Obituary: Mary McGowan, World-renowned jazz singer

Mary McGowan, world-renowned jazz singer. Picture: Contributed
Mary McGowan, world-renowned jazz singer. Picture: Contributed
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WORLD-renowned jazz singer with the Clyde Valley Stompers

Born: 25 July, 1930, in Glasgow.

Died: 1 October, 2015, in Glasgow, aged 85.

TO say that Mary McGowan was the lead singer with Scotland’s great traditional jazz band, the Clyde Valley Stompers, would not quite do her justice. The Stompers were brilliant but Mary was a jazz singer of genius, world class. A lassie from the Gorbals, she grew up hoarse from standing up for herself and that came across in her vocals –raw, bluesy, jazzy: the Gorbals meets South Side Chicago. No-one has ever begged Bill Bailey to please come home more passionately than Mary McGowan. And when Mary sang (Gimme that) Old Time Religion, it was good enough for thousands of her fans.

Mary, who became known later in life by her married name Mary Menzies, was just one of those Scottish female phenomena, like Lulu, Annie Lennox, Maggie Bell, Sheena Easton, Sharleen Spiteri and many more who made it worldwide. And all of the above songbirds learned much from and looked up to Mary McGowan. Listen to Mary string out the world “heaven” at the end of the track Old Time Religion and compare it with a 15-year-old Lulu’s famous career-launching single word “Well…” before she told us we made her want to Shout. The Scottish Daily Express called young Mary “the girl with the sweetest growl”.

She had a number one UK hit under her own name in September 1956 with the song (Open up them) Pearly Gates, (Halle-luia-luia) backed by the Stompers and her husband’s brother Ian Menzies, the bandleader, on trombone and vocals.

Below Mary in the charts that week were Doris Day with Whatever Will Be Will Be and Bill Haley and the Comets with Rock Around the Clock. By 1958, Mary and the Stompers were popular enough to be “commanded” by the young Queen Elizabeth to perform at the Royal Variety Performance – appropriately enough in Mary’s native city, at the Alhambra Theatre.

When the great Louis Armstrong – Satchmo – played at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow, the organisers told young Mary they were running out of time and so she couldn’t sing. She was in tears. When Satchmo heard of it, he said: “If Mary don’t sing, I don’t sing.” She sang.

Thereafter, she introduced Louis to fish suppers and black pudding.

He became convinced that the grease was good for his famous lips and therefore his trumpet-playing. He trumpeted Mary’s vocal genius until he died in 1971, a recommendation that could have made her world famous but she always put her family, and Glasgow, first.

She could have toured the world – and she did many gigs overseas – but she stayed rooted in her native city. The world’s loss was Glasgow’s gain as Mrs Menzies concentrated on her family and normal Glasgow things, like playing bingo at the Springfield Quay.

“She married my dad in 1958, had me in 1960 and that was it,” her son Robert said. “She put family first, but she blamed me for ending her music career. She was kidding, of course. She was a brilliant mum, confident and bubbly, always smiling and she loved speaking to people. Life was for living. She was just a wee Glasgow girl, no airs or graces, who loved life, people and her family. She met each day with a smile.”

A young entertainer, Des O’Connor, not yet famous, also fell for Mary’s talent and has raved about her ever since. Another lifelong fan was a fellow Glaswegian (from Bridgetown), the King of Skiffle, Lonnie Donegan. Lonnie played with Mary many times, adored her and believed she was one of the best jazz singers of all time. Largely because of her vocals, he was for some time the manager of the Clyde Valley Stompers. She also played on the same bills as Shirley Bassey, Petula Clark and bluesman Big Bill Broonzy.

When the young Beatles first appeared at Liverpool’s Cavern Club, guess who topped the bill – Mary McGowan and the Clyde Valley Stompers. There is a school of thought which says Paul McCartney nicked a bit of Mary’s vocalisation on his version of the song Kansas City. We may never know but Paul certainly always recognised Mary as one of the finest jazz/blues singers he had ever met.

Mary McGowan was born in 1930 on Sandyfaulds Street in the Gorbals, one of six sisters and with one brother. It was a time when the district was the heart of “No Mean City” of hard men and razor gangs as portrayed in the great novel of that name and the Maggie Bell song which became the theme for the TV series Taggart.

Her dad James was a brickie, her mother a dedicated housewife called Ellen. Mary grew up tough and she grew up loud, attending the city’s Holyrood School within earshot of the Hampden roar.

She recalled one day when a teacher asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. A movie star, Mary said. “Aw, don’t be silly, sit down, Mary,” the teacher replied. Years later, Mary wondered whether that teacher was watching when she appeared on TV, for example on one of the biggest music shows of the time, the Six-Five Special, fronted by DJ Pete Murray.

Mary left the Stompers in 1958 to have a family but returned to sing with them at a reunion concert in Glasgow’s Theatre Royal in the 1980s – the first time her children saw her perform live. “It was strange to see grown men shouting:‘When’s Mary comin’ on?’” her son Robert recalled. (Fiona Duncan largely took over as the Stompers’ singer in the 1960s).

In retirement, on Sandhaven Road, Crookston, Glasgow, Mary loved watching football, tennis and golf on TV, often surrounded by her grandchildren. She was particularly proud when Andy Murray brought the Wimbledon trophy to Scotland in 2013. When the telly was off, she would launch into her unique versions of Ave Maria or Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Mary was in fine health before she fell down the stairs of her home in Crookston. She passed away peacefully in the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (the old Southern General) in her beloved city. Her husband Robert Menzies, a marine engineer, died in 1989 and her siblings also predeceased her. She is survived by her children Robert, Brian and Angela and grandchildren Robert, Nicola, Hayley, Jade, Jamie, Evan and Louis.