Jack Alexander was the singer and pianist with the Alexander Brothers, the duo he formed with his elder brother Tom. They were two of Scotland’s best-loved entertainers, and during a career lasting five decades they toured the world with their versions of traditional Scottish songs, releasing more than 50 albums.
Alexander was born in Cambusnethan, North Lanarkshire, in 1935. The boys’ love of music came from their mother Helen, who sang and played piano. Their father Jimmy worked at the local steelworks and was determined to encourage his sons musical abilities. Jack started playing piano at the age of 11 and together with his sister Betty and brother Tom performed at church concerts and parties. Tom remembered evening performances at local working men’s clubs: “These clubs were always tough to crack and if they didn’t like you, they’d waste no time in letting you know. These were hard men who worked even harder for their money and if they felt you weren’t giving them value for their money, there was no mercy.”
The brothers’ first and only experience of working together outside music had been as apprentices with a painting and decorating company in Motherwell. However, in 1958 when Alexander returned from national service with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, the pair decided to try their luck as full-time musicians and secured a season at the Webster Theatre in Arbroath, in June of that year.
They had initially appeared on stage in suits, playing rock and roll, until a comic on the same bill suggested that with a change of style and sound they might find their own niche. Playing traditional Scottish music on piano and accordion, and dressed in kilts, the pair became a hit in clubs across Scotland.
Their big break came in 1962, when the songwriter and producer Tony Hatch saw them perform at the Metropolitan Theatre in London's Edgware Road, and suggested that they record an album. Hatch, who had begun his career working with Petula Clark, immediately understood the potential for an act playing traditional Scottish tunes.
He told The Independent: “Their manager Ross Bowie called the MD of Pye, Louis Benjamin, and said they had this great singing act. I was very happy to work with these Scottish boys. We could only work on a Sunday because they were so busy the rest of the time. They were so easy to work with and so well-rehearsed. They would come into the studio and we would record 16 tracks in just four hours.” Their first album, Highland Fling, was recorded in London, and included favourites such as “A Scottish Soldier” and “Scotland the Brave”, becoming an enormous success.
The brothers’ considerable experience working live was a boon to these sessions. “The great thing was they had a natural feel for what was good,” said Hatch. A lot of the songs we had been recording had already been tried out on stage. They had a huge following in London as well, so when we later recorded a live album we invited London Scottish fans along.” Hatch added with a smile that the largest expense for that session was the bar bill.
They followed the success of Highland Fling with the single “Nobody’s Child”, which topped the charts in Scotland in 1964, outselling the Beatles that year. The song, written by Cy Coben and Mel Foree, tells the story of a young orphan: “Just like a flower I’m growing wild / No mommy’s kisses and no daddy’s smiles / Nobody wants me, I’m nobody’s child”.
The following year, inspired by the reception of the single, Andy Stewart invited the brothers to tour with him in Canada and the US. By now they had their own show on STV and had become a mainstay of The White Heather Club, the yearly televised Hogmanay celebrations. Their music took them on tour worldwide over the next 40 years, including what they considered the high point of their career, performing at the Sydney Opera House.
To celebrate the Alexander Brothers’ 50th anniversary in 2008, they released an album and toured worldwide. Leslie Melville, the Provost of Arbroath, where they had first played professionally half a century before, said at a special presentation, “As well as proving superb entertainment to many generations of Scottish people, in the intervening half-century, brothers Tom and Jack have taken their act to most points on the globe and have been fantastic ambassadors for Scotland and Scottish music across the world.”
When the pair retired last year, Tom said, “People had started asking us if we were a tribute act to ourselves.” Jack said at the time, “We have been lucky enough to have a tremendous career and we want to go out on top. There are so many of our old friends that have gone now, such as Rikki Fulton and Jack Milroy, and you just want to have some time to slow down and spend with family. “
Jack Alexander, musician: born Cambusnethan, North Lanarkshire 11 November 1935; MBE 2005; married firstly (two daughters), secondly Lilian Welsh; died Ayr 2 November 2013.
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