‘The people’s tenor’ is touring patriotic songs for the Queen’s Jubilee. Sheena Hastings talks to Russell Watson.
RUSSELL Watson, the tenor who went from earning £25 a week as a dogsbody in a Salford factory to becoming Britain’s top-selling classical artist, relishes relating his anecdote about the Duke of Edinburgh.
“I was singing at a charity fundraiser at Buckingham Palace recently, and after I’d finished Jerusalem, Prince Philip came over to me and said ‘ Good lord, why have you got a microphone? They can hear you in space with that voice!’” .
It sounds a cliché – and that’s because it’s true – but little Russell, the welder’s son who liked nothing better than kicking a tin can around the streets of Urmston, could never have dreamed that he would one day rub shoulders with royalty, as well performing on Capital Hill in Washington, Sydney Opera House and may a top venue in between.
He’s a staunch royalist and much in demand to do a turn with those blood-stirring songs that have come to signify the Last Night of the Proms. So, over the coming weeks Watson will be performing what he calls a “good old singalong” – a short Queen’s Jubilee tour of eight venues across the country, with numbers that will get the crowd waving flags and singing along to the dyed-in-the-wool choruses of Men of Harlech, You’ll Never Walk Alone and Rule,Britannia!
One of, if not the, first British crossover artists, Watson says the versatility of his voice means he enjoys a great variety of work. With five albums each going gold, platinum or double platinum and four Classical BRIT awards under his belt, he can please himself artistically.
He was on the judging panel of Last Choir Standing, he headlines at the odd eisteddfod, and likes to mix it up. Only the other night he sang the finale of the premiere of Corrie, the new musical based on Coronation Street.
Despite the fact that he was belting out tunes almost from the moment he could talk, making something serious of singing wasn’t on the cards for Watston the child.
“I just had this deep love for music. My grandad was a highly skilled amateur classical pianist, and my gran and mum liked listening to Schubert and Schumann. I liked an eclectic mix of classical and but also the Beatles and later the Jam. I played the piano and got bored, but then picked up the guitar. My friend and I would jam away in my bedroom.”
After leaving school to work in a factory, Watson married young and had two daughters. To keep the family afloat, he began singing in working men’s clubs. One night he was encouraged to sing Nessun Dorma, which went down a storm and not long afterwards he entered a competition run by Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio to find a new star.
He won, but it was appearances on the football pitch that really launched his career.
Having sung the National Anthem at the 1999 Rugby League Challenge Cup at Wembley and Queen’s Barcelona at the final match of the premiership season between his team Manchester United and Spurs, he was invited to sing a few songs at the UEFA Champions’ League final in Barcelona’s Nou Camp between United and Bayern Munich.
From that point his star kept soaring, with performances that embraced rock and roll, classical and pop, nine studio albums, appearances before rapturous crowds, royalty and potentates worldwide.
He moved to the celebrity belt in Cheshire, however his good fortune was halted by a pituitary tumour, operated on successfully in 2006, and again after a recurrence in 2007.
The experience changed him. “It had a profound effect. I value life to a greater level now, and don’t suffer fools. I don’t listen to those people who whinge about how tough the music industry is these days.
“We’re lucky. It’s true that it’s hard to sustain a career over many years, but there’s no better feeling than walking out on stage and feeling the love from the crowd.”
For those who think Russell Watson, the untrained star tenor, just miraculously sings without any real technical know-how, he shares a secret:
“I couldn’t keep doing it and improving if I hadn’t worked with some of the best coaches in the world – and especially in the last five years, when the cancer meant the infrastructure of my voice needed a lot of work.
“Following the second tumour I was told I would never sing again. I didn’t accept that, and after a lot of work my voice is deeper and richer than ever.”
Russell Watson performs at Sheffield City Hall on June 22. Tickets 0114 278 9789 www.sheffieldcityhall.co.uk His new album Anthems – Music to Inspire a Nation is released today.