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MUSINGS OF A MEANDERING MIND #36 (article first published : 2007-07-12)

We’ve just experienced our shortest day of the year as I write this but here in Durban-by-the-Sea it seems like a wonderfully mild and eternal autumn, with bright sunshiny days requiring nothing more than short sleeves and possibly the addition of a cardigan in the early mornings and evenings, though I guess in the Northern Hemisphere the spring is gradually making way for the eagerly-anticipated summer weather.

As a child one of my favourite kind of evenings was when, in the winter, the family would gather round the fire (I lived near Johannesburg in those days, where such things were necessary to keep night-time chills at bay) and Dad would run through his repertoire seated behind the Baby Grand – which always began with The Rustle of Spring and ended with a composition of his own which remained unnamed until his mates at the bowling green decided to call it The Roodepoort Concerto, that being the name of the town where our house was located - right across the road from the Roodepoort Bowling Club.

In my sixties, though, it’s now a different “Russell” who’s come to reside in my heart (taking second place only to Greek tenor Mario Frangoulis in the all-time favourites in my music collection) and his name is Russell Watson. I have no less than four albums by this truly magnificent singer, whose rise to fame is such an interesting story, and I eagerly await getting my hands on his fifth, released in the UK just three months ago.

It was sheer serendipity to discover he was one of the guests on the Michael Parkinson talk show on Friday night, June 22, as I’ve been longing to hear Russell in conversation to get an idea of his personality. I was not disappointed. In the musical interlude Russell performed one of the tracks from his latest album, paying tribute to The Great American Songbook. I have to be honest here and say that, though he’s already proved just how diverse he is, tackling opera and also more popular light classics with equanimity, this might be a case where others such as Michael Bublé, Rod Stewart and even George Michael, to some extent, have been there, done that, and it’ll be interesting to see whether sales of Russell Watson’s That’s Life fare as well as those of former albums, of which I’d rate Amore Musica the finest to date.

Nevertheless, it was fascinating hearing him tell how he came to be discovered, though I’d already researched his history fairly thoroughly from his website and his album sleeve-notes. This is the operatic tenor from Salford in the North West of England who once fed nuts and bolts into a machine in a factory, while performing Elvis Presley and Neil Diamond covers in pubs and clubs in the Manchester and London suburbs at night, but is now an international singing sensation who has sold five million albums ranging across both classical and mainstream charts.

The turning point of his career was when the secretary of one such club requested he try singing Nessun Dorman and the reception of this effort led to him trying other classical pieces. Then in 1998, at age 32, he was invited to sing at Old Trafford – a huge privilege for this lifelong Manchester United fan. Sadly he was replaced at the last minute when player Eric Cantona requested Mick Hucknall perform instead.

However, in 1999 he sang the UK’s national anthem at Wembley Stadium for the Rugby Cup Final and finally got to sing at Old Trafford before the last match of the Premiership season. After that game, when his team had won the league championship, he returned to the pitch to sing the Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballed number Barcelona - thrilling the crowds when he tore off his dinner suit to reveal a Manchester United shirt! (One week later, he sang a full set at the final of the UEFA Champions League in Barcelona and duetted with that fine lady herself!)

It seems that, while still in his teens, a young Russell began being plagued with reccurring nightmares where his head would explode, and a premonition that he would not live beyond the age of 40. Ironically, while on an airplane from London to Los Angeles, to record this fifth album, headaches he’d recently developed – which he describes as the worst kind of migraine imaginable - reached an untenable pitch and by the time he disembarked he felt he was losing sight in his left eye. He relates how several medicos he’d seen back at home had put these immensely painful headaches down to stress, but this incident made him head straight from the airport to the Cedars Sinai Hospital, where it was discovered he had a brain tumour the size of two golf balls.

He was distraught but kept the news to himself and proceeded to go ahead with the recording of the album for Capitol, in spite of enormous discomfort, before he went under the surgeon’s knife back home, where luckily the tumour was found to be benign – although he caused Parky and his guests to guffaw when he related that, due to said tumour having pressed against the pituitary gland for so long, its removal now has left him with fluctuating hormone activity, from hot flushes to the occasional zit!

But (on a more serious note), an article I read recently about this worrying time in his life related how, after the five-hour emergency procedure to remove this eight-centimetre lump (which the surgeon had to do via Russell’s nose) he was left barely able to walk, and experienced mood swings from ecstatic to suicidal, his energy levels extremely low, and he did not leave his house for two months. On the advice of his doctors, his planned tour due to begin in October 2006 was postponed to March 2007 to coincide with this latest album’s release. It seems young Russell was visibly moved by night after night of standing ovations.

He describes how the emergence of this disaster, ironically on the eve of his 40th birthday, brought about an enormous change in his priorities and made him appreciate the importance of relationships with friends and family and, most of all, his two daughters. It has also left him with the ambition to be a musical force for a good long while. I pray his health will allow him to do just that, and thrill his thousands of fans around the world for a long time to come. – Bev Pulè




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