Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Kenneth McKellar (1927 – 2010)

Kenneth McKellar was born in 1927 in Paisley, Renfrewshire, the son of a grocer. Although there were no musicians in the family, Kenneth's father and uncles sang in the High Kirk and his parents would often listen to opera on the gramophone. He grew up listening to the voices of singers such as Peter Dawson, Paul Robeson and Richard Tauber and recalled being taken to a concert at St Andrew's Hall in Glasgow to hear the great Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli. Kenneth was soon entertaining family friends by impersonating his favourite singers.

He attended the John Neilson school, Paisley and as a teenager enjoyed exploring the Scottish Highlands where he developed an intense interest in forestry. He later went to Aberdeen University and studied forestry. While a student he joined the university choir and as a budding tenor received individual coaching from the university's director of music. He went on to sing solo roles in, among other works, Mozart's Requiem, Bach's Mass in B Minor, and Handel Messiah. It was a student he made his first broadcast, from the BBC studios in Glasgow in 1947. He sang the main tenor role in the ballad opera The Gentle Shepherd. After university Kenneth worked for the Scottish Forestry Commission and spent the next two years travelling by horseback up and down the Scottish countryside, as part of a research and survey program on the woodlands of the British Isles and learned gaelic.

Keen to pursue a musical career he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London. Whilst there he was due to have his tonsils removed and fearing he might affect his singing voice was encouraged to make a private recording in a booth at the HMV record shop in Oxford Street. He recorded Roger Quilter's O Mistress Mine and the engineer was so impressed he contacted EMI's Parlophone label, which subsequently issued several 78 singles by McKellar.

McKellar’s early work with Parlophone helped him get a job with the Carl Rosa opera company. During his audition for the chorus he was asked to sing the opening aria from Rossini's Barber of Seville. Immediately, he was offered a principal tenor's contract at £15 a week and the singer was so pleased he got married and bought a car. Kenneth McKellar toured with the company for two years but felt confined singing opera and decided to leave and pursue a recording career. In 1954, he signed with the Decca record company. Over a period of 25 years he recorded some 45 LPs, ranging from oratorio to Burns songs, achieving massive sales all over the world.

Kenneth McKellar became well-known in the UK and had his own BBC series, A Song For Everyone. From 1957, he starred each year in pantomimes by Howard & Wyndham Ltd notably at their Alhambra Theatre Glasgow, later in 1960, he starred as Jamie in new pantomimes devised around him. A Wish For Jamie, was followed by A Love For Jamie and the popular shows ran at the Alhambra before moving to Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Newcastle. The Scottish tenor loved the haggis, heather and tartan side of Scottish culture and became a favourite guest on the BBC’s White Heather Club (1958-68) as well as BBC and ITV’s Hogmanay celebration programs. McKellar toured overseas with other Scottish entertainers such as Helen McArthur, often appearing in small local venues from North America to New Zealand.

In 1960, he released Songs of Robert Burns, which is considered by many Burns’ oficiandos to be the definitive interpretation of the Bard’s works. McKellar occasionally wrote songs too, including the comic piece The Midges and the patriotic The Tartan and The Royal Mile. In 1962, (Sir) Alexander Gibson asked him to join the new Scottish Opera but the singer politely refused.

The highlights of his classical recordings were two early 1960s albums of Handel conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. McKellar took the tenor soloist in a version of Messiah alongside Joan Sutherland and made a solo album of songs and arias. This became one of Decca's best-sellers, and his Decca recording of Handel Songs and Arias prompted Sir Adrian Boult, who had conducted the sessions, to describe McKellar as "the best Handel singer of the 20th century." In 1965, Benjamin Britten asked him to sing the part of McHeath in a production of The Beggar's Opera with the English Opera group at the Aldeburgh Festival and in Paris. The tenor accepted

In 1966, Kenneth McKellar was chosen to represent Britain in the Eurovision Song Contest, singing A Man Without Love. At the last moment he changed into a kilt, which drew gasps from the audience when he appeared on stage. Sadly, the song failed to make an impact and came ninth of the eighteen entries. However, it did make the Top 30 in the UK Singles Charts.

Outside music, Kenneth McKellar had a great sense of humour and wrote a sketch which was performed by the Monty Python team at the The Secret Policeman's Ball. This was the only time that a sketch written by a non-member was performed by them.

He left Decca to join Lismor Records, recording several albums before retiring in the late 1997. Kenneth McKellar died of pancreatic cancer, at the age of 82, in 2010.

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