During the 1960s and Seventies, for countless listeners and viewers, Calum Kennedy was the Gaelic singer, known as “the golden voice of the Highlands”. His was a hard-earned popularity, as he pursued a gruelling schedule of road shows, recordings and regular television appearances, as well as running two theatres. An expansive figure often clad in full kilt and plaid, his mellifluous tenor voice took him from the Lewis croft on which he grew up to singing before the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev.
Kennedy was born in 1928 in Orinsay in the South Lochs area of Lewis, where his father ran a local bus service and the family home was a focal point in the community, hosting many a ceilidh, while the music of the wider world emerged through the first wireless in the village. Calum would claim in later life that among his earliest singing experiences, apart from Sunday worship in the local Free kirk, was calling home the family cow, Jessie, a practice which certainly developed voice projection. With Gaelic as his first language, he attended primary school in Harris then went on to the Nicholson Institute in Stornoway for his secondary education.
Leaving the island to seek work, he spent three and a half years in the Army then started in accountancy with a Glasgow firm before setting up his own publishing company. He was inspired to enter the Glasgow Mòd by his wife, Anne Gillies, herself a Mòd gold medal winner, and by her musical family from Skye. He won at the Glasgow event, then competed in the National Mòd, not winning that year but going on to win a gold medal in Aberdeen in 1955, which was presented to him by the Queen.
These successes settled the direction his career would take and he started performing throughout Britain and making the first of many recordings on the Beltona, Decca and Pye labels that earned gold and silver discs, while broadening his Gaelic material to include English-language songs to entertain a broader audience.
In 1957 he joined the Irish actor and singer Richard Harris on a memorably roistering train journey to Moscow and there beat several hundred contenders to win the World Ballad Competition, singing the Gaelic song, O Mhairi e Mhairi. The trophy was presented to him by the then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, after which the lad from Lewis capped his triumph by performing on the stage of the Bolshoi Ballet.
He and Anne performed together throughout the country. It was, however, television that sealed his popularity. He brought to what was still a relatively new medium shows such as Calum’s Ceilidh – the first live programme transmitted by Grampian Television – and Round at Calum’s. With Anne and their five daughters (all named after songs – Fiona, Kirsteen, Morven, Morag and Deirdre) he also ran a touring show which took to the small screen as Meet the Kennedys. Of these daughters, Fiona has continued in the family tradition as a singer and broadcaster.
While maintaining a daunting touring schedule, he further expanded his stake in show business, buying the Dundee Palace and the Aberdeen Tivoli theatres and presenting the likes of Tony Hancock, Frankie Vaughan and Shirley Bassey.
Kennedy believed in living life to the full, but things took a downturn in 1974 when Anne died suddenly after what should have been a routine operation. Calum became beset by throat problems and didn’t sing for two years. He attempted to retire at 51, but demand led to him taking the road once again. In 1986 he married Christine Wilson, whom he’d met while recording Songs of Praise, and with whom he had a daughter, Eilidh.
In 1985 he was the subject of an early version of reality TV when a BBC camera crew followed a chaotic variety tour he took round the Highlands and islands. The resulting documentary, Calum Kennedy’s Commando Course, has developed cult status.
Critics may have sometimes carped at Kennedy’s showbiz tartanry, but his was a voice to be reckoned with. While popularising songs such as Lovely Stornoway, which he co-wrote with Bob Halfin, it was his heartfelt delivery of such great Gaelic songs as Mo Mhathair, Oran na Caiora and Peigi a Ghraidh and other lyrical material like Island Moon and, of course, Dark Lochnagar, that demonstrated his superb combination of natural purity of voice and formidable vocal technique.
The story goes that, at his peak he was such a household name that in 1963, when headlines screamed “Kennedy shot”, distraught fans assumed it was their favourite singer, rather than the US president who had been assassinated. Despite continuing health problems, Calum Kennedy was still singing at 70, and died in 2006 in Aberdeen, aged 77.