The operatic tenor is a popular species. For some reason, a striking number of male singers in that range and style have managed to successfully bridge the gap between popular and classical music. In the first half of the 20th century, Enrico Caruso and, later, Mario Lanza established themselves as international stars with an appeal that reached far beyond the traditional. Luciano Pavarotti, José Carreras, Plácido Domingo, Andrea Bocelli, and Alfie Boe, all singers in a classical or quasi-classical style have become household names, even amongst people who would be amongst the last to consciously identify themselves with ‘highbrow’ culture. But even within this paradoxically accessible genre, certain stars strike a particular chord with ordinary people.
Russell Watson is an ordinary bloke: a former bolt cutter from Salford who has sung in working men’s clubs and at football and rugby matches. He swears, likes a laugh and the odd drink. Even the bolshiest of entrenched inverted snobs would have to admit the complete absence of unearned privilege in Watson’s background, and respect his impeccable, keeping-it-real credentials. Despite the fact that he sometimes sings ‘posh’ songs, Russell Watson is the genuine article and pretends nothing else.
"The genuine article"
On the other hand, some of the more conventional snobs have questioned the suitability of his voice for operatic repertoire. Rupert Christiansen, The Daily Telegraph’s pompous opera critic, called Watson a ‘karaoke crooner’. One wonders how much such a comment is motivated by real technical consideration and how much by elitist resentment of working-class encroachment into the outskirts of high culture. It hardly matters. Self-proclaimed arbiters of taste and quality abound within the arts, and they seldom agree on all points. In the absence of critical consensus, the sensible thing is to resort to democratic metrics in the form of ticket and record sales. Judged by these more easily quantifiable (and most might say more relevant) criteria, Russell Watson is a hit.
Watson has always been around music. His maternal grandfather was an accomplished pianist, and both of his parents used to play records constantly at home: classical music for his mother and country and moderate rock for his father. The young Russell formed doomed bands with schoolfriends, and his first ever ‘gig’ was playing and singing in a guitar duo to a roomful of senior citizens at a local day centre. He was paid in tea and biscuits.
Russell’s singing career seems to have eventually happened almost by accident. It was one of those moments that one looks back on and wonders how different things might have been if a different decision had been made. In Russell’s case, that life-changing decision was to walk into a pub where he was persuaded to take part in a talent contest held by a local radio station. Russell won his way through all the stages and the final, and was subsequently taken on by an agent who began to get him regular local gigs singing pop covers and rock and roll standards. It was at this point that Russell quit his day job as a bolt cutter to sing full time.
The pub circuit
For a time it looked as if the pub circuit might be the extent of his fame. Financially, times were hard for Russell and his wife, Helen (from whom he was divorced some years later) so the singer found himself performing in a series of increasingly rough venues and, ultimately, very nearly conceding defeat and going back to factory work. But a second agent helped him to make the difficult transition from pub gigs to the more civilised and lucrative club scene.
By this time, Russell had supplemented the Elton John, Lionel Ritchie and Buddy Holly covers with some songs from stage shows such as Phantom of the Opera. This slight shift towards bigger vocal performances prompted the concert secretary at one of the club venues to ask if Russell had ever considered singing operatic material. The man insisted that Russell had the voice for it and specifically suggested opera’s greatest hit, ‘Nessun Dorma’. After a few weeks of preparation, Russell tried it out on an audience at the end of a gig. He got a standing ovation.
Russell gradually introduced more classical repertoire into his set. Although something of a leap from the pop material he had started with, it was made easier by his familiarity with the songs. After all, this was the music Russell had heard every day as he grew up.
People started to take notice. His set was different from the usual club singer fare that audiences had come to expect. More people stopped to speak to him after his performances and some of those people were able to point him in helpful directions. Some of them knew people who knew other people who, step by step, helped Russell to advance his career. His voice, his repertoire and his knack for making friends earned Russell a season in Blackpool, with Paul O’Grady in his guise as Lily Savage. In the northwest of England, Blackpool is to some extent analogous to London’s West End. It is a serious entertainment capital: it is where things happen.
An opportunity with Martin Edwards
Blackpool was a real boost. It led to other gigs that gave Russell still more useful exposure. A performance in Manchester’s Midland Hotel resulted in a conversation with Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards. The eventual consequence of that encounter was Russell’s legendary performance of ‘Nessun Dorma’ at Old Trafford in May 1999. Russell has described it as the defining moment of his career. It was a memorable day: his performance was outstanding and the team he had supported since childhood won the match and the championship.
More performances at big sporting events followed, as did more of that fortuitous intervention by people who heard him sing. Someone who had been impressed by Russell’s talent sent a CD to Sir Cliff Richard and so Russell was recruited to perform alongside one of Britain’s most popular music legends. Another link in the great chain of chance was forged: one that led to a record deal with Decca. The recording contract was one of the few remaining missing links. With that done and dusted, Russell had achieved a momentum of his own. Although he still valued the opportunities to work with other fine performers, he was no longer a support act. He, Russell Watson, was a big name: a celebrity in his own right.
A catastrophic blow
The catastrophic blow dealt to Russell and his family in 2006 when he was diagnosed with a pituitary adenoma (a kind of brain tumour) has been widely reported, particularly in Russell’s autobiography, Finding My Voice. Surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy twice removed his tumours, but the ordeal changed his life in many ways. He and his illness have become inextricably linked in the minds of the public, and it is a subject that Russell faces head-on.
As well as the consequences that anyone in a similar situation might expect to experience, the illness had implications for Russell’s music, both in the way he feels about the songs he sings and with regard to his physical abilities as a singer. Considering the very grave condition into which he descended when things were at their worst, the legacy of his illness and long recovery on his professional life has been, at least in part, surprisingly positive. His three performances in the Andersson and Ulvaeus musical Kristina at Carnegie Hall in the USA and the Royal Albert Hall in the UK received excellent reviews (although the former Abba duo’s show itself did not appeal to everyone), not least for his ‘acting’ in the tragic final scene. Watson revealed later that the tears he shed owed nothing to thespian skill and everything to a renewed emotional connection afforded by his changed perspective.
“I nearly died twice,” he said in a 2010 interview, “and that has to shake you up and make you see and feel things in a different way.”
Surgery that saved Russell's life
The surgery that saved Russell’s life wrought physical changes in his nasal cavity and sinuses.
“When I first went back to work on my voice I thought it sounded terrible,” he told our interviewer when the Regtransfers team visited him to deliver his new T3 NOR number plates. “But my vocal coach said, no, actually it could be even better than before.”
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After a lot of persistence and hard work, Russell came to agree with his coach, concluding that, far from destroying his abilities as a singer, the result was an enhanced, rich and vibrant timbre that should lend itself even more readily to the operatic material that he has been eager to explore further. The release of his well-received 2010 album, La Voce, afforded his audience an opportunity to judge for themselves.
The Regtransfers team visits Russell at his Cheshire home on a crisp, sunny February day. We are met by his charming PA, Victoria, who leads us directly to a super buffet lunch that has been prepared especially for our visit. This delightful welcome pretty much sets the hospitable tone for our morning.
A sharp Geoff Souster suit
Russell appears a few minutes later in a sharp Geoff Souster suit. He greets us warmly, shaking hands all round, and then leads us to a room that momentarily deprives Stan, our audiophile/cinephile photographer, of the power of speech. A large Bang & Olufsen television stands on a motorised plinth, while either side of the fireplace are the futuristically styled speakers of a magnificent hi-fi system from the same manufacturer.
In a state of near-debilitating envy, Stan quips: “Couldn’t you find a bigger television, Russell?”, and then wishes he hadn’t as Russell opens a set of double doors to reveal an adjoining, fully equipped cinema room, complete with wall-to-wall widescreen, projector and full surround sound system. The hi-fi is soon gainfully employed and the strains of La Voceaccompany our conversation.
An emotional experience
Russell explains that one of the tracks, ‘Be My Love’ (a big hit in the 1950s for Italian singing star Mario Lanza), was recorded in remembrance of his beloved late grandmother for whom it was a particular favourite. He finds performing ‘Be My Love’ on stage a very emotional experience as it always evokes fond and poignant memories.
The fabulous sound system is symptomatic of Russell’s attention to detail where the presentation of his music is concerned. At each venue he plays, he is very particular in ensuring that sound, lighting and staging arrangements are all up to the standard that he feels his audience deserves. The high quality of the hi-fi system at his home allows Russell to apply that same scrutiny to his own recorded vocal performance.
"My forthcoming UK tour"
He will soon need to employ his critical approach to stage and recording work again. “I am working on two projects at the moment,” he says. “Firstly there’s my forthcoming UK tour which starts in Manchester at the end of May and then moves on to the rest of the country throughout June. I have also just started working on my new album, which is due out later this year.”
"So there is plenty going on, but how does Russell feel about the future having already achieved so much in the face of extraordinary difficulties?"
“I have been very fortunate to fulfil so many of my ambitions and dreams. Wherever my life and career take me in the future, I will always remember that it’s been the support of my family, friends and fans that has made it possible. And I still feel that drive to give my very best to my music. I am very proud to have enjoyed such a long recording and performing career to date and I hope to carry on for a long time to come.”
Having achieved so much, he is obviously qualified to impart advice to aspiring performers. What would Russell say to someone taking their first steps as a musician?
"You need to be a performer, an entertainer"
“You need to be a performer, an entertainer. Although it does help to have a good natural talent, that is not enough by itself. You also need to have a good business head. These days, it’s not all about the singing. It’s also a business, and the more success you have, the more there can be at stake.”
But life isn’t all about work and business. How does Russell relax? “I love tennis and I play as often as I can, at home or abroad. It keeps me fit and gets me out in the open air.”
We know that Russell plays piano and guitar. Does he ever feel the urge to get together with a few friends and just play some rock and roll in a local pub?
“Not really, to be honest; but I do sometimes have a bit of fun with my band or orchestra after rehearsals when I am touring. If I am out with friends I have occasionally been known to get on stage and jam a couple of songs, but it’s never planned.”
Russell seems very happy with his lot, but looking back, is there anything he would change if he had the power to do so?
"I wouldn't change it"
“I really don’t feel I could change anything. All the highs and lows in your life make you who you are. I am, in short, the sum total of all my life’s experiences, good and bad. I wouldn’t change it.”
To be able to say that, after everything that Russell Watson has been through, is really quite remarkable.
Interview: Angela Banh
Story: Rick Cadger
Photography: Stan Thompson