A Life in Song
PLUS - Potted History of his Early Years
It began as a hobby at university but it deflected Kenneth McKellar from a possible future in Forestry into a career that has embraced everything from Oratorio to Burns songs and from singing in the Eurovision Song Contest to writing scripts for Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Paisley-born McKellar had always sung as a boy. At school he and some pals formed a group featuring guitar, drums and Kenneth on violin, and as he grew up, when family friends came to visit, he would be by no means loth to give one of his impersonations of his favourite singers, Paul Robeson particularly.
Then, while studying for a Bachelor of Science degree at Aberdeen, McKellar joined the University chapel choir, thinking it would be an enjoyable break from his studies.
"Someone heard me singing and suggested that I take some lessons from the Director of Music, and he was enthusiastic," he recalls. "He guided me, really, and when I realised the effort and care involved in performing the great oratorios such as the St Matthew Passion, the Messiah and Mozart's Requiem, I started to study them. I performed all of these with the university choir."
A Caird Scholarship in Singing enabled Kenneth McKellar BSc to progress from a job surveying Britain's woodlands with the Forestry Commission to the Royal College of Music in London.
Here he won the Henry Leslie singing prize and among his contemporaries were dame-to-be Joan Sutherland and the future founder of Scottish Opera, Sir Alexander (then plain Alex) Gibson. From the RCM, he straightaway joined the Carl Rosa Opera Company as Principal Tenor.
While at RCM he had signed his first recording contract with Parlophone and recorded eight sides on 78's. He had already made his first broadcasts, following an audition with the BBC in Aberdeen, in 1947. He sang in the background of a play by Scottish playwright Jessie Kesson then featured in a production of The Gentle Shepherd with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and he promptly became a household name.
In 1954 he signed with Decca with whom, over a period of twenty-five years, he recorded some forty-five LPs, achieving massive sales all over the world. Indeed, his recording of Handel's Messiah with Joan Sutherland remains one of Decca's all-time biggest sellers.
His recording Handel Songs and Arias, for Decca, was voted Best Classical recording of the Year by Musical America and prompted no less a figure than Sir Adrian Boult, who had conducted the sessions, to describe McKellar as "the best Handel singer of the Twentieth Century."
However, his talents were not restricted to classical music. Already familiar to radio listeners, during the 1950s he became a well-known face through television, singing Scottish songs, light opera and pop songs on his own series, A Song For Everyone, for the BBC. He also increased his profile around the world, beginning a series of North American tours in 1959, appearing in concerts in Germany and France, touring South Africa and, in 1960, setting off on the first of fifteen tours of Australia and New Zealand with a company which included Scottish Country Dance kingpin, accordionist Jimmy Shand and Alec Finlay.
Kenneth McKellar the songwriter had also emerged by this time. "I'd always had songs going on in my head," he says. "But I remember particularly when we were working on the stage production A Wish for Jamie, which was written for me, and we needed a couple of songs. So I wrote them." The Tartan, which has now been recorded by more than forty artistes, was born and went into a catalogue including The Royal Mile, heard by over four million people during the televised opening of the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, and comedy items such as The Midges and The Pan Drap which have passed, with tongue in cheek, into Scottish folklore.
In 1966, McKellar was chosen to represent Britain in the Eurovision Song Contest, singing A Man Without Love, an experience he recalls with little enthusiasm - and not because his entry failed to live up to expectations that it was going to win.
"It was supposed to be a contest connected with music," he says with what, in light of the competition's oft-mocked status these days, may seem like naivete. "But music was about the last thing that was attended to. It was all about people wanting to be seen, a publishers' junket. Nothing more. I didn't take notice of it for years afterwards but I watched it recently and it was exactly the same. Of course, when I did it, we stood there alone with an orchestra. Nowadays, they have groups doing their stuff and the whole thing's lit up like the Blackpool Illuminations."
So, he's not a Eurovision fan, then. He is, though, a great admirer of Robert Burns. He has recorded many of his songs (his Songs of Robert Burns album remains the definitive one) and is Hon President and Life Member of most of the principal Burns societies around the world, including the Burns and Pushkin Club of Moscow.
"Burns, for me, is great," he says. "If they'd just leave him alone and listen to what he's saying and how he says it. As they do with the Bible, people will read into Burns what they want to. But I prefer just to concentrate on the skill and beauty of the writing. His songs and poetry really are a joy."
In addition to songwriting, McKellar has enjoyed notable success in other areas of writing. As well as producing the book, "The Romantic Scotland of Kenneth McKellar", which is now into its third edition, in the late 1960s he contributed scripts to Monty Python, including one which is regularly dusted off for performances of the Secret Policeman's Ball for Amnesty International.
He is slightly coy about these, saying that they were just something he dashed off at the time. "I never even met John Cleese or any of the other members of the team, although John Cleese did write me one or two very nice letters and mentioned me in his autobiography," he says. "I just submitted them through the show's producer. I'd scripted all my own radio and television series, so I knew how to go about it. But although it was quite exciting at the time, I didn't see it as a new career opportunity. In fact, after they used my scripts the show came to an end. Not as a consequence, I hasten to add."
"Other things" have included successful returns to Opera, including notable appearances with English Opera at Aldeburgh and at the Champs Elysees Theatre in Paris, playing McHeath to Janet Baker's Polly and Heather Harper's Lucy in The Beggar's Opera, annual summer seasons between 1996 and 1990 in resorts all over the UK, and outside of music, trusteeships with various education, health and arts organisations.
He also, of course, went on to record two videos and a further five albums for Lismor Records before retiring from performing at the age of seventy in 1997. "I'd had my innings and I felt it was time to hand over to other people," he says.
He has no lack of things to keep him occupied in his retirement and among his hobbies he lists baking and cooking, and roaming the European countryside, from Lewis to Nuremberg and all points in between, on his BMW motorcycle. He hasn't deserted music entirely, either, as he still very much enjoys playing the piano and writing arrangements and orchestrations. "I did all the orchestrations for my last four or five CDs and I find it a very pleasant way of passing the time, sitting looking out of the window and jotting ideas down on paper," he says. "It can be hard work, too, but then you hear your notes being played and it's very rewarding - at least, it is most of the time!"
c. Rob Adams, July 2001
Kenneth McKellar – the Early Years.
Kenneth McKellar was born and brought up in Paisley where his father owned a grocery shop. Although there were no musicians at home, the McKellar family nevertheless loved music and often listened to opera on the gramophone. "There wasn't much Scottish music at home," he recalls. It simply wasn't being recorded. My father was very keen on Gilbert and Sullivan, Caruso and Gigli and I lapped all that up. "
As a child of three or four he sat for hours absorbed in the power of the great singers like Peter Dawson, Paul Robeson, Norman Allin and Richard Tauber. I thought Peter Dawson, the Australian baritone, was wonderful," he said. "He had the kind of voice that could be identified within the first four bars."
He recalls his parents taking him to a concert in St.Andrew's Hall in Glasgow where he was enthralled by the Italian tenor, Beniamino Gigli. "I still have not heard better more beautiful singing from anyone," he said. Kenneth attended Aberdeen University and it was here, while he was studying for a Science degree which was meant to lead on to a career in Scottish Forestry, that he joined the student choir and showed for the first time that he had a special talent for singing. "The Director of Music told me I should think seriously about singing," he said. "So he gave me lessons. We did Mozart's Requiem; the B Minor Mass; Messiah, of course; The Creation; the St Matthew Passion; and he coached me for a Caird Scholarship which I won." Later, the Caird Scholarship would take him to the Royal College of Music in London for four years.
But his great joy in those early years lay in a life outdoors in the forests and rushing rivers of the Highlands. During the war years, much of Scotland's forest reserves had been depleted to the point of exhaustion and he was keen to help restore them. After graduation he joined the Scottish Forestry Commission and took part in a research and survey programme of the woodlands of the British Isles. "I travelled on horseback up and down all over the country," he said, "Aberfoyle, Dundee, Deeside and Birkhall, from Forfar over to Skipness, drawing up plans for regeneration with Sitka Spruce, Larch, Scots Pines. We put in hundreds of thousands of trees. Over the years I've seen those trees grow to maturity; I've seen them felled and another crop grown and harvested as well. In Carradale I used to lodge with a wonderful old maid, Miss Tina Patterson at Portree. She had the most marvellous store of folk tales and a great grasp of Scottish history. It was all so real, so vivid to her that sometimes it seemed as if she actually had been there. 'Aah,' she'd say wistfully, William. Wallace! I was awful vexed to hear what they did to him in London.' That's where I picked up my love of Scottish folk lore. I attended Gaelic classes at night and learned the songs of the Hebrides, from Mrs Carson who ran the Campbeltown Gaelic Choir. She had studied with Marjory Kennedy Fraser, the concert singer who had been an enthusiastic advocate of Gaelic culture and a great collector of songs at the beginning of the century. There are people who say Marjory debased the Gaelic oral tradition by writing those Hebridean songs down. But I say thank God she did. It's largely thanks to her that we have those songs today."
Singing Career Takes Off
Kenneth McKellar's great talent as a singer first came to public notice in 1947 through a broadcast with the BBC in Glasgow. "It was the ballad opera The Gentle Shepherd, by the early 18th century Scottish poet Allan Rarnsay," he recalls. "The music for it was arranged by Cedric Thorpe Davie, who was Professor of Music at St.Andrew's University. I sang the main tenor part in that. It was very beautiful. That was my introduction to broadcasting."
In the early 1950s he found himself recording for the Parlophone label by, at first, pure accident. "At College I was about to have my tonsils out and a friend of mine said in case the surgeon's scapel slips I ought to cut a recording, so I went along to HMV in London and-did just that. It had on it a song by Roger Quilter, 0 Mistress Mine, and a couple of Scots songs. The engineer sent it to Parlophone. It was a surprise to me that he had. Parlophone asked me to come up and talk about making a record for them. On the strength of that they thought I should be working commercially for them. That's been the story of my life, really. A random progression in which one thing leads to another"
As soon as he graduated from the Royal College of Music, Kenneth joined the Carl Rosa Opera Company. He started out in the chorus but "by pure chance" was given an opportunity to sing the opening aria from The Barber of Seville. "They seemed impressed,' he says, "because they offered me a principal tenor's contract".
He toured with the company for two seasons but didn't really like the environment of opera. "It was like living in a goldfish bowl" he says, "and I thought: 'I don't need this. All I want to do is sing' Alec (the late Sir Alexander) Gibson, wanted me to join the Scottish Opera. 'No,' I said, 'I've had enough'." However, in 1965, Benjamin Britten did persuade him to join the English Opera Group at the Aldeburgh Festival and at the Champs Elysee Theatre in Paris in the part of McHeath in "The Beggar's Opera".
Recording and Performing
A year after he left opera for good he signed with the Decca Record Company where he remained for over 25 years during which time he recorded some 35 or more LPs which have sold many millions of copies throughout the world. His Songs of Robert Burns album is regarded in Scotland as the definitive Burns collection. His recordings in Paisley Abbey, Sacred Songs and Hosana are among the best-loved ever to come out of Scotland. Thanks to the wonders of digital recording some of Kenneth McKellar's most memorable songs have now been re-released by Decca.
You can listen to short samples from some of the tracks from this artist using the player below.
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