Obituary: Kenneth McKellar

Kenneth McKellar, Tenor.

Born: 23 June, 1927, in Paisley. Died: 9 April, 2010, at Lake Tahoe, California, aged 82.

HE EPITOMISED the very best traditions of Scottish ballad singing, but Kenneth McKellar's remarkable career embodied a much wider body of work. It brought him international renown and made him a very special and much-loved artist. Apart from his renowned singing of Burns' love poems, for which he was rightly acclaimed, McKellar had a successful career in opera, recording, television and script-writing: he even wrote some revue sketches for Monty Python.

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But it was the voice that endeared him to millions. It was a light, lyric tenor with a deceptively strong timbre. It allowed McKellar to record everything from Handel to the Skye Boat Song. He delivered a ballad or an aria with a musical conviction and endless charm – and always with that broad, inviting smile that brought him popularity throughout Scotland for 50 years

Kenneth McKellar's father owned a grocery shop in Paisley, but McKellar showed a love of music from an early age. His father played Gilbert and Sullivan on their old wind-up gramophone and McKellar studied the violin. He formed a trio with two school friends and had his first experience of a real concert at the St Andrew's Hall in Glasgow when his father took him to hear Beniamino Gigli. The splendour of the voice made a deep impression on McKellar.

He went to Aberdeen University to study science and on graduation joined the Scottish Forestry Commission and often travelled (on horseback) throughout Deeside carrying out surveys. His primary responsibility was to regenerate the area with sitka spruce, larch and Scots pines. Over the years, McKellar took much pleasure in seeing these forests mature and improve the landscape.

At university, he had sung in the choir and the director of music was so impressed with the young tenor that he gave him special lessons. In 1946, McKellar won the Caird Scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music in London. He left the Forestry Commission and went to the RCM where he was an exact contemporary of Alexander Gibson and Joan Sutherland: both of whom were to figure in McKellar's career.

McKellar had a successful period at the college and won the Henry Leslie Prize, which helped him get work back in Scotland. In 1947, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, he performed a ballad opera by Cedric Thorpe Davie, which was well received when it was broadcast.

McKellar also started singing in the chorus of the Carl Rosa Opera Company. One night he sang an aria from The Barber of Seville and was promptly offered a contract. He sang leading roles with the company for two seasons, but by then McKellar was having considerable success as a recording artist and had cut an LP of Scottish songs for Parlaphone. In 1954, he was signed up by Decca and became one of that label's longest-serving singers – and certainly one of its best-selling.

McKellar's recordings reflected his interests and talents. He was soon recognised for the delicate and elegant style that he brought to Scottish ballads and was praised by Burns' scholars for the emotional thrust he gave the poet's most poignant love songs.

McKellar was always a fine interpreter of Burns – "his songs and poetry are really a joy" wrote one critic – and he was an honorary president of many Burns' societies. He was particularly proud of being an honorary president of the Burns/Puskin Club of Moscow.

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Sir Adrian Boult once called McKellar "the finest Handelean tenor". The conductor had heard him in concert and booked him for his recording of Handel's Messiah with Joan Sutherland. The disc has remained in the catalogue for almost half a century and is a Decca best-seller.

His recordings were often classed as middle of the road and easy listening, but McKellar always invested all his discs with a panache and style that mirrored the charm of the man himself. They included opera arias, The Eriskay Love Lilt, If I were a Rich Man and On the Road To Mandalay. His recordings of sacred songs made in Paisley Abbey were particularly poignant for McKellar and have remained among the public's best-loved.

This was all achieved on the back of TV shows, which got huge viewing figures. A Song for Everyone on the BBC became a national favourite and McKellar had international stars as guests. But it was his appearances on the White Heather Club that made McKellar and a handful of Scottish singers stars. Once a week – especially on Hogmanay – Andy Stewart and his chums were on hand to go first-footing worldwide from the TV studios in Glasgow. McKellar invariably added to the general jollity with a few songs with such artists as Moira Anderson and Jimmy Logan.

Alexander Gibson often suggested that McKellar sang with Scottish Opera, but he was never able to commit himself for a long run of a production. However, Benjamin Britten enticed McKellar to the stage to sing McHeath in the 1963 production of his version of The Beggar's Opera. The English Opera Group performed the work at Aldeburgh and in Paris and brought it to the Edinburgh Festival that year.

Sadly, McKellar was unavailable to sing the lead role (it was taken by Peter Pears) as he had been booked by the EIF for a concert of Burns' songs at Leith Town Hall.

McKellar was acknowledged as a major recording artist by the 1960s, but he returned to Scotland often to appear in pantomime and stage shows. An Aladdin in Glasgow is fondly remembered when McKellar appeared in traditional oriental costume in act one but for act two came on in full kilt and jabot and sang some Scottish songs. In act three, he was back to oriental.

But his love for Scotland led him to buy Callanish, a holiday home on Island of Seil, near Oban. The house – named after mystical stones on the Isle of Lewis – was a haven of peace and tranquility for McKellar and his family. In the early 1980s, after the death of his wife, McKellar sold it to his near-neighbour: Frances Shand-Kydd, the mother of Diana, the Princess of Wales.

One cannot underestimate the pleasure McKellar brought to thousands of expatriate Scots: in the process he did much to publicise Scottish traditions and culture. He achieved this without over- egging the tartan connection: rather he was proud of his Scottish origins and loved the music. It showed. One of his first tours to the US in 1959 was with his friend the bandleader Jimmy Shand. It was the first of numerous such tours the two made – especially to Australia and New Zealand – and they all were a resounding success.

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Not such a success was McKellar's appearance in – of all things – the Eurovision Song Contest of 1966. He strode on to the stage in full Highland regalia and delivered a quirky song called A Man Without Love. It came ninth, but a jaundiced McKellar dubbed the competition "a publicity junket". He also composed a song – The Tartan – for the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in 1986.

In the late 1980s, McKellar moved to Australia, to be closer to his daughters, where he continued to pursue his love of cooking – he was a dab hand baking a drop scone. He was an artist who loved to have immediate contact with his audience and encouraged them to sing the chorus and shout out questions. That ebullient manner also worked well in the television studio, where his easy style and cheery countenance endeared him to millions.

McKellar was diagnosed suffering from pancreatic cancer the week before his death. His wife Hedy died in 1990 and he is survived by a son and daughter.