Calum Kennedy

'King of the Highlands' whose talents as a Gaelic singer brought him fame and a television career
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The Independent Online

Calum Kennedy, singer: born Orosay, Isle of Lewis 2 June 1928; married 1953 Anne Gillies (died 1974; five daughters), 1986 Christine Wilson (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1999); died Aberdeen 15 April 2006.

The story goes that Calum Kennedy was so famous in Scotland that, when newspaper headlines announced "KENNEDY SHOT" in 1963, there was an outpouring of grief by some who assumed it meant the singer - not the American president. Calum Kennedy's powerful voice, flare for presentation and striking personality introduced Gaelic songs and Scottish folk music in general to a new generation through his television appearances and high-profile stage shows.

Dubbed "the king of the Highlands", he was born in 1928 and grew up in the Lochs area of the Hebridean island of Lewis, south of Stornoway, and spent his early years in a remote community without electricity or running water. But music and dancing were strong features of his upbringing with villagers regularly converging for ceilidhs and informal music sessions.

His father ran a bus service to and from Stornoway and the family became quite a focal point of the local community and not merely for the sound of melodeon and fiddles regularly heard in their home. When Calum was 10 they acquired a radio - "the first in our village" - a novelty that attracted many visitors and opened his ears to the wider musical world around him. He regularly sang in church, but attributed his unusual range and powers of projection to wandering on the moors near his home and singing to the cows and sheep as a way of calling them home from the hill.

At this time he had no thoughts of a career in entertainment and moved to Glasgow to work on Clydeside as an apprentice plater. He didn't last long there and went through a series of abortive careers, including a brief period training to be a doctor, a spell as an accountant and three and a half years in the Army.

His sister then suggested he try his luck singing at the Glasgow Mod, a competition-based annual festival of Gaelic arts. Victory qualified him to compete in the National Mod held in Dunoon. He didn't win that year but it inspired him to take his singing much more seriously and resurrect the songs of his childhood, which he performed with rare zeal and passion.

In 1953 he met and married Anne Gillies, herself a fine Gaelic singer, and they started performing together. Then, in front of the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, he took the gold medal at the National Mod in Aberdeen in 1955. It was a triumph that launched him to stardom.

Concerts followed in London and elsewhere, and his first recordings. He broadened his repertoire from Gaelic ballads and mouth music to incorporate English-language material and, with his mop of curly hair, boyish looks and dramatic sense of delivery, he caught the imagination of the public at large.

In 1957 he travelled by train to Moscow with another would-be singer and actor, Richard Harris, to compete in the World Ballad Championship, during which the two became good friends and Kennedy acquired a taste for drink and a reputation as a party animal. It proved to be a momentous trip as Kennedy beat 500 singers from all over the world, was presented with a gold medal by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and got to perform at the Bolshoi Theatre.

He returned a hero and his subsequent recording career included many orchestrated populist songs, with material ranging from "The Skye Boat Song", "Bluebells of Scotland", "The Whistling Gypsy", "Ae Fond Kiss" and "Amazing Grace" to "Keep Right on to the End of the Road" and "Donald Where's Yer Troosers"? His most famous and most acclaimed interpretations, though, were the Gaelic love song "Peigi a Ghraidh" and Byron's tribute to his childhood in Aberdeen, "Dark Lochnagar". Later he composed his own material, like "No No Geordie Munro" and "The Skyline of Skye", though the best-loved was probably the sentimental evocation of his own roots on "Lovely Stornoway".

As powerfully emotive a singer as he was, however, it was his engagingly forceful personality that won the hearts of the public and his escalating fame throughout the Sixties was largely built on regular television appearances. He hosted the first live show on Grampian Television and also starred in his own variety show on STV, almost inventing the template for the archetype Scottish performer of the day with his quips, kilt and irrepressible beam presenting long-running series Calum's Celidh and Round at Calum's.

He lived an expansive life, making big money selling out venues all over the country with his own travelling show, while also leading a busy social and family life, with five daughters. Anne and the girls all featured in his television show Meet the Kennedys and for a while performed on stage as a family group, the Singing Kennedys.

However, luck turned against him in the Seventies. His wife died suddenly in 1974 at the age of 40 after being admitted to hospital for a routine operation. Afflicted by throat problems, he didn't sing for two years afterwards and when he did return he found that his theatrical approach had lost favour with a public that now saw his robust, kilted persona and sentimental singing as representative of a one-dimensional, stereotypical image of Scottishness. He diversified and became an impresario, buying Dundee Palace and Aberdeen's Tivoli Theatre, bringing Shirley Bassey, Frankie Vaughan and the Billy Cotton Band Show to Scotland.

He was never again to recapture his glories of the Fifties and Sixties, but continued to perform. In 1985 he was the subject of an unintentionally funny BBC documentary, Calum Kennedy's Commando Course, which followed him on a disastrous variety tour through the north of Scotland. In 1986 he married his second wife, Christine, and they had a daughter together, but divorced.

Despite persistent health problems that resulted in a heart bypass operation, he made a stage comeback in the 1990s and was still performing at the age of 70. He suffered a stroke last year but there was a continuing awareness of his work through a couple of compilation CDs, The King of the Highlands and Sailing up the Clyde, of tracks recorded in his heyday.

His eldest daughter, Fiona Kennedy, has taken on his mantle as a television presenter and singer of Gaelic songs.

Colin Irwin

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