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Russell Watson: ‘I never had any ambition to be a singer at all’

A chance pub performance turned Russell Watson into a singing superstar. He reflects on overcoming serious illness, being starstruck by Sir Alex Ferguson and how luckily he always had his gran to keep him grounded.

A singing career was never meant to be on the cards for Russell Watson. Leaving school without qualifications, he worked in a factory until a chance performance in a Salford pub changed his fortunes.

He spent years on the entertainment fringes, until a 1999 appearance at Old Trafford when his team won the Premiership sent his career into the stratosphere. Since then he’s sung for popes, presidents and royalty, and duetted with the likes of Paul McCartney and Sean Ryder.

In 2006, after experiencing crippling headaches, he was diagnosed with a pituitary tumour for which he underwent emergency surgery – twice. Now fully recovered, he describes in Letter to My Younger Self how facing death left him with PTSD, and how a jamming session with an old friend beats any star turn on the stage.

At the age of 16 I was massively immature, probably predominantly because my mother over-protected me so much. I think it was born from the fact that she was one of three children and both brothers were mentally handicapped. She was so worried when I was born that something would go wrong.

When I got my first bike, all the other kids were riding around here, there and everywhere and I was only allowed to go to the bottom of the street. So many things I wasn’t allowed to watch on TV. I was wrapped up in cotton wool. So by the age of 18, I was still like a child, still playing with soldiers! In many respects it was lovely, because I felt this massive bubble of protection around me.

But when I entered the big wide world and got my first job at age 17… oh my god. I was not ready for it. 

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I often think about how things would have panned out if, in 1990, I hadn’t walked into that pub in Salford, and got on that stage, knowing nothing about performance or entertainment, and sung Love on the Rocks by Neil Diamond. At the end of the night, about eight people went up onstage and the guy running the show said, “Tonight’s winner is Russell Watson!” I was like, what? All my mates were just laughing.

I got to the final on Piccadilly Radio, and I ended up winning. Literally, within five minutes I was approached by three or four agents saying, I can get you work, 55, 60 quid a night, four or five nights a week. £200! So the next week I went back into the factory, after six years of working there, and said, “I’m leaving.” I remember the manager saying, “What are you going to do?” I said, “I’m going to become a singer.” And he looked at me and said, “I’ll see you next week Russell.”

If I hadn’t entered that competition, just for a laugh, where would I be? Would I still be in that factory sticking nuts and bolts in place, coming home covered in shit after a 12-hour nightshift? Because I was not that kid who was tap dancing on top of the piano at Christmas while grandma played Roll out the Barrel. I didn’t go to stage school. I never had any ambition to be a singer at all. 

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I’ve met so many people along the years, from presidents to popes, but the only person I was really starstruck by was Sir Alex Ferguson. If I could tell my United-mad 16-year-old self that one day he’d be invited to sing on the pitch for the last game of the season… That was in 1999, when United ended up winning the Premier League. I sang Nessun Dorma, and I got this incredible response.

That was one of the big catalysts for my early success actually, it helped me get my record deal. Not long afterwards I got a call from the club secretary and he said, “Hi Russell, I’m just ringing to check your availability this week.” I said, “What for?” And he said, “Oh, the manager and the rest of us all really enjoyed your performance and we wondered if you wanted to come to Barcelona and represent Manchester United at Camp Nou stadium for the Champions League final.” I was like, “Yeah, I’ll just have to check my diary…” 

2019 Singing at Old Trafford ahead of the Manchester United ‘99 Legends and FC Bayern Legends match Photo: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

After 10 years of playing the clubs, feeling like I was never going to make it, lots of little breaks started to happen and things built up until I was suddenly everywhere. No 1 in America, No 1 in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Portugal, Sweden, Germany, everywhere. Singing Let It Be with Paul McCartney at the end of the Nobel Peace Prize award show in Oslo [in 2001]. And I was absolutely full of myself.

But there was never a point where I was going to lose myself because I was going home in between these big shows and having conversations with my gran. I remember I’d been out to the States, singing at Carnegie Hall [in New York] and the Kodak in LA and all these wonderful places.

When I got home I rang my gran and said, “Hiya gran, you alright?” And she said, “Am I all right? Am I alright? You didn’t ring me on my birthday.” I said, “I’m sorry gran, I’ve been so busy.” She said, “I’m 82! How many people do you know that are bloody 82? Get your bloody head out of the clouds. You said you’d never change.” That was the point when I thought, yeah, okey dokey.  

Russell Watson performed live from home for The Big Issue during lockdown, taking requests from our readers. You can watch the concert here.

If I could give myself advice about coping with my health (he had a benign pituitary tumour removed in 2006, then emergency surgery when a regrowth of the tumour bled into his brain) I’d say, speak to people about how you’re feeling. With the second tumour, I basically went to bed and didn’t wake up the next morning. I was rushed into hospital. The tumour had haemorrhaged and they had to operate on me quickly.

For about two years after that the last thing going through my mind before I went to sleep every night was, I hope I’m not going to die tonight. And I’d wake up in the middle of the night with panics and palpitations. These finally dissipated and I spoke to my consultant endocrinologist, and I said to her, “It’s such a great feeling, to have finally stopped thinking about death every night.” And she said, “What do you mean? My god, you clearly had post-traumatic stress disorder – why didn’t you speak to anyone?” I said, “I just thought it was normal.” 

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There are so many people I would want to have a last conversation with. That’s one of the hardest questions I’ve ever been asked. I miss so many people. But I’m thinking of a very good friend of mine from when I was a teenager. Neil Doyle he was called. At that time I was into driving my car ridiculously quickly. Neil had a motorbike and we always told him, you need to get a car, those things are dangerous. And he said no, I like the feel of the wind around my body.

Then I got a phone call from one of my pals to say, “Neil was out last night on his motorbike and he was killed.” I just remember thinking, you stupid sod. Why? It later transpired that he was stopped at a traffic light and some bloke who was six times over the alcohol limit drove round the corner on the wrong side of the road and killed him outright. It makes me feel emotional now thinking about him. He still comes into my dreams and I still chat to him. If I could have one last conversation with him I’d say, just get off that bloody motorbike, Neil.  

As a teen Watson spent hours in his bedroom playing guitar Photo: http://russellwatson.com

No one suggested I could be a singer growing up. But I did – and still do – have a best friend called Steve Gleabe, and when we were kids we’d sit in my bedroom for hours playing guitar together, going through Beatles covers. And he would say to me, “I’ll tell you what our kid, your voice is absolutely fantastic.” And I’d be like, right, cheers, whatever. If, for example, we were playing an Elvis song I’d sing like Elvis, and he’d say, “How do you do that?” And I’d say, “Well can’t everyone do it?”

It’s funny talking about that today. Because he was round here just the other night, and we had a few drinks and at two in the morning we got the old guitars out. We started going through all the old songs we used to play. And he looked at me and said “Anyone ever tell you you’ve got a fantastic voice our kid?”

It’s giving me goosebumps now, thinking about that, even though it was just last weekend. Because I could tell at that moment, what we were doing, it really meant something to him. And it really meant something to me. There was nobody there. That wasn’t 14,000 fans in an arena. It wasn’t on television. It was just me and him in a room after a load of drink, playing the guitar and singing. It transported me right back to when I was 16. It was just a magical moment.  

Russell Watson is joining the touring cast of Chicago as Billy Flynn, starting at Liverpool Empire, February 7.  

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