The Chieftains celebrated their 50th year as the premier exponents of traditional Irish music in 2012. Founded in 1962 with uillean piper Paddy Moloney at the helm, the group has recorded over 40 full-length albums and has performed at just about every major music venue throughout the world (and a fair percentage of the minor ones, to boot). They've performed for Popes, Queens, Presidents, and millions and millions of adoring fans in every major city in the world. In short, it's been quite a ride, and they're still going strong!
The majority of the original members of the Chieftains met while playing in a traditional Irish folk orchestra called Ceoltoiri Chualann, and decided to form their own group, based in instrumental Irish music. The group, which consisted of Paddy Moloney on uillean pipes (traditional Irish bagpipes, smaller and milder than the Scottish highland pipes), Martin Fay on fiddle, Michael Tubridy on wooden flute, Sean Potts on tin whistle, and David Fallon on bodhran. They recorded one album, called The Chieftains (Compare Prices), a name they took from the poem "Death of a Chieftain," by Irish poet and record label executive John Montague, and then, other than some casual gigs, didn't play together for five more years. The original album was exclusively instrumental, which was not necessarily "fashionable" in the vocal music-driven folk scene of the 1960s, but which set in motion what would become an instrumental revolution in the Irish trad scene. In 1969, they recorded their second album, called The Chieftains 2 (Compare Prices), with second fiddler Sean Keane, and Peader Mercier replacing Fallon on bodhran.
In 1971, The Chieftains 3 (Compare Prices) was recorded, followed by (you guessed it) The Chieftains 4 (Compare Prices) in 1973, which was the first Chieftains album for newly-added harp player Derek Bell. In 1975, the group decided to begin playing together full-time and marked the beginning of this new adventure with a major concert at London's Royal Albert Hall. 1975 also marked their Hollywood debut, in a sense: their song "Mna na hEireann" was used as a love theme in Stanley Kubrick's film Barry Lyndon. Shortly thereafter, Peader Mercier left the group and was replaced by Kevin Conneff, who is also a traditional sean-nos style singer, which added another dimension to the band's sound, which was previously primarily instrumental. Sean Potts and Michael Tubridy left in 1978, with Matt Molloy joining up on flute. The addition of Molloy would be the last major lineup change for nearly 25 years to follow. In 1979, the band performed for Pope John Paul II's visit to Ireland, and their performance was seen by over 135 million people.
By the 1980s, the band was well-established as the finest and most versatile group playing traditional Irish music in the world. In 1983, they were invited to be the first Western group to perform on the Great Wall of China, and they also provided a rare musical performance inside the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. (they were invited by Senator Ted Kennedy and Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, Irish-Americans both). The decade also found the group composing a number of pieces for film and theater productions, and really began their exploration of collaborative work with artists of other genres. Among these notable collaborations is the 1986 recording Irish Heartbeat (Compare Prices) with Irish folk-rocker Van Morrison, which garnered major critical acclaim and the band's first Grammy nomination (they have since had 18 more nominations and six wins). It was in the 1980s that the band also began the practice of bringing professional traditional Irish dancers to perform with them at shows (including the not-yet-famous Michael Flatley), thereby kickstarting an international wave of interest in Irish dancing that helped pave a pathway of success for Riverdance and Lord of the Dance.
The 1990s saw the Chieftains entering their fourth decade making music together, and the band's wild popularity among listeners and their fellow musicians kept them busy both touring and recording. 1991's The Bells of Dublin (Compare Prices), a Christmas album, was their first to go gold, and featured seasonal collaborations with Jackson Browne and Marianne Faithfull, among others. It was their 1995 release, though, The Long Black Veil (Compare Prices), that would become their bestselling album of all time.
The band kicked off the millenium with their Grammy-nominated back-to-basics release Water From the Well (Compare Prices) in 2000, during which they were also awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the prestigious Irish Music Magazine. In 2001, fiddler Martin Fay went into semi-retirement, deciding to perform only at shows in Ireland. In 2002, the band went to Nashville to record an album exploring the shared roots of Irish music and American old-time, country, and bluegrass. The sessions, which included collaborations with artists like Alison Krauss, Lyle Lovett, Martina McBride, and Gillian Welch, ultimately became 2 CDs: 2002's Down the Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions (Compare Prices) and 2003's Further Down the Old Plank Road (Compare Prices). Shortly after these sessions were recorded, harpist Derek Bell died of a heart attack in Phoenix, AZ at age 66. The band hit the road again in 2003 to promote the second Old Plank Road release, and has remained a four-piece since then. In 2012, the Chieftains celebrated their 50th anniversary as a band with their release Voice of Ages (Compare Prices), a collaborative album which features artists as diverse as The Decemberists, The Punch Brothers, Paolo Nutini, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The album was accompanied by an extensive tour, and the band shows no signs of stopping.