Kenneth McKellar: obituary

Gramophone26th Apr 2010
Kenneth McKellar, Scottish tenor and one-time forester (photo: Decca)Kenneth McKellar, Scottish tenor and one-time forester (photo: Decca)

Between the mid-1950s and 1980s, Kenneth McKellar recorded nearly 40 LPs for Decca ranging from operatic arias, sacred songs and drawing-room ballads to Broadway hits and Scottish folk songs.

If he was not the finest Scottish tenor of the last century he was certainly the finest of his generation, though the success he had in popular repertoire tended to obscure the fact in the eyes of some critics. In the 1960s he made two outstanding LPs of Handel (one of them was Messiah alongside Joan Sutherland) conducted by Sir Adrian Boult who described McKellar as “the leading Handel singer of the 20th century”. His recordings of “Silent Worship”, “Ombra ma fu”, “Love in her eyes sits playing” and “Where e’er you walk” (a perennial favourite on BBC Radio 2’s Your Hundred Best Tunes) give that big claim some credence.

The fact is that the life of an opera star did not appeal to McKellar. After two years with the Carl Rosa Opera Company, he declared that a career in opera was “like living in a goldfish bowl”. Even when his friend from RCM days, Alexander Gibson, asked him repeatedly to join his newly-founded Scottish Opera, McKellar always resisted, though Benjamin Britten persuaded him to sing Macheath in his adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera for the English Opera Group in 1965. Premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival that year, the production by Colin Graham and conducted by Britten also starred Janet Baker. Having recorded a number of 78s for Parlophone, McKellar signed with Decca in 1954 becoming one of their best-selling and longest-serving artists. In 1963 he sang the role of the Caliph in Decca’s star-studded, award-winning recording of Kismet with Robert Merrill, Regina Resnick, Adele Leigh and the late Ian Wallace, conducted by Mantovani. Have McKellar’s beautiful rendering of “Sands of Time” and “Stranger in Paradise” (with Adele Leigh) ever been bettered?

McKellar was born in Paisley, Renfrewshire, the son of a grocer. After taking a science degree at Aberdeen University, McKellar fulfilled an ambition to help restore the depleted forest reserves of the Scottish Highlands and for two years worked for the Scottish Forestry Commission. He began to attract attention as a singer after he made his first broadcast for the BBC in Glasgow in 1947 singing the lead tenor in The Gentle Shepherd, an 18th century ballad opera with music arranged by Cedric Thorpe Davie. McKellar won a scholarship to the RCM in London and abandoned forestry. While a student, he had to have his tonsils out and a friend jokingly remarked that he ought to cut a recording for posterity just in case the surgeon’s scalpel slipped. He sang a selection of Scottish ballads and Roger Quilter’s O Mistress Mine for HMV. Unbeknownst to McKellar, the recording engineer sent the results to Parlophone who immediately offered him a contract.

It was, of course, as the kilt-wearing, be-sporraned singer of Scottish songs and Burns’s love poems that McKellar was best known, appearing on the BBC’s immensely popular The White Heather Club from 1958 to 1968 with Moira Anderson, Andy Stewart and Jimmy Shand and His Band. The panache he brought to such tartan ditties as The Song of the Clyde was matched by his touching and tasteful handling of She moved thro’ the fair (unaccompanied), Down by the Salley Gardens (in Britten’s arrangement) and other Irish airs. In 1966 he was the unlikely choice to sing the British entry for the Eurovision Song Contest in Luxembourg. A Man Without Love came in a disappointing 9th out of 18 and failed to make it into the pop charts.

Kenneth McKellar’s Swiss-born wife, Hedy, died in 1990. He retired in 1997 and died on 9 April from pancreatic cancer at the home of his daughter, Jane, in Lake Tahoe, California. He was 82.

Jeremy Nicholas

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