Kenneth McKellar - Lost in the white heather
Kenneth McKellar, once the mainstay of the Hogmanay television line-up, has been dismissed over the years as a shortbread and Step-We-gaily entertainer. Sarah Nelson, though, finds that hidden by all the tartan regalia is the finest tenor Scotland has ever produced
FANCY a few CDs to soundtrack the Year of Homecoming, Robert Burns's 250th anniversary? Why not try Kenneth McKellar, one of the definitive interpreters of the Bard's songs?
"What?" I hear you say. "That tartan tammy stuff?" The young man in HMV's classical section shared your shocked reaction. He even told me, with sneery face, that if I wanted McKellar's sacred music from Paisley Abbey, I should try looking for it in Paisley instead.
But no, I haven't sunk into bedroom slippers – my last great enthusiasm was for Amy Winehouse. My generation rejected everyone "old fashioned", highbrow or kilted, and embraced Motown and soul. So, apart from admiring McKellar's best-known songs like Eriskay Love Lilt and My Love is Like a Red Red Rose, I'd never really sat down to listen.
I was spurred to investigate by learning that my late aunt, the pioneering Scottish BBC broadcaster, Elizabeth Adair, invited McKellar for his first radio broadcast while a forestry student in Aberdeen. I bought a couple of CDs last month. Recent digital remastering on CD has brought his rich voice, buried on scratched vinyl inside many a faded LP cover, to a wide audience again.
Instead of the shortbread and Step-We-gaily image, though, I found what discerning older readers, and many classical singers and musicians, surely knew already. I discovered Scotland's greatest tenor, in the style of McCormack and McEwan yet surpassing them, singing opera, religious music and arias from Handel, Bach and Schubert, Scots and Irish song, show tune duets and more, in a voice whose beauty and sensitivity stops you in your tracks.
I found that the entertainer often dismissively bracketed with every whisky-tartan tat and sentimentality, with the Alexander Brothers or Sydney Devine, had been described by leading conductor Sir Adrian Boult as the best Handel singer of the 20th century.
Most surprisingly (perhaps through hearing Red Red Rose played forte, thinking him very full-throated) he expressed deep feeling not by power-drilling, One-Cornetto-ing, warbling, rrrr-rolling his Rs in the tiresome way of our young tenors, or cascading vocally downwards like some fat owl tumbling off its perch. Instead, in this work at the height of his powers from the 1950s and late 1970s, he used perfect phrasing and technique, delicacy, pathos, falsetto and high-note fades to express powerful emotion without sentimentality, achieving song-endings which can tear at the guts.
Re-released albums, powerful and poignant to hear, include the acclaimed Songs of Robert Burns (now combined with Songs of the Hebrides on Vocalion), The Decca Years 1955-1975 (Decca) and the sacred music recorded from Paisley Abbey in his home town, Kenneth McKellar's Book of Hymns (Decca Eloquence import).
These are albums to dip into, for some song types won't interest everyone, and some Scots ditties (Roamin in the Gloamin, for example) have been heard quite enough. But it feels unimaginable that songs such as Mary Morrison, The Shieling Song, Down by the Salley Gardens, Red Red Rose, Flow Gently Sweet Afton, Danny Boy or the brief and incomparable God be in my Head could ever be sung better or more movingly than this. It's extraordinary how he makes even soppy old numbers like My Ain Folk sound unbearably poignant.
The artistry and feeling on McKellar's classical recordings is striking, too, as is demonstrated by the moving Ombra Mai Fu (Handel's Largo) Schubert "tasters" on the Decca Years albums, the set of Handel arias on Sir Adrian Boult's Handel Messiah Complete Recording (Decca/Belart), or Franck's Panis Angelicus.
It feels utterly wrong that Kenneth McKellar could be so often underrated, and little played today. How did this happen? Barely known by the younger Scottish public, he hardly features even on the copious Scottish compilation CDs sold to tourists. It's in strong contrast to professionals he worked with, like Irish singer Patricia Cahill, who more than 30 years after collaborating on The Great Duets album, today pays the warmest tribute on her website to "a true professional whose voice was full of music, and an absolute pleasure to work with and sing with".
Despite appeals from people such as Sir Alexander Gibson, founder of Scottish Opera, McKellar turned his back on a full-time operatic career after only two years, disliking the "goldfish bowl" environment.
He signed with and remained with Decca records for 25 years, selling millions of albums worldwide, becoming better known as a Scots artist than a classical artist, with numerous TV and touring appearances.
As a result, American collector Kevin D'Arcy says he suffered from being "in a no-man's land. Most of the classical world ignored him, because he chose not to pursue a career in opera or classical Lieder, and the folkies thought him too high-falutin' for their tastes." Scots folk music was also moving away to very different song styles, while the Gaelic tradition has been firmly guarded. But today, crossovers and/or twin careers involving classical and other musical genres prove much more acceptable for a host of singers and musicians.
Now this singer surely deserves to be reassessed, become high-selling again and be given his rightful status in the pecking order. Yes, he committed crimes against fashion – but surely it's time to forgive that, given that Scotland's own three tenors, Caledon, draw crowds in their bright orange kilts and furry sporrans?
Does he expose the fact that, as a nation, we're still unsure how highly we really respect whole swathes of our own music and song tradition, feeling more comfortable when we're either lampooning it or turning it into loud thumping rock? Surely it's time to shed prejudice, and judge his music's quality for ourselves. High time, too, for our politicians, especially an SNP Government, to ask how on earth Scotland's greatest tenor, a definitive Burns interpreter, and a gracious ambassador for the country for decades, could remain without honour: especially when knighted bankers (of all people) seem so thick on the ground.
Rumour has it that McKellar turned down an honour some years ago. I think – and I hope our singers and musicians add their support – that Alex Salmond should hasten round now and ask him again, at the same speed with which Kenneth McKellar used to roam Europe on a BMW motorbike.
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