Obituary: Dan McCafferty, gravel-voiced frontman of Scottish rock band Nazareth

Dan McCafferty, singer. Born: 14 October, 1946 in Dunfermline, Fife. Died: 8 November, 2022, aged 77.

Scotland has produced its fair share of gravel-voiced singers, from Frankie Miller to Maggie Bell, with Rod Stewart joining the club via his paternal roots. But Nazareth frontman Dan McCafferty, who has died aged 77, showcased the ultimate in paint-stripper vocals. He was the man with the sandpaper tonsils, up there with AC/DC singer Brian Johnson for economy of expression and sheer intense raspiness on songs such as Broken Down Angel, Hair of the Dog and Razamanaz, an onomatopoeic intimation of rock ’n’ roll mischief.

Little wonder that he inspired the unfettered wail of Guns N’ Roses vocalist Axl Rose, who asked Nazareth to play at his wedding. The band declined, even though their early days as a rock ’n’ roll covers outfit would have sealed their credentials for the role.

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McCafferty fronted the doughty Dunfermline hard rockers from their formation in 1968 right up to his retirement from gigging in 2013, when he was forced offstage by a flare-up of COPD. The rock gods of Valhalla were telling him to take it easy. McCafferty was realistic. “I figure if you can't do the job then you really shouldn't be there,” he told Classic Rock magazine, reflecting humbly of his time in Nazareth that “we weren’t trying to be famous or trying to change the world or anything. It was just a bunch of guys trying to meet girls, basically.”

Dan McCafferty on stage with Nazareth at the Great British Music Festival at Olympia, London, in 1976. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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Bassist Pete Agnew is now the sole surviving founding member and it was his unenviable job to break the news of McCafferty’s passing. "This is the saddest announcement I ever had to make," he wrote via social media. "Maryann and the family have lost a wonderful loving husband and father, I have lost my best friend and the world has lost one of the greatest singers who ever lived."

Dan McCafferty was born William Daniel McCafferty in Dunfermline, Fife. Growing up as an avid fan of first generation rock ’n’ rollers Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, the obvious career step was to form a Scottish rock ’n’ roll band. McCafferty graduated from roadie to singer with The Shadettes, a covers band formed by Agnew and drummer Darrell Sweet, who played in the clubs around Dunfermline, often providing the local support to big name rock acts such as The Who and Cream. While those bands were pioneering the nascent hard rock sound, The Shadettes were a nod to the past, dressed in distinctive matching yellow suits, with a constantly evolving repertoire of the hits of the day.

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The arrival of guitarist Manny Charlton in 1968 inspired a heavier musical direction and a change of name to the altogether grittier Nazareth, which they adopted from the opening lyric of The Weight, a contemporary hit for The Band: “I pulled in to Nazareth/Was feeling ’bout half past dead”.

The newly minted Nazareth were managed by local bingo hall impresario Bill Fehilly, who also oversaw the career of the Sensational Alex Harvey band until his death in a plane crash in 1976. The quartet relocated to London, signed to Pegasus Records and were always ready for their close-up on The Old Grey Whistle Test, with McCafferty a natural as the bare-chested, curly-maned rock screamer frontman.

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Nazareth pictured around 1975 - vocalist Dan McCafferty, guitarist Manny Charlton, bassist Pete Agnew, and drummer Darrell Sweet

They broke through with their third album, Razamanaz, released in 1973, produced by Deep Purple’s Roger Glover. The album spawned two hits, their debut Top of the Pops appearance and a tight run of albums with Glover at the controls. But it was their Charlton-produced 1975 album, Hair of the Dog, which propelled Nazareth to international success, thanks to an unlikely cover version.

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Love Hurts was an aching country ballad written by jobbing songwriter Boudleaux Bryant, which was originally recorded by The Everly Brothers in 1960 and then covered by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris in 1974. McCafferty loved this latter version and, undaunted by its signature close harmony arrangement, undertook a solo vocal rendition, summoning soulful reserves of gruff passion for what the band considered to be a worthy b-side. However, Jerry Moss – the M in A&M Records – heard the potential in their recording and backed it to deliver a sizeable hit in the US. Love Hurts made the Billboard Top 10, and became a prom slow dance mainstay, as well as Norway’s biggest selling single.

Unsurprisingly, given their covers band roots, Nazareth scored again and again with unusual, transformative versions of other people’s songs, such as Tomorrow’s My White Bicycle and Tim Rose’s Morning Dew, which was a huge hit in Germany. Most prestigiously, Joni Mitchell gave her blessing to their earthy rendition of This Flight Tonight. On a roll, McCafferty recorded a collection of covers for his debut self-titled solo album, released in 1975.

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Nazareth continued to have hit albums in the States when their UK chart run dried up. In the end, it was Germany which really kept the faith, though they were never short of an audience in Scotland.

McCafferty had the desire but not the health to keep on rocking. He collapsed with a burst stomach ulcer at a concert in Canada in July 2013; a month later he was forced to abandon a concert in Switzerland after three songs because of breathing difficulties. His days as a live performer were over but he did record vocals for Nazareth’s 2014 album Rock ’n’ Roll Telephone before Linton Osborne, and then Carl Sentence took over the lead singer reins.

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McCafferty was last spotted on stage in his native Dunfermline, making a guest appearance with Nazareth at the city’s Legends of Rock festival in 2015. Four years later, he released his final studio recording, the appropriately titled solo album Last Testament. He is survived by his wife Maryann and sons Derek and Colin.

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