Today, Russell Watson is the UK’s top-selling classical recording artist and has been hailed as one of the world’s greatest classical singers.
He is now 51 (born 24th November 1966) and at the height of his prowess but the young Russell John Watson, playing guitar or organising his mates in games of street football, would never have imagined that one day he would be described by the New York Times as a performer who “sings like Pavarotti and entertains the audience like Sinatra.” Back then, his dreams were all of playing mid-field for his beloved Manchester United FC and classical music was something his mum and his grandma listened to on the wireless.
The self-confessed ‘class clown’ left school at 16 with no formal qualifications, went to work in a local engineering factory, aptly enough called ‘Sabre Repetition’, doing tedious, repetitive, low paid, jobs with the days brightened only by his mischievous sense of humour… a natural mimic, Russell had some fun at the expense of his workmates and shop-floor supervisor.
Marriage brought responsibilities and two daughters. Money was tight so, to supplement his workaday income, at night he turned to music and singing, spending almost ten years performing in pubs and clubs of northwest England, covering the songs of popular artists like Neil Diamond, Elvis Presley and more, but this was Russell’s crucible, where he learned to engage his audience even when – as on one occasion – they quite literally threatened to kill him if he wasn’t better than the last week’s act. It was in one such club that it was suggested his voice would suit “that Pavarooty stuff”, Luciano Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma being popular then as the theme tune for the BBC’s television coverage of soccer’s World Cup. Russell learned the song phonetically and his very first performance of it in a smoky working-men’s club won him a standing ovation. It also brought home to him that there was an appetite for classical music beyond the hallowed halls of the opera houses.
One evening – in the Railway Inn at Irlam, after sufficient ‘Dutch courage’ (lager) – he was persuaded to enter a local radio station’s talent contest – Piccadilly Radio’s ‘Search For A Star’ – and, after working his way through several heats over the coming weeks, beating several hundred other hopefuls in the process, he won, kick-starting a career that has now spanned twenty-five years, including the club circuit era, and seen Russell record hugely successful studio albums and perform for many of the world’s most high-profile leaders. The day after winning, he went in to work to hand in his notice, telling his incredulous manager, “I’m going to be a singer” and being taunted, “See you tomorrow, Russell.”
1996 and the young “Russ” Watson is introduced to Blackpool’s North Pier audiences by Miss Lily Savage
It was a Red Cross charity event at Manchester’s Midland Hotel that provided Russell’s real springboard to fame. He was heard by Manchester United’s Chairman, Martin Edwards, who invited him to sing at Old Trafford and when Tottenham came to the Theatre of Dreams for the final of the 1999 Carling Premiership the young tenor from Irlam strode onto the pitch to sing Nessun Dorma. Respected sports journalist Paul Hince described the moment, ahead of the kick-off, “You have never – but NEVER – heard the famous aria sung like this. When cynical hacks in the Press box join in the standing ovation you know you have just heard something special.”
Russell clinched a record deal, convincing the business-headed executives at Decca of his vision of bringing classical music to a far wider audience, and his first album, The Voice, released in 2000, stormed the UK charts, remaining at the top for a record 52 weeks. For a time, the album also held the Number One spot in the United States, making Russell the first British male classical artist to hold simultaneous transatlantic Number Ones. The Voice also won Russell his first two Classical Brit awards, for Best Debut Album and Album Of The Year.
The following year Russell’s second studio album, Encore, outsold The Voice and won him two more Classical Brit awards.
Russell became popularly known as The People’s Tenor… he had proven his theory that there was a wider market for classical music amongst “ordinary” people, working-class people… people from his own sort of background. As Russell tells the tale himself, his other nickname, The Voice, came about because if he ever had a cough or a sniffle he would be asked, “How’s the voice, Russell?” rather than how he was, as if The Voice itself was a separate entity entirely.
Since those early days Russell has released a further nine successful albums, though not all have been in the classical or operatic style; his last for Decca in 2008 being People Get Ready but 2010 saw a return to his much loved Italian arias with La Voce for Sony.
As much in demand for live entertainment as for his recordings, Russell has performed publicly all over the world and privately for many of the world’s leaders. The late Pope John Paul II requested a performance at The Vatican; he has sung for former US Presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush, for Emperor Akihito of Japan and numerous other heads of state, not forgetting several times for his own monarch, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, most notably at Buckingham Palace as part of Her Majesty’s 2013 Coronation Festival Gala celebrating 60 years since her accession to the throne.
The affiliation with sporting events continued, too, with the televised performance of the opening of the 2002 Commonwealth Games being watched, world-wide, by an estimated one billion viewers (yes, that’s billion with a ‘b’ not an ‘m’) and, at one time, it was even suggested that Russell was appearing more frequently at Wembley than David Beckham! Russell even realised his boyhood dream of playing for his Home Team – just briefly – when he took to the field in a red shirt during a ‘Manchester United Legends –v- Celtic Legends’ charity match at Glasgow in aid of Oxfam.
As well as lending his sporting and vocal talents to ‘one off’ charitable events like the Legends match and appearing at ad-hoc concerts such as ‘A Voice For The Children’ in aid of ChildLine and ‘Another (K)night To Remember’ for the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, Russell has ongoing associations with several charities including being an ambassador for The Duke Of Edinburgh’s International Award Fellowship and The Prince’s Trust. He is also a patron of The Kirsty Club and The Katy Holmes Trust.
The versatile Russell has also ventured into stage shows, in 2006 taking the part of Parson Nathaniel in ‘Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds’.
He also played the leading role of Karl Oscar in the New York production of the Swedish folk-tale ‘Kristina’, written by ABBA’s Benny and Bjorn. Once more the New York Times lauded him, saying his “Puccini-ready voice was crystal clear.” Russell frequently appears on BBC TV’s ‘Songs of Praise’ and has even presented two of the programmes himself.
It has not all been plain sailing, though, and Russell’s meteoric rise to fame was marred by divorce, legal wrangles with former managers and followed by periods of illness; polyps on his vocal cords that required surgical removal, the discovery, while recording an album in the United States, of a brain tumour that also required surgery and then the re-growth of that tumour that burst one night and almost killed him, urgently requiring yet more surgery and then radiotherapy to properly eradicate it. Having had his health drained to the lowest possible ebb, literally to Death’s Door, Russell has rebuilt himself physically and vocally and, strangely enough, and happily, he now sounds even better.
2011 found him touring again and performing at the Royal Albert Hall in a fantastic concert billed as ‘Russell Watson : Return Of The Voice’ that was recorded for DVD. Russell really was back on top form.
Throughout his career Russell had never had a complete album written specially for him. Then he was introduced to Messrs Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, writers of, amongst other things, ‘Miss Saigon’ and the world’s most successful musical, ‘Les Miserables’. In deadpan fashion Mr Schonberg told Russell, “We don’t write for artists…” but after listening to Russell tell his story, the whole nine yards of humble beginnings, success and elation, ill health and despair, and the fight back to such a remarkable recovery, Mr Schonberg said, “We will write for you, Russell.” The result was the beautiful 2013 album Only One Man that includes the poignant track Without You – an acknowledgement and ‘thank you’ to the family, friends and fans who continued to support him through the darkest days.
A bonus track on the album is Bring Him Home, quietly recorded during a ‘practice’ session with neither Russell nor Claude-Michel being aware of the fact but, on playback to one of Sony’s executives, agreeing to its inclusion. The Schonberg-Boublil connection has led to much speculation about whether or not Russell might play the part of Jean Valjean in a production of ‘Les Miserables’ but he has indicated several times that while he would love to do so he is also very much aware of the lengthy commitment required and he much prefers touring.
Russell still lives in northwest England, on the outskirts of Manchester that he calls Mancheshire. He’s fit and plays tennis as often as he’s able, even when touring abroad; he boxes and he rides – bikes and horses – and he has a dog; two, in fact – a rescued greyhound called Blaze and a Shi-Tzu. He’s recently married Louise, a lovely person, but he still moans about the weather.
Now, not many people know this, but it’s a true story … Russell is the man who broke the mould for Star Trek theme tunes by recording the first ever vocal arrangement for that venerable Space Opera franchise with an adaptation of Where My Heart Will Take Me (also referred to as Faith Of The Heart) for the prequel TV series “Star Trek : Enterprise”.
And that probably sums Russell’s story so far up quite nicely : Per Ardua Ad Astra – through adversity to the stars. Speaking of which, Russell was recently pleased to have been asked by NASA’s Operations Centre for the unmanned space probe, New Horizons, to record a special Where My Heart Will Take Me to play following its successful re-awakening from hibernation as it approached the far distant Pluto before completely leaving our solar system for the depths of interstellar space.
This is Russell from our perspective as fans. It is not an “authorised” biography.
For more about Russell’s early life and career you will do no better than to read his autobiography, Finding My Voice. It’s a really good read and puts proper flesh on the bones of this brief outline.
Publisher : Ebury Press
First Edition : 5th June 2008
ISBN – 10:0091922917
ISBN – 13: 978-0091922917
You can also read online, free of charge, Susie Mathis’ book “Kirsty, Angel Of Courage” that tells the story of Francis House Children’s Hospice and Kirsty Howard’s early years.