On this day 1870: Harry Lauder, world's first superstar, is born
Sir Harry Lauder, the singer and comedian, rose from poverty to become the highest paid performer on earth, with audiences lapping up his pawky Scottish persona that was draped in tartan, topped with a tam o’ shanter and complimented by a cutty pipe, crook and his sweet, innocent songs of home.
Sir Harry became phenomenally rich as he exported his act to every corner of the globe where the diaspora glowed in this version of Scottishness.
In 1896, he was earning £7 a week at the Belfast Alhambra but by 1930, he was earning £3,000 for a 15-minute broadcast out of New York. Queues formed everywhere he went and the press reported “inspirational” shows and “crowds at his heels”.
He became the first British performer to sell one million cylinder records. When shellac vinyl discs were created, he sold a million more.
The riches took him a long way from his grandfather’s house in Portobello and the mines of South Lanarkshire, where Harry went to work for 10 years following the sudden death of his father, a porcelain painter, who died when his boy was just 12.
He took a job at Eddlewood Colliery where his voice was said to counter the darkness of the coal galleries. “Weal sing, ye wee devil,” was the call of his workers. Soon, he was on the stage at Band of Hope Meetings. From there, he hung around the stage doors of the music halls, batting off the “jeers and sneers and tears and fears” to get a gig.
In 1905, he became an overnight success after he premiered I Love A Lassie in Aladdin at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal, the melody played throughout the show so that when the song was sung for the first time, the audience knew the tune and joined in.
Soon, he was in New York and the world was falling at his feet with hits such as Roamin’ In the Gloamin’ and The End of the Road soon flowing.
Jamie MacDougall, who is staging a play about Harry Lauder’s life to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth, said: “Harry Lauder absolutely had it on stage, otherwise he wouldn’t have had this incredible success. More than that, he was in the right place at the right time. As he became famous on stage, phonograph records were coming out. He sold a million cylinder records and then when discs came out, he sold another million.
“Everything came together. By the time he was touring North America, the trains were going coast to coast. There were Scots everywhere who were only too happy and relieved to get a little something from home. That was his market.”
Sir Harry, who married his childhood sweetheart Annie aged 21, was a Scot, a Briton and a patriot who used his position to rally the war cause and recruit men to the army.
In March 1915, he visited Aberdeen where one local correspondent claimed the singer had “set an example to all parents and young men by sending his beloved son to fight for King and country”.
Tragically the following year, Captain John Lauder, of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was killed in the last months of the Battle of The Somme with Sir Harry in London for a revue show when he received the telegram.
The singer continued with the show but a particularly sentimental song proved too much for Sir Harry, who “fainted into merciful unconsciousness”, according to a report.
The Harry Lauder One Million Pound Fund was set up to help the war injured with the singer receiving a Knighthood as a result. Record discs proved once again central to his success, with one side of a 78 carrying a spoken message from Sir Harry urging people to donate.
Mr MacDougall said Sir Harry was also the first to entertain the troops with trips made to France during World War One.
“He is the one who started the fashion. He would travel in Model T Ford with a miniature piano in the back. Sir Harry would stand on the footplate, singing to the troops,” he added.