Singers and Musical Personalities ~ Kenneth McKellar (1927 - 2010)

1.  McKellar 1


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Kenneth McKellar (1927 - 2010)


1.   Kenneth McKellar (1927 - 2010) represented the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest. 

Date: 1966
Photographer: Unknown. (This version of the image from the BBC Archive.)

2.   Kenneth McKellar with Andy Stewart

Date: ca. 1975
Photographer: Unknown.

McKellar, was born at Paisley, where his father owned a grocery shop. Although there were no musicians in the family, Kenneth's father and uncles sang in the High Kirk and his parents would often listen to opera on the gramophone. The boy grew up listening to the voices of singers such as Peter Dawson, Paul Robeson and Richard Tauber and recalled being taken to a concert at St Andrew's Hall in Glasgow to hear the great Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli. He was soon entertaining family friends by impersonating his favourite singers. But his greatest pleasure in his early years was exploring the Scottish Highlands.

The depletion of Scotland's forest reserves during the World War II left him with a burning desire to help restore them, and after leaving the John Neilson school, Paisley, he took a Science degree from Aberdeen University and joined the Scottish Forestry Commission. Over the next two years he took part in a research and survey programme on the woodlands of the British Isles, travelling by horseback up and down the Scottish countryside. At university, McKellar had joined the student choir. The university's director of music was so impressed that he gave him lessons, and McKellar went on to sing solo roles with the university choir in, among other works, Mozart's Requiem, J.S. Bach's B Minor Mass (BV 232) and The Messiah. He first came to public notice in 1947 through a broadcast with the BBC in Glasgow when he sang the main tenor role in the ballad opera The Gentle Shepherd, by the early 18th-century Scottish poet Allan Ramsay, with music arranged by Cedric Thorpe Davie.

After a couple of years with the Forestry Commission, Kenneth McKellar decided to devote himself to music. He gained a top scholarship to the Royal College of Music (RCM) in London, where he won the Henry Leslie singing prize. Among his contemporaries were Joan Sutherland and the future founder of Scottish Opera, Alex Gibson. His recording career began while he was still at the RCM. It happened that he needed to have his tonsils out, and a friend suggested, jokingly, that in case the surgeon's scalpel slipped, he should cut a recording for posterity. He went along to HMV and sang Roger Quilter's O Mistress Mine and a few Scottish ballads. HMV sent the recording to Parlophone, which immediately gave him a recording contract. He recorded eight sides of songs and ballads on 78 rpm’s.

After graduating from the RCM, Kenneth McKellar joined the Carl Rosa Opera Company. He expected to be assigned to the chorus but, during his audition, was asked to sing the opening aria from The Barber of Seville. He was immediately offered a principal tenor's contract at £15 a week and was so pleased that he got married and bought a car. He toured with the company for two seasons but did not like the life of an opera singer, and in 1954 left them to pursue a career singing traditional Scottish songs and other works. When Alex Gibson asked him to join his new Scottish Opera he refused, although in 1965 he was persuaded by Benjamin Britten to sing the part of McHeath in a production of The Beggar's Opera with the English Opera group at the Aldeburgh Festival and in Paris.

Text draws on a biography published on the

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3.   McKellar

Kenneth McKellar (1927 - 2010) A Change of Direction

3.   Kenneth McKellar

Date: ca. 1975
Photographer: Unknown.


After two years of touring, McKellar decided that a career in opera was "like living in a goldfish bowl, and I thought, I don't need this. All I want to do is sing." A few months after leaving, he signed a new recording contract with Decca, for whom he went on to make more than 30 LPs between the mid-1950s and the early 80s. These encompassed a huge range, from mainstream classical and religious songs through excerpts from Broadway musicals to the Scottish popular tradition of Robert Burns, Harry Lauder and well-known folk pieces.

The highlights of his classical recordings were two early 1960s albums of Handel conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. McKellar took the tenor soloist in a version of Messiah alongside Joan Sutherland and made a solo album of songs and arias. These led Boult to claim that McKellar was the century's best singer of Handel. From the early 1960s, his career was mainly in Scotland.

With his 1960 album, Songs of Robert Burns, McKellar was among the first contemporary singers to revisit the poet's whole oeuvre. He also recorded and performed more recent songs by Scottish composers, notably The Song of the Clyde by R Y Bell and Ian Gourlay.

McKellar was not averse to participating in the "tartanry" side of Scottish culture, which emphasised the more kitsch elements of national song, dance, dress and cuisine. With Jimmy Shand and his band plus the hosts Andy Stewart and Moira Anderson, he is indelibly associated with the White Heather Club, the BBC TV show that saw in the New Year in the late 1950s and 60s.

McKellar supported a number of charities, was an honorary president of Burns societies around the world and was a trustee of the Scottish International Education Trust. His Swiss-born wife Hedy died in 1990. He is survived by a son and a daughter.

[Text draws on a biography by ©David Mason and the history of Ayr Gaiety by John Moore.]

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Kenneth McKellar Anecdotes, photographs and recordings

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