Former journalist and a close friend of Robert's shares his memories.
I was a friend of Robert’s for more than 25 years. In that time, we shared many good times together and thanks to this new and very welcome website, I would like to remember some of those times.
Robert and I first met in the early 1970s. In the 1960s, I spent almost 10 years as a reporter and reviewer with the popular weekly music paper Melody Maker before being involved in launching a new paper called Sounds.
These were the heady days of the Beatles, the Stones, and many other artists who became long-lasting international stars.
But throughout my days as a rock journalist, I always had a keen interest in what was then called middle of the road music as well as jazz and classical music.
In particular, I loved the great tenors – the stars of the opera world and, of course, the late great Mario Lanza.
One of the nicer aspects of the job was the chance to attend pop festivals in various European locations. I attended these freebie music fests in places such as Prague and Llubljana (in those days, both were firmly “behind the Iron Curtain”!).
In the early 1970s, I was invited to attend a song festival in the small Belgian holiday resort of Knokke-le-Zoute, just across the channel.
I duly took the ferry to Dunkirk and was well prepared to have a few relaxing days by the sea, enjoying free food and booze and writing a short report for the paper.
Most of the acts were the usual Eurovision-style pop wallpaper: pretty girls with forgettable voices, slick young male singers churning out predictably bland Europop.
But suddenly, a young man took his turn at the microphone and I immediately sat up and listened to one of the finest tenor voices I had ever heard. His name (unknown to me at that time) was Robert Young, the entry from the UK.
At first, I thought “Where did this guy come from? It’s like Mario Lanza re-born.” Then as I listened more closely, I heard the subtlety in Robert’s voice, the warmth in the lower register as well as the excitement of the soaring high notes.
Here is a major vocal talent, I thought to myself. I must find out more about him.
Robert duly won the festival and was feted by all and sundry. It was not that easy to get a few quiet moments with him, but I managed it, shortly after he had completed a live Radio 2 interview later that evening. We found a quiet place for a chat over a couple of beers.
Then came a further surprise. Robert turned out to be a fantastically friendly and warm character, a down-to-earth Geordie. We got on instantly, my Northern background striking a chord with him as his did with me.
I had done hundreds of interviews with artists over the years and, for the most part, after the interview you went your separate ways.
It wasn’t to be that way with Robert and I. Knokke-le-Zoute kick started a good career in European countries for Robert and also cemented a friendship that spanned almost three decades.
A friendship that had a lot of highs and some lows. I hope to tell you some of the stories on this website in the months to come.
In the first of these recollections, I wrote about how I met Robert at the Knokke-le-Zoute Song Festival in Belgium in the early 1970s.
Not long after this first meeting, Robert and I met up again in London and he told me a little about his life, his music and his aspiration to make it as a singer of good music.
He was not unaware that, as far as the pop music charts were concerned, his kind of vocal brilliance was not going to set the charts on fire. But he believed (rightly) that there was a place for fine singing and good songs, on radio, on TV and in the clubs and theatres throughout the UK and, particularly, abroad.
Robert then had a manager who, to be fair, also believed in Robert’s talent and worked hard to get him the breaks as a recording artist and star attraction. Sadly, Robert told me that he and the manager did not always agree about the way to go. But he was loyal and appreciative of the efforts the manager made on his behalf.
I offered to help Robert on the publicity side, as a mate and not expecting any kind of fee. Robert gratefully accepted this offer though I later suspected that the manager was suspicious of what I was trying to do, though nothing was ever said to my face. I think he thought I wanted to manage Robert. Not true. I was happy doing my day job.
I prepared press material for Robert and had some success in publicising his talents though without a hit record, one could only go so far. National newspapers and magazines were still very much chart-orientated.
His manager realised this and did his best to find songs that would make a good single. He and Robert found a great song that was commercial and suited Robert’s voice in “Happy Heart” which did have some chart success.
At this time, Robert was appearing at some of the best nightclubs in the UK – weekly seasons at clubs such as the Broadway Club in Manchester and the Heart of the Midlands in Nottingham.
He built up quite a following in these venues and was earning very good fees. His appearances were also very much appreciated by ladies in the audience!
I was with Robert for many of these cabaret appearances and saw the effect he had on audiences. He was frequently mobbed by the females in the audience, yet strangely he did not seem to be resented by the males.
As you can imagine, I was somewhat jealous and wondered frequently if my choice of journalism for a career was not exactly the wise one!
In those early years of our friendship, I also became aware of Robert’s great love of a pint or two. I quickly realised that there were two Robert Youngs. There was the RY who seemed the epitome of the sophisticated musical performer – good looking, fantastic voice, beautiful clothes. In effect, a star waiting for his career to “happen.”
Then there was the RY behind all that – the down to earth Northern man who liked a pint of beer and a plate of fish and chips, who came from a working class background and was proud of it.
And who possessed a fantastic sense of humour – even when the joke was on him. Here’s an example.
In the 1980s, I was involved with the UK retirement market as proprietor and editor of a magazine devoted to the over 55s.
I arranged for Robert to appear as the star cabaret at a huge Christmas party at Wembley Conference Centre for a major UK company which built private retirement home. They bussed hundreds of residents to Wembley to be fed and watered and entertained by Robert’s lovely singing.
The show went really well. Robert was a huge success with the predominantly elderly female audience. After the show, out of his stage suit and in his ordinary well tailored clothes, Robert thought it would be a nice idea to take his bagpipes (not used in the show) and play for the ladies as they got back on their coaches.
We slipped outside and Robert dully piped the ladies on board until an elderly man, about to board his coach, came over and said, in a broad Scottish accent: “Great tae hear the pipes. Better than that f*****g tenor inside!”
Robert and I leaned against each other, helpless with laughter…!
More next time.
In the 70s, Robert was a rising star with many TV and radio appearances to his credit.
He was also a client of the biggest theatrical agents in the UK, the Grade Organisation, which ensured he got a steady stream of well paid and prestigious engagements.
One such engagement was at the famous London Palladium where he was appearing for a long season in panto, alongside showbiz names such as actress Fiona Fullerton and comedy duo George and Mildred – Brian Murphy and the late Yootha Joyce.
I visited Robert backstage on many occasions. On one such occasion, I took along my son Carl, then aged around five, to enjoy the matinee performance of the panto (which he did).
After the show, Carl (now father of 17 month old Charlie himself) came backstage to meet some of the cast.
Also on the bill was the ventriloquist Roger De Courcey, then well known on TV with his dummy Nooky Bear.
Roger met Carl and, in a kindly way, put on a mini performance with Nooky Bear just for the little boy. Carl sat entranced as Nooky Bear cracked jokes and Roger tried hard to give the impression that the bear was alive and communicating with him.
The little private performance ended and Roger sat back to await Carl’s verdict on the bear. It was not what he expected. Carl gazed innocently at Roger and said: “Can I have a go now?” stretching his little hand towards the area of Nooky’s anatomy where, a few moments previously, Roger’s hand had rested.
The old comic phrase came to mind: collapse of stout party!
Robert and I swiftly took Carl into Robert’s dressing room where a great dam of hilarity burst. “That was great,” laughed Bob. “Roger is a kind man but he does tend to believe the bear is alive.”
Just one more hilarious moment in my friendship with Robert. There were many over the years, but some tragic moments, too, as I will relate in my next article.
Back in the 1970s, Robert’s star was in the ascendancy. He was appearing at the UK’s top cabaret venues, such as the Talk of the Midlands in Nottingham, the Broadway Club in Manchester and Liverpool’s Wooky Hollow Club.
He was also making his name on TV, with appearances on the Morecombe and Wise Show, Stars On Sunday, The Good Old Days and other nationally-televised shows.
On top of that, his magnificent voice was recognised by two of the country’s top record companies – EMI Records and CBS Records. Both saw his as a potential star ballad/light opera singer in the Mario Lanza mould.
But there was one television appearance that had nothing to do with Robert’s voice or his appeal as a possible romantic balladeer.
In those days, one tenor who had become an international star, both in the opera world and in more populist styles of singing, was the Scottish performer Kenneth McKellar.
McKellar was a household name, with his own TV series, best-selling albums and the ability to pack theatres wherever he appeared around the world.
But his long-lasting career was only possible thanks to a twist of fate that involved Robert and his brother Jack.
The story, as I recalled Robert telling me, was that Robert and Jack, in those days, had a musical double act, featuring vocals and musicianship by the talented brothers. This was before the time when Robert went solo as a star singer in his own right.
The duo was appearing in summer season in Scotland on the same bill as Kenneth McKellar and somehow – I can’t recall all the details – all three were at the beach together.
Kenneth got into difficulties while swimming and Robert and Jack were called on to swim out and save him. They managed to pluck the floundering singer from the waves which threatened his life.
So the great singing star’s life and career were able to continue thanks to the efforts of the two brothers.
The incident was recalled some years later when McKellar was the subject of the TV programme This Is Your Life.
Among the star guests were Robert and Jack, brought on to surprise McKellar as his life was recalled. The story of the lifesaving incident was a major feature of the show.
I remember Robert telling me that Kenneth McKellar was instrumental in his decision to become a solo artist. “He always reckoned that I had the talent to make it as he had,” Robert told me once while appearing at a club near my Buckinghamshire home.
Robert Young is a man who could always laugh at himself when the occasions merited it.
I remember him telling me (over a pint, naturally) of a time when even his in-built sense of humour nearly deserted him. He recounted an incident which, at the time, was no laughing matter but, with hindsight, was hilarious.
In those far off days, 30 or more years ago, Bob appeared regularly at working men’s clubs, British Legions and the like. He travelled all over the country for these engagements, usually one-nighters.
To be fair, without trying to be snobby, some of these were not exactly top level cabaret venues. They were however bread and butter engagements for a professional singer. However, many presented challenges to artists that it sometimes took a lot of professionalism to overcome.
In some cases, on arrival at a venue, there was little time for a rehearsal. The artist gave his or her music to whoever was providing the backing for the evening and hoped for the best.
Sometimes the accompanist was brilliant, able to sight read the arrangements perfectly and support the artist’s performance.
Just occasionally, this was not the case and the artist had to call on professionalism to rescue the performance and please the audience (most of whom had no perception of how good or bad the musical accompaniment was in any event).
Which brings me to the night Bob told me about. In this case, it wasn’t the accompaniment that was the problem.
If I remember correctly (it was a long time ago) the club in question was in North Wales. Bob had travelled quite a distance from his Mansfield home for the Sunday evening show.
There was a good audience, Bob told me, and things were going well. His singing was appreciated by patrons in this northern enclave of the “Land of Song” and, after almost an hour on stage, he was building up to his big finale “Nessun Dorma,” though at the time of the incident, he was well into a different, but no less tricky, song.
Suddenly, his microphone was switched off, and a disembodied voice, probably of the concert secretary, announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, hot pies are up!”
Bob told me that after that announcement, the about half the audience stood up and left the hall in a hurry to get in the pie queue.
Bob finished his programme with “Nessun Dorma” to good applause and, he told me, went off stage…to enjoy a hot pie!
I don’t think the arrival of hot pies ever interrupted a performance at the London Palladium.
Robert’s superb voice won him many friends wherever he went, but having a fine voice isn’t the end of the matter. You also need the personality to go with it. And Robert had that. In spades.
I was privileged to be with Robert on a number of quite different occasions in his musical life, so here are a couple of my memories of those days more than 30 years ago.
I have already described how I first met Robert at the Knokke Le Zoute Song Festival in Belgium. Well, a few weeks later we met up in London. He was singing somewhere in the West End and we went for a late meal (he never ate before a singing engagement) in a Polish restaurant in Bayswater that he know.
Inevitably, as he was a regular diner there, they asked him to sing and he obliged with a couple of songs… to the great delight of both patrons and staff.
It was only some time later that I found out that singing at this restaurant led to his first tour of Russia. Someone from the Russian Embassy heard him at the restaurant and an offer came in for Robert to go to the USSR (then still Communist, of course) as his operatic style of singing was much admired there.
Robert subsequently made two tours of the USSR, touring with a huge orchestra. I remember receiving postcards from places like Ulan Bator and Vladivostock.
It was tough touring he told me later. “We would do the concert, pack up, fly to the next venue and do another concert. It was very hectic.”
Robert was in fact the first British singer to make such a tour, though some time later, Cliff Richard also toured and it was claimed that he was the first to make a tour “behind the Iron Curtain.”
On another occasion, I met up with Robert at EMI’s famous Abbey Road studios in North London, famed as the studio used by the Beatles – and close by the now iconic zebra crossing they were photographed on.
Robert was making an album under the supervision of producer Norman Newell. I sat in the control room during the recording of one of the tracks and watched as Robert’s voice effortlessly soared to top C at the climax of the song.
As soon as the recording ended, the orchestra stood up and applauded. Quite an accolade.
But what really sticks in my mind was what happened later that day after recording had ended. Robert and I piled into my clapped-out old Mini and headed off into the West End of London for a meal.
But that summed up the man. He could have been Big Time and sneered at my transport having just had the adulation of a studio orchestra.Not a bit of it. He was equally at home in the most famous recording studio in the world at that time or in the passenger seat of my B-reg Mini.
In an earlier article, I told the story of how Robert and his brother Jack saved the life of star Scottish singer Kenneth McKellar, an event recalled years later on the TV programme This Is Your Life.
Every week, the subject of the show was surprised by the presenter and then his/her life story was told, with family, friends and acquaintances trooping on with anecdotes (always favourable) about the “star” of the show.
On one occasion, Robert and his brother Jack were sprung on the “victim” who on this occasion was the Scottish tenor Kenneth McKellar. They quite literally saved the star singer’s life.
Kenneth was topping the bill during a summer season in Scotland and Robert and Jack, then a double act, were second top of the bill.
Apparently Kenneth, Robert and Jack were enjoying an afternoon at the beach. Kenneth went for a swim and somehow got into difficulties in the water. His cries were help were heard by Robert and his brother who swam out and saved his life by getting the singer back to shore.
I repeat this story because indirectly, this incident led to Robert’s successful solo singing career.
Kenneth was a great admirer of Robert’s voice and musical ability and was extremely encouraging of Robert’s plans to go solo and carve a career for himself.
And what a career! In his time, Robert appeared at major venues such as the London Palladium and other West End Theatres, he starred at all the top nightspots throughout the UK in the days when clubland was in the ascendancy, he recorded a number of LPs (as they were then) for EMI Records and CBS Records and appeared on TV shows like The Morecambe and Wise Show, Stars On Sunday, The Good Old Days and Pebble Mill At One.
He appeared abroad in Belgium, Russia and made several tours of Australia. He also was the star cabaret on cruise liners plying between the UK and New York and other destinations.
His vocal prowess and popularity saw him voted Top Male Singer in the annual poll by the Stage, the weekly “bible” of the theatrical world.
But there was tragedy in his life, too. His daughter died in her teens and his fiancée, also a singer, was killed in a Christmas Eve car crash when heading home (in Robert’s car) to spend Christmas with her family. They were appearing in panto together in Norwich when the fateful crash occurred.
Today, Robert’s great talent has been halted by ill health. He is looked after by a loving family. But here’s a bit of good news: Robert’s son (also Robert) is also a great tenor and I predict you will hear more of this young man in the future (if I have anything to do with it).