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Calum Kennedy


Calum Kennedy
By Lorn MacIntyre : The Herald � An Obituary

The greatest Gaelic singer of his generation, Calum Kennedy, was a much applauded personality in kilt and plaid on television screens and theatre stages from the 1950s onwards, and also an impresario whose island tours turned into survival courses.
Calum, with his cherubic looks, grew up in Orasay on the isle of Lewis, in a house, he recalled fondly, without taps or electricity.
His father owned a small bus which he ran between the Lochs district and Stornoway, and one of the boy's delights was to watch its approaching lights in the night sky, perhaps a form of second-sight of the footlights to come.
Calum began his public performances as a precentor in the Free Church, but there was also outdoor training in voice projection.
"I sang to the sheep and cattle out on the moors at first," he revealed in a television profile. "One woman in our village had a way of getting the cattle home without walking two miles to find them.
"She would be on the top of the hill and call at the top of her voice to her cow: 'Come, Jessie.' You'd hear the cow two miles away. And I said to myself: 'couldn't I do that for our half dozen cows out on the moor?' And I began calling from a hilltop just like the woman. After a while they began coming home. What an unusual audience."
A melodeon in the house, and dancing on the roads further advanced Calum's musical education. "Ours was a ceilidh house. We got the first radio in our village in about 1938 or 1939.
"The old men used to come in to hear the news. At that time you had accumulators with the radio to keep it going. An old fellow came in and said to my father: 'Murdo, what's on the news tonight?'
"And my father said: 'the accumulator's gone down'. The old fellow looked at him: 'Oh, many poor folk will have lost their lives in her.' He thought that the accumulator was a ship."
Calum came down to Glasgow to start work in John Brown's on Clydeside as an apprentice plater. After three months he went to Glasgow University � he wanted to be a doctor, but left after only 10 months.
He then worked as an accountant before joining the army for three and a half years. He began singing in earnest when he left the forces. Calum's sister urged him to enter the Mod and he competed in the Glasgow Local Mod.
He won, and then took part in the National Mod in Dunoon. In Aberdeen in 1955, he won the gold medal before an audience which included the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret.
He was invited to perform in London, and that was when he began to make the records that would soon turn him into the most successful Gaelic recording star of his time.
There followed a trip to Russia, to do the Gaelic equivalent of perestroika. In Russia he entered a competition called the World Competition with 750 people competing for the title for a fortnight, with 42 in the final. Calum was declared the winner.
"After that I had to go to meet Nikita Khrushchev, to receive the gold medal," Calum recalled. "Then I had to go to sing in the Bolshoi. You looked so tiny on the stage. But it was an experience I'll never forget."
Two years before his National Mod win, Calum met Anne Gillies at the Glasgow Local Mod. They were married in 1953.
They sang together all over the country, working 50 weeks in the year, travelling from theatre to theatre in Glasgow, Ayr, Carlisle, Newcastle and London. As Calum himself admitted, they earned a good deal of money and spent accordingly.
There were five girls in the happy and prosperous Kennedy family. But Anne died suddenly in 1974, following an operation for gallstones "that turned into something else". Calum lost his voice and couldn't speak for three months.
An impresario as well as a performer, Calum bought the Tivoli Theatre in Aberdeen and the Palace Theatre in Dundee, with a staff of 100 between both venues. Shirley Bassey, Frankie Vaughan and the Billy Cotton Band Show topped the bill to capacity audiences.
"I didn't know about anything other than work, work, work," Calum recalled. Always good hearted, he raised money for charity.
Calum met Christine in 1980 while he was singing Amazing Grace on Songs of Praise in Dunlop. She was singing with Irvine Operatic Society. They married in 1986 and have a daughter, Eilidh.
In 1985 the BBC broadcast Calum Kennedy's Commando Course, about a tour of the north of Scotland and the Hebrides by a cast assembled by the Gaelic singer.
It was a fiasco, in a leaking, freezing bus, with an infuriating puppet called Wee MacGee, and a cast of disgruntled performers who defected during the night.
One of the artistes recalled how he was in Inverurie on another Calum Kennedy tour the night President Kennedy was assassinated.
"Someone burst into the makeshift dressing-room, shouting: 'Kennedy's been shot!'
"The drummer piped up: 'Oh God, who the hell's going to pay us on Friday then?'"
Calum's comment on the tour was: "You've got to be disciplined to go on barnstorming tours."
Despite a reputation for being disorganised and litigious, Calum Kennedy was an endearing personality, a superb singer whose rendering of Dark Lochnagar has never been bettered.
Though the Gaelic maestro has gone, the family tradition of song continues in the glorious voice of Calum and Anne's daughter, Fiona.

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