Obituary: Jack Alexander, musician

Jack Alexander, who has died aged 77. Picture: TSPL
Jack Alexander, who has died aged 77. Picture: TSPL
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Jack Alexander, MBE, part of the Alexander Brothers. Born: 1935 in Cambusnethan in North Lanarkshire. Died: 2 November, 2013 in Ayrshire, aged 77.

THE Alexander Brothers were legends in Scottish folk music and, as a result of their home-grown success, toured the world becoming magnificent ambassadors for Scotland and its music.

Their ease on stage or screen and generous manner ensured they were guests at major venues. Jack, with his flowing blond hair and tall, handsome appearance, made an instant impression. He had a high tenor voice, which matched brother Tom’s playing on the accordion and the two had a wonderful way of presenting their songs in a relaxed and relaxing style. They wore the kilt with pride at their ceilidhs, or concerts, and were known affectionately as “The Boys”.

Jack Alexander was brought up in Cambusnethan, near Wishaw, and while attending the local school, both brothers displayed considerable musical talent: It is said they got the bug for showbusiness at Cambusnethan North Church in a Sunday school production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Jack studied the piano and Tom the accordion and by his mid-teens Jack had several diplomas at advanced grade on the piano and, with the encouragement of his mother Helen – herself a singer and pianist – his musical education flourished.

Their father worked at the local steel works, but the family often gathered round the piano of an evening to sing Scottish ballads. Their sister, Betty, attended dancing lessons and the Alexander Trio often performed at family gatherings.

On leaving school, the brothers were keen to follow a career in entertainment but to earn money they initially trained as painters and decorators.

They entered talent competitions throughout Scotland and, after their day jobs, Jack and Tom would perform at local working men’s clubs throughout the west of Scotland – including Barlinnie prison.

In 1958, Jack completed his national service and the brothers decided to turn professional – their first professional booking was at the Webster Theatre in Arbroath. There they met Ross Bowie, who was to be their manager for the next 35 years. The brothers were booked to appear (at £25 a week) for the first of five winter seasons at Glasgow’s Metropole Theatre.

The major break came in 1962 when the celebrated songwriter Tony Hatch heard them in a pub in London and signed them to Pye Records. Their first album, Highland Fling, was a smash hit and that was followed by another best-selling disc in 1964: the emotional lullaby Nobody’s Child. The lyrics are heartbreaking and could have become sentimental and maudlin. When Jack sang the song, however, it was poignant and tender.

Their career literally took off and The Boys were to enjoy unbridled success for half a century. They remained generous-hearted with their fans and made themselves available to everyone.

Jack had a way of delivering a song in a very personal and affectionate manner. Devoid of vocal gimmickry, he displayed his true musicianship in his clarity of tone and clear diction.

The two often sang on television against the magnificent backdrop of the Scottish 
scenery (beauty spots such as Loch Lomond, the Isle of Arran and Speyside) and their pride in their heritage and the Scottish folk tradition was totally evident.

They recorded more than 30 albums with Pye and RCA and soon television offers came flooding in – a highlight was their appearance in 1967 with Shirley Bassey on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. They hosted their own show on STV, which topped the ratings for many years.

They enjoyed huge television success after their first STV show in 1966. They were guests at STV’s Hogmany programmes – memorably in 1983 from the Glasgow studios, hosted by Andy Cameron. Along with the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra the Alexander Brothers joined Kenneth McKellar to ensure the New Year began in high musical spirits. In 1985, they were back for a Hogmany special with Cameron and joined by such stars as Sydney Devine and comedian Russ Abbott.

In the Sixties, they made their first trip to Canada and the United States with Andy Stewart. They returned often and took New Zealand and Australia by storm a few years later. In Sydney, they starred with another Scottish – legend Sir Jimmy Shand – at the Sydney Opera House.

The Boys had the distinction of holding sell-out concerts at New York’s Carnegie Hall. On their visits to Los Angeles, one special fan regularly attended their concerts: Hollywood legend Charlton Heston was in the stalls in full Highland dress.

Other chart-topping hits included These Are My Mountains, The Northern Lights Of Old Aberdeen, Bonnie Wee Jeannie McColl and Two Highland Lads. On one of their last albums (appropriately titled), Scotland We Love You, Jack sang the title track with Lena Martell.

Last year, the brothers decided to retire as Jack’s health was not good and they were being forced to cancel some shows – something they had rarely done throughout their careers. Tom came to terms with their situation and commented: “You are only really as good as your last performance.”

Jack Alexander was an entertainer of much charm, effervescent good humour and love of life that he communicated to an audience. His sheer love of entertainment was especially witnessed when Johnny Beattie organised a surprise celebration for The Boys’ 40 years in showbusiness.

It was a memorable evening as not only did Donald Dewar send greetings but so did the Queen: congratulating them on their years in entertainment and for their work for charity. When the letter from Buckingham Palace was read out, Jack commented: “Nae bad for a painter and decorator from Cambusnethan.”

Fittingly, last year the brothers joined Alan Cumming to celebrate Beattie’s 60 years in entertainment.

Jack, who was a keen golfer and a member at the Western Gailes club in Ayrshire, was a proud Scot and a man for whom Scots all the world over held a very special place in their heart.

The brothers were both awarded MBEs in 2005 and were presented with the medals at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.