By Katie Nowak
Bob Halligan, Jr.’s long and Celtic music career
In addition to an affinity for hairspray and bad perms, Cher and Michael Bolton share another bond: they dated for a brief period during the ’80s. But love lives and grooming habits aside, they’ve also both sung hits written by Syracuse University professor Bob Halligan, Jr.
Halligan, who teaches in the Bandier Program for Music and the Entertainment Industries, is best known for his role as founder and lead vocalist of local Celtic rock band Ceili Rain (pronounced KAY-lee). His songs have also been sold on more than 30 million albums worldwide, and he has worked with everyone from Joan Jett to Judas Priest, Kiss to The Guess Who, Blue Oyster Cult to Billy Joel, and dozens of others.
Out of all these music legends, who was his favorite to work with? None other than Mr. “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” himself, Michael Bolton.
Halligan wrote nine songs with Bolton, seven of which were recorded, and six of which were major singles.
But Halligan’s talent isn’t confined to the adult contemporary box, as evidenced by his equally successful stint as a heavy metal composer. Halligan’s West and East Coast representatives pitched his songs to both Kiss and Judas Priest.
“I didn’t even know who they were,” Halligan said of Judas Priest. “I thought [the name] was a swear word.” Despite his initial ignorance of the group, they recorded two of Halligan’s songs, “Take These Chains” and “Some Heads Are Gonna Roll,” which went on to become head-banging hit singles.
He finds this success surreal. He recalled a Priest concert he attended at Nassau Coliseum: “10,000 kids were singing my song with their fists in the air. It was great.”
That experience was a long way from his awkward teen years when he was “painfully skinny” with braces and zits.
Like many musicians, Halligan started out playing the piano at a young age, something his mother required. “I hated every minute of it,” he said. “I was mocked for taking piano. I thought, ‘The braces have to come off, or piano has to stop.’ My mom said, ‘The braces have to stay,’ so I quit piano. That’s when I got a guitar.”
During his sophomore year at Syracuse’s Christian Brothers Academy, Halligan tried his luck at songwriting.
“A remark was passed to me that the music teacher thought I was a musical genius,” he said. “I had no clue what that meant, but he was a man I respected very much. So I came home from school and thought I’d try to write a song.”
Within an hour and a half, he had his first one finished. It wasn’t common for high school sophomores to be writing their own songs yet, he said. “That was something for professionals. The response from my classmates was so overwhelming, I thought, ‘maybe this is my ticket’. Fourty-one years later, I’m still excited about it.”
Halligan got his feet wet by writing songs in different Syracuse groups, but soon relocated to New York City. “When I moved, I felt like [writing for others] was something I could do, and one day I just kind of attacked the idea,” he said.
By 2003, however, he was somewhat burnt out by the music business.
“When I hit 50, a part of me said, ‘Enough with this big music city rat race thing,’ and I decided to come home.”
Between his move from Syracuse to New York City and back again, Halligan, his wife, Linda, and their adopted son, Liam, lived in Nashville for eight and a half years. During his time there, a friend from Syracuse, Rick Cua, helped him establish Ceili Rain in 1995. The group is currently working on their sixth album.
Halligan was inspired to form the band when Linda, his wife of 33 years, listened to Irish music around the house.
“I started to fall in love with it,” he said of Irish tunes. “She suggested I combine Celtic music with rock ’n’ roll, and I thought, ‘that’s easily the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.’”
“Wives are almost always right,” he continued, smiling. “I tried it and have been doing it ever since.”
When not traveling with Ceili Rain, leading a weekly local youth group in music, or working as a session musician and producer, Halligan teaches two classes a semester at SU, a gig he’s had going for three years.
David Rezak, director of the Bandier program, hired Halligan. The two have known each other since 1973, when Rezak was a local music agent. He had taken note of Halligan’s band, Steak Nite, during Halligan’s freshman year at Hamilton College. “He was impressively earnest and articulate at the very beginning,” Rezak said.
Soon, Rezak started booking Steak Nite’s shows. He was amazed by their popularity with both pop covers and original material. “That’s hard to accomplish now, and it was hard then,” Rezak said. He credits this to Halligan’s engaging demeanor and talent as a performer. “He has a personality that people find accessible and approachable, and he’s a good communicator,” he added.
This is what led him to recommend Halligan for a job in the fledgling Bandier Program, teaching record label, management, music composition, and songwriting classes.
“I always knew, despite the fact that he’s great running the record company with the students, that the best use of his talents was to engage him in the thing he’s famous for, the thing he’s best at: writing pop music,” Rezak said. “Students have an incredible opportunity to work with talent like Bob Halligan…He’s a unique local treasure.”
This seems to be the consensus, at least at Crouse College, where Halligan sits in Room 207, joking with Lisa Steele, an internship and curriculum coordinator.
As he gets up to leave for his 11:40 a.m. class, he pauses. “What’s the name of this magazine again?” he asks. “Jerk?” He laughs, and assumes a mock-exasperated tone. “Well, you’ve got the right guy. That fits me.”
As he strolls out of the room with a smile on his face, you can’t help but disagree.