Twelve years ago Russell Watson was told he may never sing again. The brain tumour he had first suffered from in 2007 had returned, this time almost claiming his life. He was warned that the aggressive treatment, which involved 28 radiotherapy sessions, could mean he would never be able to sing like he did. “It was the best thing they could have said to me,” says the 53-year-old classical singer from Salford.
“I thought ‘I’ll show you’. That’s just the sort of person I am. You don’t get to be the biggest selling classical artist in the United Kingdom without determination.”
And show them he did.
Determination has been a feature throughout Watson’s life. He left school at 16 without any qualifications, admitting he had no interest in academia. “All I wanted to do when I was at school was play football,” he admits.
He spent the first eight years of his working life in a factory making nuts and bolts. “I worked for a company called Sabre Repetition – that says it all. I had to make my music career work – that was it.”
It was his love of classical music and his natural singing ability that gave him a way out.
“My grandparents were really into classical music and there was just something about it that I loved,” he recalls.
“There is nothing like it. My grandad played classical piano and I remember when I was about three years old leaning against the leg of the piano and feeling the vibration run through my body, and after that I had a deep love of classical music.”
Watson played the guitar as a teenager but with no qualifications he had little choice but to work in a factory in the North-West. Determined to find a way out, he entered a local radio talent competition where he beat 400 other contestants.
However, he was no overnight success, despite what many people may say. For nearly 10 years he did the hard graft, singing in working men’s clubs.
“It was the industry of hard knocks. I had some very difficult times,” he recalls.
“I wasn’t on my own. I kept coming across this chap called Gary Barlow who was also doing the club scene – a few years later he was in Take That.”
Watson wasn’t always a classical singer. “I started out singing a popular music repertoire but soon realised it wasn’t for me.”
He was encouraged by a friend to sing Nessun Dorma and received a standing ovation and his future was set.
But it was a few lucky coincidences that propelled him from the club circuit to being one of the UK’s biggest selling classical artists in history, playing to audiences of up to 100,000.
“I had learned a lot about stagecraft in my years in the clubs. I sent a CD that I had made to David Bryce, who was then Sir Cliff Richard’s manager. I got a call asking me if it was really me singing on the CD. I was invited down to an old church which was Cliff’s recording studio. They asked me to sing and then invited me to accompany him on his tour.
“I ended up singing in front of 9,000 people in arenas and then 25,000 people each night at a concert in Hyde Park. I had been used to singing to 15-20 people, but nine and a half years in the clubs meant I was ready as a performer. I’d learnt how to deal with audiences and how to give them what they want.”
In 1999 he sang God Save the Queen at the Rugby league Challenge Cup Final at Wembley Stadium, then finally sang at Old Trafford before the last match of the Premiership season between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. This appearance sealed his success, and only a week later he was invited to sing a full set at the final of the Uefa Champions League in Barcelona between United and Bayern Munich, duetting with Montserrat Caballé.
Watson’s début album, titled The Voice, followed in May 2001 – it held simultaneous No 1 slots in the US and UK. He has since sold more than seven million albums, scooped four classical Brit Awards and was dubbed ‘the people’s tenor.’
But just a few years later it looked like Watson’s career, and even his life, was in jeopardy. In 2005, he began having debilitating headaches. He consulted a specialist, who told him there was nothing to worry about as he was suffering from stress and should find ways of relaxing.
When his peripheral vision began to be affected in late 2006, he visited another specialist, who also said he was suffering from stress.
In September 2006, Watson flew to Los Angeles to record his album That’s Life where he underwent an MRI scan and was advised that he had a developing pituitary adenoma, which was the size of two golf balls. He stayed in LA for two days and continued recording his album while tests confirmed whether the tumour was malignant or not – it turned out to be benign.
Watson then returned to the UK, and had a five-hour emergency operation to remove the 8cm tumour. Afterwards, he could barely walk and the tumour had affected his pituitary gland, which controls hormone levels and affected his moods. He postponed his album and subsequent tour and just as he was returning to work he suddenly became incapacitated, with multiple symptoms including a dramatic deterioration of vision.
Another MRI scan showed he had a regrowth of his tumour with bleeding into his brain. He underwent emergency surgery to remove the tumour and was for a while in a critical condition in the hospital’s Intensive Therapy Unit. He was discharged from hospital on October 31 and later underwent an extensive rehabilitation programme including radiotherapy at the Christie Hospital in Manchester. A month later he released his sixth studio album, Outside In.
He says he will never be signed off due to the nature of his illness and has to take a cocktail of drugs including testosterone injections and growth hormones on a daily basis. “It’s all part of my daily routine now,” he says. His illness and near-death experience have made him more spiritual, he says, especially since the tumour returned in 2007. “I think I am less tolerant of time-wasters.”
Family is very important to Watson. His eldest daughter Rebecca works with him in design and merchandising, while his youngest, Hannah, works in the NHS. His second wife Louise is his business manager and goes on tour with him.
His 20th anniversary tour was due to kick off next month with a series of more intimate performances with his band including The Royal Hall, Harrogate and Leeds Town Hall. However, due to Covid-19 these dates are to be rescheduled. At the moment two Yorkshire dates are due to go ahead in October with a choir and full orchestra.
Russell Watson Yorkshire tour dates include: Bonus Arena, Hull, Friday October 2; York Barbican, Friday October 9. Tickets: www.raymondgubbay.co.uk