aquinas graduate, Mahon played drums in the school’s marching band, concert band and jazz band and sang in the choir.
After school, Mahon spent countless hours in his bedroom listening to rock ’n’ roll records, studying album covers and music magazines and dreaming about playing concerts in front of 50,000 people and traveling the world.
Since 1997, Mahon has done all of the above, touring frequently as a member of Elton John’s band, in which he is a backing vocalist and percussionist. He has performed about 700 shows with Elton to date.
“I’ve been around the world a couple of times, sometimes on his private jet,” Mahon said. “Sometimes it is the glamorous rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, but it’s also a lot of work.
“Aside from the actual shows, which are 2 1/2 hours long, the rest of my day is airplanes, buses, vans, checking into hotels and that constant search for a good cup of coffee.”
Mahon was among three Aquinas graduates honored as distinguished alumni in a program at the school Friday morning. Colette Gibbons (1969) and Kelly Kelleher (1976) also were recognized. Ron Chessler, the freshman football coach, was lauded for his distinguished service.
Mahon spoke warmly of his formative years in Canton.
“The first thing I was in musically was the Canton Police Boys Club drum-and-bugle corps,” he recalled. “My dad (Joseph) was a policeman and he took my brothers and I there when I was 13. My brothers picked horns and I picked drums.”
After high school, Mahon played in a succession of local bands — Constellation, Sneeze, Punch, Hard Times — that veered from R&B to jazz-rock to top-40. “We played King Arthur’s, the Cabaret, all the local places,” he said.
In 1980, Mahon married Pam Tortola, a fellow Aquinas grad, and in 1983 they made the brave decision to move to Los Angeles, encouraged by a musician friend of Mahon’s who already lived there. “We sold everything we owned, packed up our little Toyota pickup truck and drove out there cold,” Mahon said.
Mahon gradually gained his career footing in the L.A. music scene, touring with Al Stewart, Peter White, Rita Coolidge and Helen Reddy, doing studio work, and playing with his own band, the Stickmen. “I wasn’t just a drummer. I was always a singing drummer,” Mahon said. “That’s what’s really kept me working.”
In 1997, a musician friend who was playing in Elton John’s band arranged for Mahon to audition with Elton’s bandleader Davey Johnstone. “I auditioned and Davey said, ‘This is really good, you’ve got the gig. We’re going to rehearse in Nice, France, for three days and that’s where you will meet Elton.’ ”
Before meeting Elton for the first time, “I was a nervous wreck as you can imagine,” Mahon said. “But he was very cordial. He came right up and introduced himself. He was friendly, open, asked me a lot of questions. He must’ve liked me because I’m still here.”
Asked about the biggest shows he’s played with Elton John, Mahon listed the Coliseum in Rome for more than 200,000 people, Hyde Park in London for a half-million people, the Carnivale in Rio De Janeiro for 100,000 people, Wembley Stadium for 80,000, and a five-night stand at Madison Square Garden.
“It’s funny, I can play in front of 50,000 people and I could care less,” Mahon said. “But I have to do this thing at St. Thomas, playing in front of a few of my peers, and I’m a nervous wreck.”
His wife flies to join him when she can. “She’ll come to London, Paris, New York, Rome,” he said. “She knows which ones to pick — the good shopping cities.”
So what does it feel like playing in Elton John’s band in a sold-out arena?
“There’s plenty of nights when you are exhausted with jet lag from all the traveling,” Mahon said. “But as soon as you hit that stage and the people start going off, all that stuff goes right out the window. You are completely in the moment. It fuels you.”