Albury-born bass Malcolm McEachern (1883–1945) was a prolific recording artist and sang in some of the world’s greatest concert venues, but little is known of his early career struggles in Australia. HOWARD C. JONES, who has published the first full-length biography of McEachern, explains.

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Malcolm McEachern, a goldminer’s son from Albury, was one of the British Empire’s best-known basses of the 20th century. He recorded almost 180 songs, performed in London’s greatest concert halls and had a parallel career in a musical comedy double act, Flotsam and Jetsam, with the witty songwriter Bert Hilliam. He broadcast on the BBC from 1923 to 1945, and often his deep voice was relayed to Australia. But he never returned there.

Little has been written about his early struggles in Australia that laid the foundations for his ultimate success. It has been unjustly claimed he missed opportunities. “His leisure allegedly embracing sport, gambling, social outings and good time.(Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, 1986)

Closer study of his life from 1908 to 1918, when he left Australia for South Africa, the US and England, reflects a tough apprenticeship on stage. He toured some 130 towns and cities, notably with the sopranos Nellie Melba and Marie Narelle and Albury-born contralto Ella Caspers. When unable to secure enough “serious” concert dates, he briefly ventured into Tivoli circuit vaudeville in four State capitals with his pianist wife, Hazel Doyle, for six months in 1917.

McEachern was born in 1883 into a Scottish-Irish family that settled in Albury in 1854, though was often billed as “the Scotch bass”. He sang first in his Presbyterian church, a boy treble coached by an older sister, Blanche. As a grocer’s lad, he drove a horse-drawn cart around Albury but dreamt of going to London to sing professionally. At 21, he competed in singing festivals at Beechworth and Ballarat as a baritone or bass, a favourite song being Jude’s ‘The Mighty Deep’. A church organist, Howard Tracy, coached him in serious music. Together they started the Albury Choral Society in 1904.

McEachern sang several times in Albury with Ella Caspers, forming an enduring friendship with her. In 1906 he moved to Sydney, where she was studying at the Garcia music school. He earned a living by selling Arnotts Biscuits. In 1908 Caspers invited him to join a country tour including Cootamundra, Tumut and Adelong. Five months later, she organised his debut at Sydney Town Hall before 2000 people, earning fulsome praise for singing J.W. Elliott’s ‘Hybrias the Cretan’. A second tour of the Clarence River region followed, but ended abruptly when Caspers fell ill.

McEachern returned to Sydney and met Marie Narelle, “the Queen of Irish Song”, fresh from success in New York. She was finalising a divorce case with her drunkard husband and needed money to educate her three children. She knew from experience country town shows paid well. She engaged McEachern, pianist Hilda Thorndyke, and a London magician, “Alberto”. Their first tour on the Western railway stretched from Katoomba to Cobar, 760km from Sydney.

An astonishing program of 40 concerts took place in November and December, 1908. If a train was not available, the party hired a motor car or horse-drawn vehicle, McEachern taking the reins! Narelle’s luggage included sparkling jewels given her by American admirers and gorgeous gowns. McEachern, of course, had his top hat, white tie and tails.

Few county towns then had electric lighting, instead using kerosene or gas lamps. Clear moonlit nights were the most popular times for concerts.

Typically, McEachern/Narelle program would list nine or 10 songs, including a duet, but there were always encores. McEachern’s offering ranged from ‘The Bedouin Love Song’ and ‘The Bandolero’ to traditional Scottish favourites that complemented Narelle’s Irish songs. A favourite of McEachern was ‘A Hundred Pipers’. Often concerts were held on six consecutive nights. The poor condition of pianos in country towns was a worry for Thorndyke. She must have struggled sometimes to read her music from flickering lamps. Microphones were still years away but McEachern’s robust, resonant voice always reached every corner.

In the Riverina, Narelle proudly performed in her birthplace, Temora. In a very hot December the party survived a severe dust storm at Coolamon. After eight weeks of touring, Christmas brought little rest: a Christmas Eve concert at Berrigan, Christmas Day on a dusty road to Narrandera for a Boxing Day concert, and two concerts to finish at Hay and Whitton.

The Riverina Grazier on 11 December commented: “Miss Marie Narelle has been reaping a golden harvest in the West”. Theatre seats cost only one, two or three shillings but occasionally 500 people would attend.

McEachern, Narelle and Thorndyke were back in Sydney for Town Hall concert on 9 January 1909. Their manager, Norrie Hendricks, had mapped out a second NSW country tour of about 35 concerts as far north as Moree and then through Albury to Victorian towns such as Alexandra, Yea and Echuca. This was completed by Easter, but not without drama. At Beechworth, a tremendous thunderstorm broke, startling the hundreds assembled in the Federal Hall. A witness wrote: “Even the powerful voice of Mr. Malcolm McEachern failed before the diapason of heaven’s artillery”.

A Queensland tour presented another challenging schedule, this time without Alberto. Trains took the Marie Narelle party to Toowoomba, Pittsworth, Oakley and Roma and on to Charleville and Cunnamulla, and then back to Brisbane. A second leg went to Rockhampton and across the Great Dividing Range to Balcardine and Longreach. Balcardine’s stage was bare and the piano badly out of tune, but the shire president gave the party a champagne supper after the show!

At Jericho Narelle and Thorndyke fell ill with influenza or dengue fever (accounts vary). McEachern rushed them more than 450km to Rockhampton hospital. On their recovery, the party sailed for Mackay for two concerts and went on westwards to Winton, Charters Towers, Hughenden and Cloncurry. From remote Cloncurry the party “rested” on a 1000km, 24-hour train journey to Townsville. A sea journey to Cairns started a third leg, taking in the Atherton Tableland towns.

The trio reunited in Sydney in September to prepare for Western Australia. Meanwhile, McEachern gave a solo performance on September 18 to the British Empire Chambers of Commerce Congress, attended by the former Australian Prime Minister, Sir George Reid, and international businessmen. An 11-day steamship voyage to the West in October 1909 must have seemed like a holiday for the Marie Narelle party, taking 11 days in fine weather.

Narelle chose to open the tour on 25 October in Kalgoorlie, after an overnight train journey from Perth 653km away. They found the splendid new Town Hall was one of the few outside capital cities with electric lighting. This was the first of 28 concerts in 18 different towns, plus Perth and Fremantle, over six weeks.

At Laverton, on the edge of the Great Victoria Desert, Hendricks did not hesitate to charge five shillings for the best of 700 seats. The tour continued at York, Beverley and Northam. In Perth, hundreds saw the party at the Theatre Royal on November 23 and 24, and at the King’s Theatre, Fremantle. The tour wrapped up with visits to Bunbury, Bridgetown, Busselton, Greenbushes and Collie.

Marie Narelle sailed out of Fremantle, heading for Europe and the US. McEachern stayed on in Perth, joining goldfields soprano Lulu Benstead for four concerts over Christmas and touring the southern districts with her.  In January they sang at a charity concert McEachern himself had organised for the Perth Children’s Hospital. Among his guest artists was Lionel Logue, the elocutionist famous for coaching King George VI.

McEachern’s unexplained failure to show at some of Benstead’s concerts led to them parting company. They were to perform together again in London in a 1943 stage revival of Showboat.

By April 1910, McEachern was a commercial traveller again and playing football in Perth. He paid for “finishing lessons” from a music master in Perth, Percy Marchant.

By July, National Mutual Life Assurance had appointed him an agent at Caernarvon, 1000km north of Perth. Selling insurance was no pushover. McEachern and another agent, H. Emmanuel, hired a horse and trap to drive to remote centres where they could not access railways or coastal ships. They organised several concerts at Carnarvon, starring McEachern and local amateur singers. At a convivial Burns Night in 1911, admiring Scots presented him with a case of pipes (he was a pipe smoker until his death from throat cancer).

The same year, he sailed 1100km north to sell insurance to Port Hedland and Roebourne, again organising concerts. He sang at Marble Bar in the Miners Institute, a galvanised iron hall lit by “new” acetylene gas lighting. He found Australia’s hottest town had music lovers with phonographs and records. Later he toured the Murchison goldfields and Gascoyne River district until National Mutual gave him a promotion in Perth. In March 1912 it sent him to Kalgoorlie and Boulder. Being half Irish, he agreed to join a St Patrick’s Day concert, starting with ‘Father O’Flynn’ and ending with leading everyone in ‘God Save Ireland’. At another concert he sang new popular songs, such as ‘Kashmiri Love Song’ (Pale Hands I Loved) and ‘My Old Shako’.

By early 1913 he had left insurance, but singing opportunities dwindled until he was reduced to serenading shoppers at Boan’s department store in Perth on odd afternoons. A concert at Boan’s on April 30 with tenor Peter Roxby was his last recorded appearance in Western Australia before he returned there in 1914.

Back in Sydney in August, he found concert engagements with his pianist friend Hilda Thorndyke, including a vice-regal charity concert and an appearance at Orange with soprano Ruby Tucker and tenor Sid McDonald. Thorndyke’s circle of musical friends included the pianist Hazel Doyle, then aged 21. It was at Wollongong on 1 October 1913, that Doyle was first listed in a concert with McEachern. Her friend Daisy Sweet, a contralto who was to marry McEachern’s brother Frank, was also there. From then on Doyle accompanied McEachern in several concerts.

Nellie Melba’s Australian manager, the flautist John Lemmone, came into McEachern’s life at a Scottish concert in Sydney in January 1914. Lemmone was seeking a male singer to join Melba on her upcoming Australian tour, starting in the West. He hired McEachern, knowing he had already sung with distinction in Perth and Kalgoorlie.

McEachern, a Freemason, made more social contacts when he entertained the NSW Masonic Club at a “farewell” function for Sir George Reid, by then Australian High Commissioner in London. The Prime Minister, Sir Joseph Cook, was also present and was to support McEachern in London nine years later.

Melba had sung in England with Enrico Caruso and John McCormack in 1914, but chose to return early to Melbourne, where her father, David Mitchell, was ailing. Breaking her journey in Perth and the goldfields would fulfil a promise she made after she had cancelled a Kalgoorlie visit in 1902.

The Melba concert party would include Lemmone; Doris Madden, solo pianist, and Harold Whittle, a pianist who had accompanied Melba before. Lemmone organised concerts in Perth for 9 and 11 July, Kalgoorlie on 14 July and Boulder on 15 July.

Such was Melba’s fame that when she disembarked at Fremantle on 6 July, the State Governor lent his vice-regal rail carriage to take Melba to Perth. McEachern was present when 6000 admirers gathered outside the Esplanade Hotel to hear the Metropolitan Liedertafel serenade Melba. It was no surprise to regal Melba that the Governor and the Federal Treasurer, Sir John Forrest, and their wives would be at the two Perth concerts at His Majesty’s Theatre. Lemmone placed 200 extra seats on the stage to enable 2500 people attended each concert. Both concerts were sell-outs, as was a third organised belatedly for 18 July.

On her last day in Perth, 19 July, Melba presented Malcolm with probably the most valuable gift in his career: a scarf pin with “Melba” traced in diamonds. The diva publicly endorsed him as “the most beautiful bass I have ever heard”.

Melba planned to tour Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide with McEachern from September or October, before returning to England in 1915.

Outbreak of war in Europe on 4 August changed everything. Melba declared she would focus only on big charity fundraising concerts. She first organised a concert for the Australian Red Cross at the Sydney Town Hall on 20 September, with McEachern, Lemmone and Whittle.  McEachern’s first song was apt: Handel’s ‘Arm, Arm Ye Brave’.

As the war dragged on, he appeared in other “patriotic” concerts, sometimes with Doyle on piano, and sang newly-written pro-British songs as well as ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘God Save The King’. By February 1915 the McEacherns had joined the “McEachern-Castles” concert party for a tour of Wollongong, Lismore, Grafton and Murwillumbah. They supported tenor George Castles (brother of singer Amy Castles) and Daisy Sweet.

In April 1915, McEachern and Ella Caspers were reunited at the Sydney Town Hall. Caspers had returned from London before the war, having endured a bigamy scandal in 1911 but had triumphed in British and Irish concert halls. The pair sang in the Royal Philharmonic Society’s presentation of Edward Elgar’s ‘The Music Makers’.

For the King’s Birthday on June 3, 1915, Melba invited Malcolm to join her and Lemmone for a Town Hall concert in aid of the “starving Poles” driven from their homes by war. After the Anzac landings, McEachern regularly sang patriotic songs such as ‘Heroes of the Dardanelles’ by Reginald Stoneham, and ‘For God and St George’.

McEachern and Doyle were married at Willoughby, Sydney, on 2 February, 1916. A son was born in December but died after one day due to a heart defect.

The couple’s fortunes improved in January 1917 when entrepreneur Hugh McIntosh signed up McEachern for the Harry Rickards Tivoli chain in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide as “Melba’s favourite basso”. This meant six months of singing in old-time vaudeville shows, initially with Fred Bluett, a popular comedian. McEachern was soon mingling on programs with magicians, acrobats, jugglers, assorted musicians and even a “clever dog”. One fellow artist in Melbourne was Elsie Peerless, a soprano from St Kilda.

A theatre critic wrote: “Malcolm McEachern has achieved a success very much to be envied. To step from the concert platform in association with Melba, straight to the vaudeville stage, is an undertaking of some hazard. McEachern has made the trial, and come through with flying colours. He owes this chiefly to his magnificent bass voice, but here again we have a strong personality, and a pleasing one at that. On the stage the basso gets through his work in the his friendliest manner imaginable.” (The Globe, 12 February 1917).

Hazel Doyle was soon accompanying him on the Tivoli stage, apparently able to play any song from memory. McEachern tailored his program away from opera and oratorio favoured by the social elite, but retained other classical songs as well as popular ballads that he thought a less sophisticated audience would like. He told a Sydney newspaper in 1917 he thought the two greatest songs ever written were ‘The Lute Player’ and ‘Myself When Young’.

With his long-term career in mind, he took Italian language lessons from Father William Hayden, of Dulwich Hill, later Catholic Archbishop of Hobart (McEachern’s first commercial recording in 1921 was a Verdi aria sung in Italian).

After the Tivoli period, the McEacherns accepted, other theatrical enterpreneurs, the Fuller Brothers, offered them a vaudeville season in New Zealand, followed by South African tour. They sailed from Sydney for Auckland on 5 September 1917. Coincidentally Melba and English actress Ada Reeve were also on board and organised a concert to raise funds for a war charity, with the McEacherns joining in.

Their first appearance in New Zealand was in the Auckland Opera House on 10 September. The tour went on to Wellington and Christchurch and ended on 8 December. Full houses were reported everywhere.

Fuller Brothers had already booked Malcolm and Hazel for Christmas vaudeville at their Majestic Theatre in Adelaide, running twice daily from 22 to 28 December, including Christmas night.  

Malcolm’s performance at the Majestic on 28 December 1917 was his final one in Australia. They couple left Melbourne for South Africa on 8 January 1918, following in the footsteps of Melba, Dawson and other Australian artists.

Ever with London the goal, McEachern performed in New York’s theatres and cinemas for 18 months in 1918–20, arriving in Liverpool with his wife in September 1920 already holding a contract to appear in London’s prestigious Queen’s Hall in January with Sir Henry Wood.

McEachern spent the rest of his career entirely in the British Isles, but always identified as an Australian. He often performed at the Australian High Commission in The Strand when it was headed by former Prime Ministers Sir Joseph Cook and Stanley Bruce and the soldier Sir Granville Ryrie. At Cook’s invitation, he took part in the first BBC broadcast to Australia in 1923 and several others after that, including one specifically for Albury.

Vocalion and Columbia exported so many Australian singers’ records to Australia that they opened factories in Richmond (Melbourne) and Homebush (Sydney) respectively to press thousands of copies locally. McEachern was being one of the principal artists in the interwar years.

One of his last records, made with Hilliam in 1939 for Australian diggers, was ‘Is He An Aussie, Is He, Lizzie?’ The BBC banned it in 1944, apparently because it was too saucy and contained the phrase “fuzzy wuzzy”. Typically, he laughed off the incident by joking: “Do they expect me to sing Is He A Cissie, Lizzie?”

McEachern died in London in January 1945, aged 61.

  • Based on a biography, Malcolm McEachern, Master of Song, by Howard C. Jones, published by Albury & District Historical Society, 2023.


Malcolm McEachern: Master of Song is published by the Albury & District Historical Society, PO Box 822 Albury, 2640. Enquiries to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


A selection of Malcom McEachern recordings on John Hanna’s Vintage Sounds

See also

Malcolm McEachern on film

‘In a Cellar Cool’, filmed in 1931, with Ivor Newton at the piano


‘The Changing of the Guard’, recorded in 1937, with Bert Hilliam at the piano