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McEachern, Walter Malcolm Neil (1883–1945)

by Peter Burgis

This article was published:

Walter Malcolm Neil McEachern (1883-1945), singer, was born on 1 April 1883 at Albury, New South Wales, sixth of thirteen children of Archibald Hector McEachern, miner, and his wife Rebecca Mary, née Tubman. Malcolm was educated at Albury Public School where he had his first singing lessons from Howard Tracey. Over six feet (183 cm) tall with an immense, well-proportioned frame, he was fond of sport, especially Rugby, boxing, billiards and riding. In 1904 his family moved to Sydney where he worked as a salesman and undertook casual singing engagements, his leisure allegedly embracing sport, gambling, social outings and good times. His engagement in 1913 to pianist Hazel Hogarth Doyle, who became his accompanist, provided musical direction and discipline and he soon established himself as one of the most promising singers in Sydney. They were married on 2 February 1916 at Willoughby Congregational Church.

During World War I McEachern toured with the Melba Concert Company; he performed often later with Melba as well as with other leading artists, including Ella Caspers, Ada Crossley, and Marie Narelle. In 1918-20 the McEacherns toured Asia and North America. From Chicago they went to England in 1921 where McEachern was hailed as one of the finest bass singers of his day and as an outstanding oratorio singer. He appeared with orchestras under Sir Henry Wood and (Sir) John Barbirolli, in Shakespearian productions and in Gilbert and Sullivan operas. His voice was an unusually resonant basso cantante with a range of three octaves: the registers were always perfectly blended and weight of tone even. The voice was always sonorous without being ponderous. A pioneer of both radio and television for the British Broadcasting Corporation he was often chosen for royal command performances.

Early in 1926 he joined Bentley Collingwood Hilliam (1890-1965), a Yorkshire pianist with a flair for composing witty topical songs. As 'Flotsam and Jetsam' they became an enduring light entertainment act. McEachern made his film début in Chu Chin Chow in 1933.

During World War II he did considerable stage and radio work, including a West End revival of Show Boat in 1944. He was a member of the Savage Club. He died on 17 January 1945 in London after an operation for cancer of the oesophagus. Of his death Peter Dawson said, 'The world has been robbed of a master of song'. He was survived by his wife and a son who was killed in action three months later.

McEachern was a cultured and convivial musician who disliked pretension, especially in music. The sole aim of his singing was to give enjoyment. His size, jovial nature and booming voice gave him great presence. He recorded 187 studio performances, including opera, operetta, oratorio, art songs, and popular compositions of which 88 were made for the Vocalion Company (1921-27) and 99 (including 53 'Flotsam and Jetsam' duets) for Columbia Graphophone (1927-41). On his centenary in 1983 all his solo recordings for Columbia were issued by EMI (Australia).

Select Bibliography

  • B. and F. Mackenzie, Singers of Australia (Melb, 1967)
  • 'Death of Mr. McEachern', Times (London), 18 Jan 1945, p 6
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Jan 1945
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 19 Jan 1945, p 8.

Citation details

Peter Burgis, 'McEachern, Walter Malcolm Neil (1883–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 29 May 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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