Obituary: Alex Beaton, Glaswegian folk-singer who found fame in America

Alex Beaton, one fan said, had a “clear voice” and was an “amazing storyteller”
Alex Beaton, one fan said, had a “clear voice” and was an “amazing storyteller”

Born: July 15, 1944;

Died: May 27, 2022.

IT was April, 1964, and the record reviewer on the Glasgow Herald’s sister paper, the Evening Times, was impressed by a new single by a youthful band calling themselves the Cumberland Three.

The Glaswegians, he said, “considerably enhance their reputation as a folk group” with the traditional song, Chilly Winds, which was “one of the most professional performances I have heard from a Scots group. Their harmonies are excellent”. The B-side of the single – the band’s own composition, The Cumberland Crew – “won’t do them any harm as a songwriting team”.

The trio – Alex Beaton, Brian Fogarty and Leonard Sturrock – had been playing in jazz and folk clubs in Glasgow before being spotted and signed by a London agency. Relocating to the capital, they appeared in folk clubs and even debuted on television, on the Hullabaloo show, in December 1963

The single, and its parent album, Introducing the Cumberland Three, were on Parlophone, the same label as the Beatles were on. But as Beaton would acknowledge: “The massive change in pop music brought on by the Beatles and other such groups caused the exposure of folk music on television and radio to decline”.

Recalling those days, he told an Evening Times interviewer in 1990: “We were high on the hog, along with names like Robin Hall and Jimmie Macgregor and Josh Macrae. We had a great time. We spent 18 months in London, appearing on shows like Easy Beat and Three’s Company. Then the folk bubble burst. The Beatles happened.

“Brian and Leonard returned to Glasgow to do other things, but I stayed in the music business. I emigrated to New York in 1965 – folk music was still enormous there”.

Years later, Beaton was asked by a close friend of the Dire Straits singer and guitarist, Mark Knopfler, if he had an extra copy of the LP. Knopfler, it emerged, had listened to it, back in the day, and with a female friend had performed Chilly Winds as a fledgling singer and guitarist.

Beaton remained in the States, building up a large and loyal following as he played Scottish festivals and Highland Games there, to the point where he became, in his own words, “North America’s most popular and beloved Scottish folk-singer”.

His death at the age of 77 has prompted many fans to post condolences on his website.

“I grew up listening to Alex Beaton at Kentucky Scottish Weekend as a child”, read one tribute. “Since then, his songs have served as a constant source of comfort and refuge throughout my life”.

“He is one of the earliest memories we have of our time at these festivals”, said another. “Clear voice, amazing storyteller, and an impish twinkle in his eyes”.

After emigrating from Scotland Beaton had initially lived with his sister and brother-in-law in New York, and performed at an upmarket restaurant.

In April 1966 he was drafted into the US army, which by then was embroiled in the Vietnam War. Enlisting for a third year, he opted to work in military personnel, stationed in Alabama. His success in a talent show led to him being offered a position with the 3rd Army Soldier Shows. Later, he toured Europe with the 7th Army Soldiers’ Chorus.

After the army, he lived in Colorado, then in Arizona and southern California. He wrote songs for an army friend and took third place at the International Song Festival in the Country Music category.

It was while appearing at a restaurant in California that he came to the attention of the Scottish Society of Los Angeles, which asked him to play their annual festival, in 1983. His record of Scottish folk songs happened to sell well there, and he was on his way to a new career.

A tall, distinctive figure with his kilt, guitar and easy-on-the-ear singing style, Beaton became a regular name on the Scottish festivals and Highland Games circuits, where he appealed to American enthusiasts and homesick expats alike.

Beaton remained forever true to his Scottish roots, co-founding the Glenfinnan Music label and bringing out a series of albums including From the Sea to the Shore, The Water is Wide, The Road to the Isles, A Dream of Arran, Daft Ditties, and Over the Border.

In 1996 he began hosting annual tours to Scotland, which proved immensely popular.

While in his homeland he recorded a couple of videos – Going Home, and I Belong to Glasgow.

It was while he was shooting the latter, visiting locations as diverse as Barlinnie and the Burrell Collection, and going ‘doon the watter’ and to Loch Katrine, that he spoke to the Evening Times. “I have found happiness and success going back to my roots”, he said.

A month after returning from one such tour, in 2011, he suffered a freak accident at home, which left him paralysed from the neck down. Over the last decade he suffered from bouts of pneumonia, and his prostate cancer returned.

He died last month with his wife, Linda, by his side. He is survived by Linda, brother Neil, daughters Ali and Catie, stepson John, granddaughter Maggie, three nieces, one nephew, two grand-nieces and three grand-nephews.

He expressed a wish that his ashes be scattered in his native Scotland. In a message on his website his family said: “He had a good life; lived it on his own terms and managed to carve out a career for himself doing something he loved”.