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A one-man musical variety show                                             September 04. 2002 9:31AM

I'm Back! Marcus Dagan, whose career began at the Rum Runners restaurant in 1976, is delighted that his current position of entertainer on the Norwegian Cruise Lines' Norwegian Majesty allows him to return to the Island every week, where he enjoys retracing old steps and friendships. (Photo by Tamell Simons)

By Nancy Acton

If, on some distant day, someone is pondering what epitaph might sum up the life of Marcus Dagan, perhaps the answer will be found in the words of his own song, ‘I Went to Paris': “Some of it is magic, some of it is tragic, but I have had a good life all the way.”
The multi-talented, British-born singer-songwriter, pianist and raconteur is not wasting a minute enjoying the present and planning the future, even as he savours memories of a past that reads like a definitive work on ‘How to Enjoy Life While Singing for your Supper.'
Mr. Dagan's professional story begins in Amsterdam where the son of entertainers, and a classically trained pianist, accepted his first gig playing in a little Jewish nightclub. In what would become the standard pattern of his life, this job led to another, and he found himself entertaining in a group of similar venues in Paris and Brussels before returning to London. There, in 1976, he said goodbye to a friend who was off to Bermuda to work as a graphic designer, never imagining that he would soon follow suit.
“One day he called me and asked, ‘Do you want to work in Bermuda? There's this guy, David Pedro, who is looking for a pianist for his restaurant',” Mr. Dagan relates. “I said, ‘Sure, why not?' '' A further phone call from Mr. Pedro clinched the deal, and the singer was on his way.
The aircraft arrived late, and he was further delayed leaving the airport because the guitar which he played at the time was damaged en route. With the formalities over, his new employer took him straight to the Rum Runners in Hamilton to meet the staff.
Now, there is something that must be understood up front about this multi-talented gentleman: a piano - any piano, anywhere - is an irresistible magnet, so when he discovered one sitting in a corridor of the Front Street eatery he sat down and played it until 2 a.m.
“It was great, and I played at Rum Rummers for six months,” he recalls. “I would buy sheet music from the Music Box and learn new songs based on people's requests so that I could keep adding to my repertoire. That is why today I can play everything from Gershwin to Tom Waits, and everything in between.”
He also sings in many languages.
In fact, Mr. Dagan says he owes his ensuing, successful career to Bermuda, where he grew and matured artistically. Despite the many wonderful countries he has since visited, the thousands of miles he has covered, and the countless exotic locations in which he has performed, he still says: “God, I love this Island.” So much so, in fact, that his latest album, ‘Hello Again', includes a song which he began writing here all those years ago. Entitled ‘(I need) All of the Sunshine', it equates the warmth of the sun with the warmth of love: “It felt like I held sunshine in my hands when I held you near to me, the winter sky's falling, I hear love calling, you can hear me sing like a summer bird upon the wing, and now I need all of the sunshine ... I believe loving you will bring.”
While here, he also gave a concert with Mr. Julian Hall to benefit the Bermuda Musical & Dramatic Society, and a solo concert to a full house at City Hall.
“I must have told hundreds of people about Bermuda since I left because I just had the best time, and still have friends that I made here, including Terry Corday, who now lives in New York and with whom I am still in contact,” Mr. Dagan says.
“In fact, in 1992 I designed the Cup Match T-shirt, ‘I was stumped by cricket in Bermuda'. A friend did the graphics, and Terry and I sold a ton of them.”
Just where the entertainer has played in the ensuing decades reads like a who's who of top spots in New York, Las Vegas (where he has a home), Paris, Monte Carlo, Israel, England, Canada, Japan and Hawaii, to name but a few, and where everyone from little old ladies to stars like Rod Steiger, James Caan, Buddy Greco and Steve Lawrence have returned again and again to enjoy his music. He has also done private shows for Burt Bacharach and Frank Sinatra.
“The first night at the Sands Hotel in Atlantic City I was asked to perform for Sinatra after my show but I said ‘No' because I had promised to take my daughter to school the next day, and I also had an audition for Caesar's, so I couldn't play late,” Mr. Dagan remembers.
“As I was leaving I met Sinatra and a friend coming in. He stopped and said, “Are you the guy who said ‘No?' I explained my reasons, and he said, “For the next four nights you are mine, so I played every night until 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. - and I got the job at Caesar's.”
Among other accolades, Mr. Dagan is still the only entertainer to have played at the Eiffel Tower restaurant in Paris, and its namesake in Las Vegas, the latter of which he says is better.
Stories like this dot his conversation, and they are delivered, not as endless name-dropping punctuation, but simply as expressions of quiet pride in what he has done. And Mr. Dagan does plenty. In fact, it would take a book to record it all - and he's a long way from done yet!
Currently, he is the resident entertainer on the Norwegian Cruise Lines' Norwegian Majesty, sailing between here and the US, where his unique blend of music and humour is proving just as popular as it is on land. His audiences comprise all tastes and nationalities, but an indication of the cosy rapport he builds with each week's group is perhaps best summed up when he says: “There is a lot of interaction between the passengers and everybody gets along. There are times when I don't want to let people go.”
He does admit, however, that Bostonians are his favourite audience because “they are intelligent and they listen”. In fact, he hopes to “thank” all these fine people by fitting in a gig or two in their area sometime soon.
Asked how he defines his performance style, Mr. Dagan says: “Smooth, sophisticated .....” and he might have added “seductive”, for even a cursory listen to one of his albums confirms that, for the ladies, there is undoubtedly a hormonal tweak.
Described as “a singer's singer”, his delivery is strictly soul to soul, and this is no accident, for his first priority is the lyrics.
“I sing a song from the inside out, and some of the songs require almost getting into a character,” he explains. “When I record, I lay my track down first, then I tell the musicians to go home and get inside the lyric first and then play what they feel.”
While his voice is often compared to Neil Diamond's, and he does sing his songs, Mr. Dagan remains his own man, putting his special style on the phrasing, the rhythm, and in some cases the original words. As a result, his audiences quickly realise they are listening to something unique. His delivery can run the gamut from smokey and sexy to romantic or raspy, all of it pumped through the aorta of genuine emotion, upon which all of his songs are based.
“My voice has gone through a lot of changes,” he says. “It has gotten richer and deeper.”
No two performances are alike, and Mr. Dagan never grows tired of what he does.
“Each night is a journey,” he says. “Within 20 minutes I know what the audience will go for. I know where I can take chances and do some original or obscure songs. There is a lot of psychology in it.”
Although he no longer sleeps with a notebook by his bed, he has accumulated reams of paper filled with random phrases and half-completed ideas which he promises “some day” to sort and file - and complete, of course. And that is excluding the countless other ideas running around in his head. Any and everything inspires his creative juices - old friends, foreign shores, memories, experiences.... Sensed rather than revealed behind some of the words are chapters of a man whose tapestry of life includes its share of torn threads. Surmounting all, however, is a pervasive feeling that this particular weaver of musical magic is, at the end of the day, the embodiment of his own, upbeat song: a ‘Late Night Survivor'.
“Most singer-songwriters do their own life, so I guess in some ways my songs are a diary,” Mr. Dagan concedes. “A lot of them are serious in content, which is why I incorporate humour into my performance. It lets the pressure off for the listeners and me.”
Long after his obligatory hours are done, he will happily play on..and on, either for the customers he was paid to entertain, or where there is a piano in any other place into which he has wandered.
Asked how entertainers like himself, who put their heart and soul into their work, cope with patrons for whom they are simply a background noise, he reminds that, first and foremost, they are there to enjoy themselves, and then admits that sometimes he plays progressively softer until they notice and ask him to turn up the volume.
While Mr. Dagan's professional life has always been nomadic, he does have many shoreside “anchors” - six address books packed with the names and addresses of people he has met, as well as his teenaged children, Courtney and Matthew, whom he describes as “great human beings” and with whom he keeps in regular touch, and sees whenever he can.
A practicing Jew, the entertainer defines his religion as “a major part of whom I am”, and seeks out Jewish communities wherever he goes. Shortly after arriving here in 1976, he was part of a tiny nucleus of Jews who organised a Passover seder, and during regular trips to New York, he brought back dozens of fresh bagels for his Jewish friends. Even in Japan, where he performed for many months, he found a well-established Jewish community.
As much as music is his passion, Mr. Dagan's life is not one-dimensional. He loves to cook, and constantly seeks out interesting food wherever he is, often bringing home unique regional ingredients. Part of his pleasure in eating out is analysing the flavours of dishes that tickle his taste buds, and then trying to replicate them at home.
“If I hadn't been a singer I would have been a chef,” he says.
The foundation of this interest began in upstate New York, where he not only played in a restaurant, but was asked to help out in other ways. Through watching chefs and tending bar, he eventually wound up running the place. With Mr. Dagan, no experience is wasted, so sometime in the future he aims to open a bar or restaurant in the Caribbean, where he will also entertain. More immediately, he will complete the season on the Norwegian Majesty, and then move on to other gigs.
Meanwhile, he is enjoying looking up old friends here, making new ones, and generally enjoying the Island he loves. And of course, if there happens to be a piano in his path .... well, who knows, you might just catch a bit of “Marcus magic.” If not, his two CD's, ‘Old Friends' and ‘Hello Again', can be found at the Music Box store in Hamilton. For further information visit his website at marcusdagan.com

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