Words by Michael Lu
Bob Halligan Jr. is a professor in the music and entertainment industries department at Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts. He is also the lead vocalist and guitarist for Ceili Rain, a band he formed in 1995 that combines Celtic, rock, and contemporary Christian music. Halligan has had 140 songs recorded by well-known pop and rock artists, including Cher, Michael Bolton, and Judas Priest. He has published more than 975 songs and has sold more than 30 million units.
When did you first fall in love with music?
When we did show-and-tell in kindergarten, I sang the song The Night They Invented Champagne from the show Gigi. The kids and the teacher responded well.
When I was 11, I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, and that totally changed my life around. From that moment forward, I wanted to be them, and I’m still working on that.
The next moment is when I tried to write my first song when I was 15, and that got a tremendous response from my classmates. And it kind of said to me, maybe this is something that I’m meant to do.
What artists did you grow up listening to?
The Beatles. With them, it was their uniqueness and the amount of joy that was in their music. The fact that it was clearly by and for and about young people, but some of the older people enjoyed it too — I thought that was great.
I also loved the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder, and later a jazz musician named Chick Corea. They all influenced my songwriting and composing in the sense that I learned their songs. By learning other people’s songs, you take it apart. You discover the nuts and bolts of why it’s good. Combined with studying music in college, it gave me insights to the structure and quality as well as the “x-factor” of what these various groups did. It inspired me to reach higher in my own endeavors.
How did you decide music in any capacity was what you wanted to do with the rest of your life?
That was in April of my senior year in college. The guitarist in the band that I was in was going to off and become an architect. He then turned to me and said, “You’re going to be a musician, right?” The gravity with which he asked this question, the certitude of how obvious who I was and what I should be, made it so — from that moment forward, it was all that I cared about. Why not allow myself to be who I was?
How would you describe your experience working in the music industry?
I got to work with Jim Henson, which was pretty amazing. What he taught me was, work with great people and encourage them. That was one of the major lessons in my life, and I use that in my teaching. You look for what’s great in people and treat it like a flower, and make sure it gets sunlight and water and is able to grow.
I had plenty of ups and downs. I worked with a lot of fantastically talented people. I had the beauty of opportunity meeting preparedness, which is where my success came from. There seemed to be no lack of opportunity, in part because I sought it out, and when I smelled it, I went after it.
Who was your favorite artist to work with, and why?
I worked with writer-artists and then just pure writers. Among the artists that I worked with who I thought were great: Joan Jett, Michael Bolton, and Rob Halford from Judas Priest.
When you spend personal time with people, it expands into feelings of warmth and where you’re rooting for that person. You feel you get to know their essence. Michael Bolton had plenty of mixed reviews, especially male music critics, but I got to know him and root for him not just because he had songs I wrote, but because I believed in him. You don’t have to love every song that he sings or every note he sings to be on his side.
A lot of the artists like Cher, I never even met. I just wrote a song with another writer and it was submitted to her, and she selected it. I have had that happen twice with her, but never to this day have I met her. That didn’t stop from the royalty checks from being in my mailbox. (laughs)
How did Ceili Rain come about? How and when did you become also interested in Celtic/Irish and Christian music?
My wife became interested in Celtic/Irish/Scottish music and suggested that I combine it with rock ‘n’ roll. At first I thought it was a terrible idea, but when I tried it, I fell in love with it, head-over-heels. The spiritual aspect of the music sort of crept in with God’s hands — or accidentally, depending on how you looked at it. Once I understood that it was there, I embraced it and made it a central tenet of what we were doing, that every song was, in essence, a prayer and would have a spiritual content. In many of the songs the spiritual nature is not overtly available to the listener, but it’s always there.
How does Ceili Rain compare with what you accomplished throughout your career?
I’m finally part of a group performing, whether recording or live. This is what I always wanted to do: make my own records and be the singer, or one of the singers, of a band. I had done that over the years, but without any significant success. It was songwriting for other people that got my foot in the door.
On my tombstone, I don’t want it to say that I made music for Kiss or Cher or whomever. I want to be known as the guy from Ceili Rain, because I feel that is my life’s work. It is Ceili Rain that I feel is the full expression of my identity, artistically and otherwise. I’m glad that I got the chance to be me.
How did you become involved with teaching, and what do you wish to instill in your students about music and composing?
Professor David Rezak (professor of practice and director of the Bandler Program in VPA) brought me in. It was never something that I thought about, it was just something he introduced and I said yes.
As far as what I like to instill, I try to have all my courses be life lessons first and foremost, and music lessons second. It’s no good bringing music to the world if you’re not bringing yourself to the finest form. That’s my real passion in teaching. Any student, any musician, bring his or her best to the endeavor — watching that unfold in their lives is a fantastic joy.