Kenneth McKellar: Popular Scottish lyric tenor who represented the UK at the Eurovision Song Contest
Wednesday 14 April 2010
As befits his name, Kenneth McKellar was Scottish through and through. He did much to promote the country's traditional songs and he appeared on the popular television series The White Heather Club, with Andy Stewart and Jimmy Shand and his Band. Because his voice was so powerful, he commanded attention, but he had a good sense of humour and so could appear on variety shows without embarrassment.
Kenneth McKellar was born, the son of a grocer, in Paisley, Renfrewshire on 23 June 1927. His father enjoyed opera and Gilbert and Sullivan and the young boy developed a liking for music. Seeing the great tenor Gigli in Glasgow was a highlight of his life.
McKellar graduated with a B.Sc. in forestry from Aberdeen University. He joined the Scottish Forestry Commission on a huge project to replenish trees as so many had been felled for the war effort. In an age before off-road vehicles, he travelled hundreds of miles on horseback to reach otherwise inaccessible areas.
At university, McKellar had joined the student choir and it was only then that he began to realise that he possessed an exceptional voice. In 1947, he made his radio debut as the main tenor in a production of a Scottish opera from the 18th century, The Gentle Shepherd, for the BBC in Glasgow.
He had met George Martin's first wife, Sheena, in that university choir and they all became good friends. McKellar obtained a Caird scholarship to the Royal College of Music and trained as an opera singer, and he would often visit the Martins in Acton. Martin was studying at the Guildhall School of Music and when he graduated and joined EMI's Parlophone label, McKellar was an early signing. In 1952, Martin produced McKellar's recordings, including "Ae Fond Kiss" by Robert Burns and "The Border Ballad" by Sir Walter Scott, but they were promoted badly, largely because Parlophone's chief, Oscar Preuss, favoured an established Scottish singer, Robert Wilson.
McKellar joined the financially challenged Carl Rosa Opera Company, expecting to be a member of the chorus, but they made him a principal tenor at £15 a week. As a result, he was able to marry in 1953 and buy a car. He felt uneasy about appearing in opera, however, disliking the costumes and preferring to sing in English. He left after two years and determined to draw attention to Scottish traditional songs. Pending Preuss's retirement, Martin had plans for him at Parlophone, but McKellar received a better offer from Decca that he would have been foolish to ignore.
Decca made 35 albums with McKellar, including the highly acclaimed A Tribute to Robert Burns (1959) and Songs of Robert Burns (1960), as well as tribute albums to John McCormack and Willie McCulloch.
Throughout the 60s, McKellar was recording two albums a year for Decca. He sang hymns with the choir of Paisley Abbey, Handel arias with Sir Adrian Boult, and made a recording of Kismet with Adele Leigh and Ian Wallace. He sang traditional songs from around the UK and one particularly noted album was Songs of the Hebrides (1961). He had his own BBC radio series, A Song for Everyone.
In 1963, McKellar's "Song of the Clyde" was used for the opening titles of Billy Liar, which starred Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie. The following year, he took part in a Christmas show, A Wish for Jamie, in Glasgow and this led to appearances as a comedy double act with the Scottish actor and comedian, Johnny Beattie. In 1965, McKellar appeared for Benjamin Britten in The Beggar's Opera with the English Opera Group at Aldeburgh.
By 1966, the UK organisers were desperate that the UK should win the Eurovision Song Contest after several near misses. McKellar, though possessing a magnificent voice, was an unusual choice for singing lightweight pop. His appearance proved controversial as he wore full Scottish dress and many surmised that he was representing Scotland and not the UK. His song, "A Man without Love" by Peter Callander and Cyril Ornadel, came 9th out of 18, the UK's lowest position to date, and was only saved from ignominy by receiving top marks from a laughing Irish panel.
The record only made No 30 on the charts, and the lyricist, Callander, says, "I am sorry that the song had had it after that appearance. Maybe he shouldn't have worn a kilt! I always felt that if we had given it to Tony Bennett, everybody would have said, 'What a good song'." It was a good song, but in any event "A Man without Love" would have been unlikely to topple Udo Jürgens' "Merci Chérie" for Austria. The following year the UK won with Sandie Shaw's "Puppet on a String".
McKellar continued his career as normal and he had a hit album of Italian arias, Ecco Di Napoli, in 1970. In that same year, he recorded The Great Duets with the Irish singer, Patricia Cahill. His was the first voice to be heard on Radio Clyde when it opened in 1973 and he was a popular guest on Scottish Television's music series, Thingamajig.
McKellar became a trustee of the Scottish International Education Trust when it was founded in 1971 and he did much to promote young talent. In 1986, his composition "The Royal Mile" was played during the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. Recent papers have shown that he declined an OBE when it was offered in 1992, but the reasons were kept private.
McKellar was a devoted family man. His wife, Hedy, died from a heart attack in 1990, and he enjoyed the company of his son, Kenneth, and daughter, Jane, and his five granddaughters. He died at his daughter's home in Lake Tahoe in California, a week after he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Kenneth McKellar, singer: born Paisley, Renfrewshire 23 June 1937; married 1953 Hedy (died 1990; one son, one daughter); died Lake Tahoe, California 9 April 2010.
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