Simon McDermott is sitting in his car with his dad Teddy, known in his time as an entertainer as “Teddy Mac.” These days, Teddy is slipping away, losing his memory and even his personality to Alzheimer’s disease, which causes his mind to dissolve into confusion. But as Simon’s driving along, going nowhere in particular, he thinks up a way to bring back the dad he loves.
The pair, residents of Blackburn in the U.K., create fun duets in the car. Teddy, in his 80s, still has the sweet voice that used to sing out one song after another, gaining him the nickname of “Songaminute Man.” His son, four decades younger, realizes when listening to him that his dad can still recall the songs that he loved to perform.
Teddy Mac began life in the U.K.’s Midlands region. With 13 siblings, he was the eldest in a large family – and this brought its burdens. He frequently found himself caring for his sisters and brothers and was often cast in the role of entertainer for the whole family. His burgeoning talent subsequently found a showcase in the local clubs.
Teddy’s voice was quite stunning, and it looked certain to open doors for him. “When he was 17 or 18, he got invited to audition for the Carroll Levis show, which was the X Factor of the day,” Simon explained to the Daily Mail in 2016. “But his family couldn’t afford for him to go.”
Nevertheless, Teddy didn’t allow himself to become disheartened and made a living singing in the local nightspots instead. Simon said, “He’d organize bookings… but he also had a band himself, Teddy Mac and the Starliners, and everyone in Wednesbury knew them.”
In the audience one night was a representative from Butlins, a popular holiday-camp company in the U.K., and Teddy was subsequently hired to perform at resorts in Wales and Northern England. In Blackpool he got together with Simon’s mother. They would later move to Blackburn, where Teddy found employment in a factory, with the music becoming his sideline.
Simon recalled his dad’s prodigious talents when speaking to the Daily Mail. “My abiding memory as a child is of watching him do this amazing medley, which seemed never-ending,” he said. “The whole place was on its feet; everyone in the room was cheering.” No wonder then that Simon dubbed him “Songaminute Man.”
But when Simon no longer lived with his mom and dad, Teddy changed. First, Simon’s mom told him that he was acting strangely. His memory had begun to fail him and he was prone to becoming irate. For a year and a half, the family weren’t certain what was causing Teddy’s unusual behavior. But then the diagnosis came: he had Alzheimer’s.
The disease took a terrible toll, which came as a shock to Simon, who’d thought it was just a case of “old people forgetting things.” But Teddy was barely recognizable, violent almost to the point of being homicidal. Simon struggled terribly with this change in his father, telling the Daily Mail, “Dealing with it has been the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do.”
His mom struggled, too, finding it hard to access medical help. She’d visit their physician with Teddy, but her husband would just deny that anything was amiss. And she couldn’t tell anyone about his growing violence. He was promised an appointment at a “memory clinic,” but the session there was continually delayed.
When Simon saw Teddy’s violence for himself, he found the experience distressing and ended up “proper scared.” He’d gone with his parents on a caravan holiday in France. There, his dad had flown into aggressive rages, calling both Simon and his mom all sorts of names and proving impossible to placate.
Things then became even more unsettling, Simon told the Daily Mail. “Not long after, I stayed with them in Blackburn and it was the worst time of my life,” he said. “Dad just didn’t know who I was. One day I was out trying to get rid of moss from the paving slabs, and he rushed out and was poking me… saying, ‘Who are you? What are you doing? Get out of my house, get out.’”
“When he got in a state like this, there was no reasoning with him, no calming him down,” Simon continued. “He’d veer between not knowing who I was and shouting, ‘You are the worst son ever.’ Mum was terrified.” One weekend that he spent with his folks was so unpleasant that Simon dubbed it “World War Three.”
After that weekend, Simon was left desperate but still unable to figure out what he could do about his dad. He scoured the internet for answers but found none. His pals suggested that he’d have to send his dad into a residential unit. Finally, he reached out to U.K. charity the Alzheimer’s Society, hoping to find a helping hand.
The resulting conversation didn’t start well, however, Simon told the Daily Mail. “On that first phone call, I made no sense,” he said. “I just sobbed.” But it was nothing that the society hadn’t heard before. “They picked me off the ground and made me realize I wasn’t alone,” Simon explained. “Other people have to cope with this, too, and so many have it worse than we do.”
Not that it was all bad, as grim as it seemed. Sometimes there were spells when Simon’s father was happy. And then Simon came to a realization that hit him like a bolt from the blue: his dad was “better” if he could hear music. So when things became particularly hard to handle, he started taking Teddy out in his car, and the two of them would do karaoke to beloved old songs.
When Teddy became entranced with a song, a change came over him. As Simon told the Daily Mail, “He was my dad again; he was back.” And what struck Simon was that his dad had been renowned for his recall: he’d been able to remember the lyrics of many, many songs so that he’d never be short of things to sing.
Indeed, scientists have discovered that either hearing or singing along with songs can give sufferers of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia a boost emotionally and behaviorally. Those with the condition can often still remember songs because it tends not to affect the areas of the brain that deal with memory of music.
In 2018 a large-scale review of scientific studies found that musical therapy was beneficial for sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease. It could help with the negative outcomes of dementia, such as depression or irritability. On top of that, practicing music seemed to alleviate the decline in cognition and memory. And, just as Simon found with Teddy, recall was discovered to be relatively untouched.
So Simon drove around with Teddy and videoed the two of them, in effect creating his own “Carpool Karaoke,” just like the TV segment presented by James Corden. Simon subsequently put their version of “Quando, Quando, Quando” on Facebook, hoping that it might interest a few friends. Little could he have imagined the impact that it would have, though.
Indeed, the McDermotts’ version of the Engelbert Humperdinck track really took off and rapidly went viral. More than five million people have watched the father and son belting out the song. Once he realized that it had caught the public’s attention, Simon thought that he could try to make a few bucks for charity out of it, so he put up a link to the JustGiving website.
Originally, Simon’s aim was modest. He thought that a total of about $750 was possible, although he put in a target of $1,500 that he hoped to get for the Alzheimer’s Society because, he said, “it doesn’t hurt to be ambitious.” But even that figure was way too low, as the amount that the duet raised soared past $200,000.
Simon explained to the Daily Mail what had motivated him. “It was partly about getting him to do something he enjoyed, but it was for me, too,” he said. “I remember once coming down the stairs and hearing him sing ‘Mac the Knife’ – his signature tune – but he’d forgotten the words. That was a real jolt for me, a sign that time was actually running out.”
And while singing songs in his car, Simon began to realize that the carpool karaoke was bringing him and his father back together. They’d even start talking about their lives. Teddy Mac would mention his son who resided in London and how proud he was of him. This struck Simon hard: his dad “never told me he was proud of me, he wouldn’t have, he wasn’t like that.” But he was able to share with a “stranger.”
Unsurprisingly, Simon felt that he had to capture the moment more permanently. The concept of making a record of his dad’s vocals took hold. He put in a couple of hundred bucks of his own money to hire a studio for the recording, and although a couple knocked him back, the third was willing.
However, Teddy wasn’t on his best behavior when they went into the studio. He’d never used headphones to sing with, and he didn’t understand the need for them. His aggressive side then came out, and he verbally abused the sound engineer. At his wits’ end, Simon coaxed Teddy into giving it a go – and the effect was amazing.
And bigger things were to happen when a Decca Records bigwig heard Teddy’s work. The next thing Teddy knew, he was a Decca recording artist, and his version of “You Make Me Feel So Young” was to be his first single. At last Teddy, after years of entertaining, had hit the bright lights.
Given how big a break this would be, though, Simon had some doubts. After all, his dad couldn’t really grasp what was going on. But his mom had absolutely no doubts. She told her son, “There is nothing he would have wanted more in the world.” So Teddy recorded the song with an orchestra for backing, and the dream had become reality.
The money from the single, whether from physical or digital sales or royalties from broadcast, would be shared by the Alzheimer’s Society and Teddy’s family. However, Teddy wouldn’t be promoting the track. Simon refused the many offers of appearances on TV because he felt that they may put Teddy’s dignity at risk.
Touchingly, when Simon played the song to his dad, Teddy loved it, singing along with himself word for word. At the end, he turned to Simon and said, “That’s a good singer, that is.” Incredibly, Teddy’s condition had advanced to the point that he couldn’t recognize himself on the track, even when told that it was him.
The success didn’t end with the single, either. On World Alzheimer’s Day – September 21 – 2017 the Songaminute Man released an album. The money to make it had once again come from the internet, as fans from across the world flocked to pour cash into the project that would see Teddy sing a full set-list of classic favorites.
Proud son Simon told HuffPost about the record in 2017. “It really is a dream come true that Dad has been able to record this album – he has been an entertainer his whole life, so being able to do this with a big band really is amazing,” Simon said. “We had so many requests last year about dad making an album that we decided to crowdfund it ourselves.”
It was a trip down memory lane for Teddy, as the album’s tracks echoed songs that he’d performed as an entertainer. Alongside Teddy, Guy Barker, who has accompanied luminaries such as Sting and Frank Sinatra, brought his orchestra to the album. And top engineers Tim Young and Steve Price deployed the skills that had made records for Adele and Queen, among others.
The 13 tracks included favorites such as “L.O.V.E.” by Nat King Cole and Ol’ Blue Eyes’ classic “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Topping the lot was the song that had introduced Teddy to the wider world: “Quando, Quando, Quando.” And not just the McDermott family would benefit, as a chunk of the proceeds were going to Alzheimer Society’s research.
Alzheimer’s Society fundraising head honcho Michael Dent was full of praise for Teddy. He told HuffPost in September 2017, “Dementia is set to be the 21st century’s biggest killer, so it’s absolutely fantastic that Teddy has been able to record this album and raise money to help us create a world without dementia.”
Dent continued, “While it has been an understandably difficult year for Teddy and his family dealing with the day to day realities of a dementia diagnosis, this just goes to show you can still continue to do the things you love and work towards lifelong dreams. Teddy is also a great example of the positive impact music and singing can have for people with dementia.”
The fundraising supremo was overjoyed by the outcome, and he let HuffPost know all about it. He said, “On behalf of everyone at Alzheimer’s Society, I’d like to say a huge well done to Teddy and Simon on the album – we urge Teddy’s supporters and everyone across the globe to unite against dementia and buy the album for World Alzheimer’s Day.”
And Dent’s joy at the record coming to fruition was very much echoed by Simon. “Essentially, this album is about love which, at the end of the day, is the only thing that matters,” the proud son told HuffPost. But the happiness that he felt was of course tinged with sorrow at his dad’s inability to understand his own success.
“He doesn’t remember who he is. He doesn’t know me,” Simon told the Daily Mail in September 2016. “We will be sitting chatting in the car, normal as anything, and he’ll call me Simon, but in the next breath he will say, ‘Isn’t that funny? I’ve got a son called Simon. He lives in London.’ It breaks my heart that he isn’t here to see this, but he isn’t. Not 100 per cent here, anyway.”
Nonetheless, Simon was quite certain that Teddy would have approved of the outcome of the video that Simon made. “All he ever wanted to do was to sing for people, and now people are listening to him all over the world,” Simon said. “He would love that. I know he would.”