If Port Richmond-based musician Raymond Coleman ever penned his autobiography, he might want to call it The Barber of Tyrone.
Coleman, 28, grew up surrounded by farmland in the rustic village of Ardboe in Ireland’s County Tyrone, but he never worked on a farm. Instead, he cut men’s hair and, much like the character Figaro in Rossini’s classic opera The Barber of Seville, he did his fair share of singing, too.
And since immigrating to America in 2009, Coleman’s life has had no shortage of drama or comedy. He’s also had plenty of Hollywood endings.
On Nov. 21, Coleman will show his appreciation for his latest bit of good fortune by performing a free concert for friends and fans of acoustic Irish folk music at The Plough and the Stars in Old City.
Coleman, a regular performer at The Plough and other Irish bars throughout the city and suburbs, feared he’d have to place his career and his life on hold back on Sept. 12 when someone broke into his van and stole his guitar and amplifiers. Music isn’t just his hobby; it’s also his profession.
But folks quickly rallied behind him, along with his wife, Jaclyn; stepson, Tommy, 12; and daughter, Branna, 1. Within one day of the theft, friends had donated more than $2,500 through a Web fundraiser that allowed Coleman to replace his missing gear without skipping a gig.
“To be honest, I was all emotional when it was coming apart,” Coleman said during a recent interview. “I was depressed. Then the next thing I knew, so many people were helping, people who didn’t even know me. It was unbelievable. I’m just thankful.”
Though still an up-and-coming performer in the local music circuit, Coleman is a polished pro with an acoustic guitar in his hands and a microphone for his tenor voice. He first picked up the instrument at age 14 to take after his older brother, Mickey.
“My whole family’s in music,” he said. “My older brother, I sort of learned guitar from him and it took off from there. I’d do two-piece (shows) with him when I was starting.”
While still a teenager, Coleman joined with a four-piece band. Then he tried his luck at singing for an American Idol-style competition at his school. He chose to cover Brit folk-rocker David Gray and won the contest, along with a cash prize and a trophy.
“I beat like 60 others, its was like the whole school was taking part in this competition,” he said. “It was packed. A lot of people came from other schools to watch the show. We had a full set and lights and backdrop, all of that.”
After completing his schooling, Coleman came to realize that he would have to leave tiny Ardboe, population 2,200, if he was to cultivate a broader audience. He first visited America one summer for a working vacation.
“I was singing at home, but there was not much work, so I came here,” he said. “I probably started getting gigs after the first couple of weeks.”
His visa was good only for two months, however. He then had to return home. In 2009, at age 23, he came here again. His original plan was to stay for three months, but he met Jaclyn in Downtown Philly after about three weeks.
When his three-month visa was about to expire, he faced a major decision: would he return home or move here permanently with his new love. In the end, staying was his only real option. He first settled in Glenside, then moved into the city. Branna was born last year. The couple are legally married in the U.S., but plan to visit Ireland for a formal Catholic wedding and reception next year.
Things were going great in his family and musical lives. In addition to his weekly gigs at The Plough (at 2nd and Chestnut streets), he’s performed at Maggie’s Waterfront Cafe and Paddy Whack’s in the Northeast. He was also a featured musician in the inaugural Philadelphia Fleadh in Pennypack Park last summer.
Pal Frank Daly, the lead singer of the Philly-based Irish band Jamison, booked Coleman for the Fleadh. Daly also came to Coleman’s rescue after someone broke into his van and stole his gear on Sept. 12.
“I was parked in front of my house and I woke up to a banging on the front door at 4:30 in the morning,” Coleman said. “It was the cops. They asked me, ‘Is that your van?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ They asked me if anything was stolen and I said, ‘Yeah, everything.’”
Coleman was scheduled to play the following night. He called Daly, who lent him some equipment for the show. Daly also set up a free page on the fundraising website GiveForward.com, where people from across the world can learn about causes and donate to them. The goal was to raise $2,500.
“Within five hours, $2,500 was raised. People from all over started donating,” Coleman said. “There were people from Los Angeles, from a foundation. There were anonymous people. There were some people giving $250 donations. I was very grateful.
“I got a check and ended up buying some used stuff and I got back on my feet again.”
The Nov. 21 appreciation concert will be special in many ways. Coleman’s brother, Mickey, who now lives in New York, will come down to play a few songs and rekindle their old partnership. Coleman hopes several other performers in Philly’s tight-knit community of Irish musicians will stop by for the jam session.
“We have a group on Facebook. If I ask for someone to come help out, next thing you know you’ll get 10 people calling back,” Coleman said. “We all know each other. We’re all friendly. All the guys are decent fellas.”
With his career back on track, Coleman has begun studio recording and hopes to produce a CD next year. In the meantime, he hopes to keep building his following among live audiences.
“I play the Irish folk music and contemporary stuff as well,” he said. “I create whatever people want to hear.” ••