"The King of the Highlands," Calum Kennedy was the premier Gaelic singer of the postwar generation, reviving the traditions of Scottish folk music through a series of stage productions and television…
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Calum Kennedy Biography

by Jason Ankeny

"The King of the Highlands," Calum Kennedy was the premier Gaelic singer of the postwar generation, reviving the traditions of Scottish folk music through a series of stage productions and television series that spotlighted his unparalleled flair for showmanship. Born on the Hebridean island of Lewis on June 2, 1928, Kennedy's formative years were spent without the benefit of electricity or running water, but when he was ten his family acquired their village's first radio, exposing him to music from across the globe. Although the teenaged Kennedy served as a member of his church choir, he nevertheless attributed his remarkable powers of projection to singing to the cows and sheep wandering the local hillside as a means of calling the animals home. He nevertheless harbored no dreams of a career in entertainment when he relocated to Glasgow to accept a job as an apprentice plater, and while he aspired to a career in medicine, he dropped out of Glasgow University after only three months. After a brief stint as an accountant, Kennedy spent close to four years in the Army. Upon receiving his discharge, his sister recommended he enter the Glasgow Mod, an annual Gaelic arts festival and competition, and after taking top honors he qualified for the National Mod in Dunoon. Although Kennedy fell short of victory, his success in the competition inspired him to pursue music as a full-time career, and he began developing a repertoire inspired by the native Scottish folk songs that were so much a part of his childhood.

Kennedy married fellow singer Anne Gillies in 1953, and together they toured Great Britain as a duo, often performing as many as 50 weeks out of the year. In 1955 Kennedy won the Gold Medal at the National Mod in Aberdeen, soon after signing to the venerable Beltona Records label. In 1957 he traveled to Moscow to compete in the World Ballad Championship, a 750-entrant vocal competition where he again claimed top prize, receiving his gold medal from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushschev and headlining a sold-out performance at the famed Bolshoi Theatre. Kennedy returned to Glasgow an international celebrity. In addition to Gaelic perennials like "Peigi a Ghraidh" and "Dark Lochnagar," he expanded his repertoire to include English-language material like "The Whistling Gypsy," "Bluebells of Scotland," and "Keep Right on to the End of the Road" in a successful bid to grow his fan base. Over time, he even composed a handful of originals, most notably the sentimental "Lovely Stornaway," and after exiting Beltona in 1960 signed with the Pye imprint, which further elevated his profile on both sides of the Atlantic. Kennedy also proved himself a keen businessman, acquiring Aberdeen's Tivoli Theatre and Dundee's Palace Theatre, and was such a beloved figure that when newspaper headlines screamed "KENNEDY SHOT" on the morning of November 23, 1963, many grief-stricken fans initially believed that the singer, not the U.S. president, was the victim of an assassin's bullet.

Whatever his success on record and in concert, Kennedy enjoyed his greatest impact on the fledgling medium of television. A larger-than-life personality with his razor wit and traditional Scottish garb, he headlined the first-ever live broadcast on Grampian Television and remained a fixture of the small screen for years to follow, hosting his own series Calum's Celidh and Round at Calum's. As the couple's five daughters grew, the Kennedys also mounted a family variety act and later headlined their own program, Meet the Kennedys. Eldest daughter Fiona later led a successful solo career very much in the mold of her father. But in 1974 the family's idyllic life came to an abrupt and tragic halt when 40-year-old Anne died on the hospital operating table following what was supposed to be a routine procedure for gallstones. Kennedy found himself unable to sing for two years after and when he finally returned to active duty, the times and tastes had changed so dramatically that he found himself relegated to little more than a nostalgia act. He returned to the public eye in embarrassing fashion in 1986 when the BBC documentary Calum Kennedy's Commando Course captured his disastrous tour through the north of Scotland in a dilapidated old bus. After undergoing a heart bypass operation, Kennedy made a tentative return to the stage in the 1990s, but poor health dogged him throughout the final years of his life. After suffering a stroke in 2005, he died in an Aberdeen convalescent home on April 15, 2006.

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