Singer took name of home

The Arts
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Jessie-Nickell-1-wA YOUNG girl who grew up on Loch Longside took the name of her home and went on to become a singer who worked with top stars including Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.

Jessie Ronald was born in America, the daughter of an American father and Scottish mother. Sadly her father died two years later, and her mother brought her back to Glenmallon to live with her grandparents.

Jessie, now Mrs Nickell, adopted Glenda Mallon as her stage name, trained as an opera singer and sang at Glyndebourne, then diversified and sang as a backing singer for many famous names.

She recalls: “When I was about three I popped over the hedge to Glenmallon School, and there I stayed until I was eleven, when I went to Hermitage School in Helensburgh.

“I was not happy there. All I was interested in was music, and apart from dear Miss Knox I endured the journey there every day — cycle two miles to Finnart, then train at 7.30 to Helensburgh and school by 8am.

“I must admit that I was not a good pupil.  I rebelled and by the end of fourth year I left and went back to America to stay with relatives. I went back to school at James Madison High School in New York — and I loved it there.”

However while she was there she became homesick for the Loch Long area, so she returned and auditioned successfully to study at the Academy of Music in Glasgow from 1950.

“These were great days,” she said, “and no-one was happier than I was. I was there for three years, and particularly enjoyed singing with the orchestra and the Bach choir.

“At the end of my course I won a Sir James Caird Travelling Scholarship for three years.

“This enabled me to study abroad, so I chose to go to Rome for two years and then got a mini-scholarship to a summer music academy in Sienna before going to Vienna, where I went to the opera school at the Conservatoire — again great days!”

Jessie-Nickell-2-wIn the 1950s and 60s she was based in London, singing opera at Glyndebourne, working for the Arts Council, and touring with opera companies.

An attractive young woman with reddish gold hair, she was invited to appear in a new BBC TV series called ‘Pleasure Boat’, compered by popular comedian Kenneth Horne, also the host of radio's 'Beyond Our Ken'.

“I am not sure that I rate the series very highly, but it was an experience,” she said. “We travelled all over the UK, but the couple of programmes we did on the Clyde were the worst because of the weather!”

Back in London she became involved in the lighter side of show business, and was asked to do some recording session work in a backing group for singers such as Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Englebert Humperdinck, Harry Secombe and Bruce Forsyth.

She said: “At one of the shows I did at the London Palladium, I met a man called William Nickell, who was a Fleet Street journalist.  I liked him a lot, so ten days later I married him!

“Our friends thought we were crazy not to wait, but that was 48 years ago, and we are still in the same house. How about that! After we married I stopped using the name Glenda Mallon, and became Jessie Nickell.”

Some 25 years ago, she started working as a singing, piano and flute tutor. Today, although she is in her seventies, she still teaches at home, but she said: “Eventually I stopped teaching singing and piano and now I concentrate on the flute — it is not so strenuous!”

Jessie-Nickell-3-cutoutShe and her husband, who has retired, live in St Albans, Hertfordshire, and have frequent holidays on their favourite Mediterranean island, Cyprus.

Bertie McLean, who lives in Helensburgh but whose forebears came from Portincaple, ran a coal merchant's business from Garelochhead for many years. Now over 80 but fit as a fiddle, he remembers what an outstanding singer Jessie was, even as a young girl.

He recalls an evening service, or services, at Garelochhead Church when Dr Kilpatrick was the minister, when she sang several solo pieces. The congregation was enthralled by the quality of her voice, and she received rapturous applause and took an encore.

Dr Kilpatrick actually gave Jessie the job of organist when she was only 14. She would cycle to Garelochhead and back twice a day on Sundays, for morning and evening services.

She recalled: “Often however, I would not return to home at Glenmallon between services. Instead I took the opportunity to visit friends, such as the Antons at Whistlefield, when I would be given lunch. I was paid £3 per month, and 10 shillings for weddings.”

  • The pictures show Jessie circa 1960, at Glyndebourne a few years later, and relaxing a few years ago.