Obituary: Norman McCann

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The Independent Culture
DESPITE HIS cashmere coat with its mink collar and theatrically over-wide, brimmed trilby, Norman McCann remained the same earthy East- Ender he was born. An accomplished musician with a keen and innovative eye for a business deal, he will be remembered with gratitude by the young singers who continue to receive bursaries from the trust fund he established and with respect by students researching into the extraordinary musical archives he amassed during the last 30 years.

His parents, poor as any family in Twenties Deptford, nevertheless managed to keep their bright son at school until he had taken his School Certificate. At 16, he signed an indenture as an apprentice toolmaker and consequently, when war broke out, was considered too valuable to be allowed to join the Navy, for which he volunteered.

One night while he was on fire watch guarding his factory, the house next door received a direct hit. McCann escaped from the wreckage, which wrote off all the valuable machinery. At least the authorities considered that everything was written off but, with his younger brother Stanley, he searched the ruined building examining everything they could excavate. He reckoned at least eight of the 18 lathes and drills could be saved and made such a fuss that an engineer was sent from the War Office to check them. He was right, and aged 20 was given a medal and the job of setting up a new manufacturing base with the machines, in the comparative safety of High Wycombe. It was this move which changed the direction of his life.

Opposite the factory, newly arrived from Wales, lived the Elias family and the sound of music and singing was always to be heard coming from their house. McCann, five foot nothing in his socks, met one of the daughters, Winifred Elias, a petite and pretty 14-year-old who sang with a local dance orchestra after school. Elias Elias, her father, gave music lessons and McCann signed up for a course on singing, as a way to get to know the girl who would later become his wife.

When the new factory was in full production, McCann was called up into the Army. Returning to camp too late at night with a few beers inside him, the new private burst into song in the middle of the parade ground. Two red caps hauled him in front of the sergeant and sentence was passed immediately. He was to sing a medley at the farewell concert being arranged for a colonel about to embark. A trifle merry he may have been, but his wits were still about him. "Got no music, Sarge - all at home." And he gained an extra weekend pass to visit his family.

One of the songs he sang, "Ave Maria", turned out to be the Colonel's favourite. After the show, the Colonel sent for him and offered him the job of entertainments organiser, if he was prepared to sail in three days' time. McCann thanked him for the opportunity; he said he would be honoured to accept but he feared a mere private would not carry sufficient authority for such a job. A quick promotion and Corporal McCann left to spend his time in the Army in Haifa, arranging shows for the troops and learning skills that would stand him in good stead later on.

In 1948, dressed in full uniform with medals, McCann auditioned at the Royal Academy of Music and was awarded a scholarship to study with Rosina Buckman and Olive Groves. Winifred joined him to study with the same teachers. The Principal, Myers Foggin, told McCann he would never succeed, because of his East End accent. He proved Myers wrong not only by winning the elocution prize but by becoming an accomplished singer in both Italian and Welsh and being awarded the special Certificate of Singing, ranking above the medals.

At that time students were forbidden to take professional engagements and, when McCann was spotted at an audition, he was hauled again in front of the Principal. His excuse? That he was attending auditions to gain experience so that he would be well prepared after graduation. Fortunately the Principal never found out that under the name Paul Manning he was already a member of the chorus in the West End musical Wild Thyme.

After graduating, he changed his wife Winifred's name to the more glamorous Lucille Graham and began acting as her agent and manager, with such success that other artists soon approached him to do the same for them. At first he continued the two careers side by side, as singer and agent, but within a short time his flair for management took over and his career as a professional tenor was abandoned.

McCann's life continued to be blessed with many a touch of serendipity. He bought a radio with a good short-wave band so he could listen to music from around the world and one night, after a particularly splendid concert broadcast from the Soviet Union, he wrote to Moscow asking for more details of the orchestra and music. His letter was answered competently and enthusiastically and the correspondence eventually led to his bringing many solo artists and orchestras to Britain, from behind the Iron Curtain.

Although he arranged the first British engagements for artists from more than 20 countries, including Placido Domingo's British debut, his foremost interest continued to be in presenting talent from the Eastern bloc. This enthusiasm brought him great honour in several countries. He was honoured by the Bulgarian government with the Order of Kyril and Methodus, the Czechoslovakians awarded him the Smetana Medal and the Hungarian government gave him the Kodly Medal. Occasionally someone would accuse him of being a fellow traveller only to learn that he was a Conservative Councillor for the London Borough of Lewisham.

McCann's interest in Communist countries was confined to the arts and the admirable way they were often fostered and financed. He wanted audiences in Britain to be able to listen to these artists live and that did not only mean audiences in London and the big cities. His wife was Welsh, and he regularly presented concerts throughout the Principality, sometimes in unorthodox venues. On its first tour, after visiting major concert halls, he arranged for the Leipzig Gewandhaus Symphony Orchestra to play in a Welsh schoolhouse. The joint conductors of the tour on that occasion were Kurt Sanderling and Kurt Masur, both visiting Britain for the first time. Some members of the orchestra asked what on earth they were doing playing in such a place. "You're Communists, aren't you?" he challenged. "You believe in playing for the working man? Well that's what you're doing tonight." Sanderling became a great admirer and close friend of McCann, whose management was totally hands-on. He met the artists on their arrival at the airport, accompanied them throughout their tours making sure they were well treated, and being a musician himself was able to anticipate their needs.

One day on an early tour, while the incoming artists caught up on their sleep, McCann wandered around an antique shop and found a silk commemorative programme from Victorian times, celebrating a command performance at Drury Lane for a visiting head of state. The proprietor explained these exquisite programmes were rare, having only been produced on the most glittering of occasions. At the same time McCann was given a signed photograph of Ben-iamino Gigli, by a grateful client. The two items sparked off the interest that was to make McCann into a leading collector of musical memorabilia.

The collection, housed formerly in a converted coach-house in his garden, comprises several dozen, framed, silk programmes, thousands of photographs signed by artists, letters written by internationally acclaimed musicians, rare documents and unique, historic archive material. This "International Music Museum" - conservatively valued at over pounds 1.5m - he donated to the Royal Academy of Music, where it forms the centrepiece of the new museum being set up at York Gate, in a house next door to the academy.

McCann's musical activities included being President of the British Association of Concert Agents, Concert Organiser to the International Eisteddfod at Llangollen, Executive Director of the Children's Opera Group and Concert Manager to the London Bach Society, whose choir he took on tour to Bulgaria. He was also Chairman of the Resources Committee of the Family Welfare Association, an active Executive Member of the Greater London Playing Fields Association and President of the Lewisham Ratepayers Association.

McCann always said that he had come into the world owning nothing and would leave it the same way. He lived the life of a bon viveur in a comfortable home with a good cellar. He enjoyed fine cooking but never lost his childhood taste for a good saveloy.

In 1992, thwarting the taxman, he put all his possessions into the Lucille Graham Trust, the income from which will benefit young artists at various musical academies, by the award of scholarships. He was able to take a small income from the trust to act as adviser but from last April, when he became ill, he lived on his state old age pension.

Norman William John McCann, impresario and collector: born London 24 April 1920; married 1943 Winifred Elias (Lucille Graham, died 1991) (one son by Lucicia Bogdan); died London 20 March 1999.

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