Meet Kamahl, the superstar singer the US has overlooked

For 12 years now, Australians have been swooning to his crooning. Many of the crowned heads of Europe have swayed along at command performances and then given him standing ovations afterward. He has packed London's Palladium. He has sold 20 million records worldwide.

In Canada, where he's currently working the talk-show circuit, two of his concerts have already been sellouts. One of them produced no fewer than six standing ovations.

His name is Kamahl. And most people in the United States have never heard of him.

So far.

But given their receptivity to such other Australian singers as Olivia Newton John, the Bee Gees, Helen Reddy, the Seekers, Dusty Springfield, and opera star Joan Sutherland, it may not be long before Americans are acquainted with this dark-skinned superstar as well. If, that is, he can just find a way to appeal to them directly without going through the promotion mill.

Born in Malaysia of Ceylonese parents, Kamahl sounds like James Earl Jones (the voice of Darth Vader in the ''Star Wars'' movies) or Geoffrey Holder, the West Indian actor who made Seven-Up's ''uncola nuts'' famous on TV commercials.

He possesses a luxuriant baritone that some reviewers have called a basso profundo. An uncommon and powerful resonance make his voice, on first hearing, seem best suited to opera.

''Opera must be in your bones,'' he says. ''And it's just not for me. Baritone and basso profundo, which I'm not by any stretch of the imagination, can be off-putting to people in the popular field. It flattens things in the minds of audiences.''

Instead, his music is perhaps best labeled ''easy listening'' (Australians characterize it as ''beautiful music''). Kamahl considers himself in the pre-rock tradition of Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Vic Damone, and Perry Como.

Currently he stands in the relative vacuum of love-ballad singers with others such as Spain's Julio Iglesias (now making a surge in the US market) and Britain's Englebert Humperdinck, Roger Whittaker, and Tom Jones.

Tom Williams, president of Toronto-based Attic Records, which is releasing an album entitled simply ''Kamahl,'' thinks he will fill that vacuum perfectly.

''(Romance) is what's keeping Harry Belafonte a top draw after all these years,'' Mr. Williams says. ''It's one of the reasons Charles Aznavour was a hit recently on Broadway.''

Adds John Spragge, program director of CFRB Radio in Toronto: ''We put on a Kamahl record and the phone calls would start to come in. It's a real romantic response. Something's going on out there.''

Kamahl writes no lyrics or music. He selects the songs of others with what he calls his personal ''barometer'' - one eye on what he can sing well, the other on what will successfully sell records and concert tickets.

He sings of unrequited love and inconsolable longing: ''Fool, Fool Heart'' (''Taking chances isn't smart . . .''); ''Before You There Was Nothing,'' (''After you, no one else . . .''); ''For the Good Times'' (''She's just a fool for a love song and a line . . .''); ''The Rainbow Connection'' (''Why are there so many songs about rainbows? What's on the other side?''); ''Key Largo'' (''We had it all, just like Bogie and Bacall.'')

''I just want to be a human being who wants to share his thoughts and feelings and philosophy either through music and words or through sometimes words only, without music,'' Kamahl says.

(He often uses speaking-voice trackovers on his records. In ''Hey There, Lord ,'' for example, he recites the Ten Commandments while a chorus swells in the background.)

In performance, he may wear a gold-embroidered, white Nehru jacket while singing a number like ''Old Man River.'' At other times he sits on a stool, Como-style, in open-necked shirt and slacks, a jewel-studded Scorpion hanging from a gold chain around his neck. On album covers he may be seen in anything from from polyester stripes to Hawaiian-style shirts to double-breasted blazers. He was nearly dubbed the ''Caftan Kid'' in Australia because of his preference for that traditional North African garment.

Kamahl is aware of the confusion his image causes among audiences. And he knows he fits few people's ideas of the stereotypical balladeer. But he long ago quit worrying about it.

''Many audiences are initially uncomfortable with the sight of someone in Malaysian garb singing 'Old Man River' with Southern-dialect 'dats' and 'dis-es' '' he says. ''But we all want to be free from the labels that shackle us, to flow like the river, fly like a bird. Each of us is unique. None of us fit a category.

''I know I have turned to attire that are different from most . . . But it's never been a gimmick; most often it brings great humor.''

Between concerts in Canada, Kamahl visited New York recently for meetings with record-company executives, promoters, and the news media.

Relaxing in the apartment of a producer friend high above the streets of Manhattan, he admitted: ''My background is sort of a strange mixture. I was a member of a minority group where the histories and philosophies of white supremacy were taught. That still washes sort of deep. I tried to overcome it with sports (he was a promising field hockey player) and scholastic achievements and then eventually turned to music.''

Having had to swim upstream to succeed in basically white Australia, Kamahl feels he doesn't have to change or compromise to suit his friends, family, or new audiences.

''I'm aware that I'm not with the times,'' he says. ''But I'm also aware of what Oscar Wilde said: 'When you're so much in fashion, you go out of fashion quickly, too.' I've always tried to do what's right for me, regardless of what the rest of the world says.''

With his father busy as a railway and music school administrator in Malaysia during World War II, an uncle arranged for Kamahl to go to Australia to complete his education. It was a difficult time. Other children jeered and threw stones at him. Storekeepers often addressed him in sign language and pidgin English. But he quickly learned that sports and the ability to entertain were shortcuts to popularity. So he took up cricket and field hockey and began styling himself after Nat King Cole.

There were times in the early days of singing in small clubs when he wanted to throw in the towel: ''It was nearly impossible to get established as an Asian in those days.''

He says his first important breakthrough was provided by Rupert Murdoch, already making his own name as a newspaper publisher and television executive. Mr. Murdoch offered him the chance to perform on television, and the reviews were favorable.

Still, the Australian music industry felt that Kamahl should give up the King Cole style and restrict himself to operatic arias.

He didn't.

Now described as a heartthrob of Australian housewives, Kamahl makes annual sold-out tours of the Australian states. He has filled the famous 2,700-seat Sydney Opera House 30 times for performances. He also has especially large followings in the Scandinavian countries, where he has one platinum and more than a dozen gold records to his credit.

Kamahl attributes much of the self-esteem that helped him break through to success to his wife, Sahodra, whom he met in a Sydney club. She is Indian by birth, and the idea of their marriage originally upset both their families.

''Sad to say, racial prejudice amongst Asians is often more discriminatory than the black/white barriers,'' he wrote in his autobiography.

Now their children go to school in a Rolls-Royce. ''My transition from child to adult was not easy, but will theirs be any smoother because I can give them more?'' he wonders.

''I look at all these things and tell myself it is all true,'' he says now that he has signed a $2.4 million contract that makes him Australia's highest-paid resident artist.

In other countries, however, he still has encountered resistance from the musical establishment. With ''Hey There, Lord,'' he says, ''unfortunately, the media did not want to pay lip service to what I wanted to say in this song . . . stations thought it was so much meaningless trivia, so they couldn't be bothered. They said, 'it's too new,' or 'too dangerous,' or 'will give us the wrong image' - as if I was too square.''

But he says listeners want him and he must find a way to reach them. Against others' advice he once staged a concert in the London Palladium at his own expense; it was hailed as a smash success. He admits he has promoted himself heavily but makes no apologies for that.

''Ninety percent of all success in entertainment is due to promotion,'' he writes. ''I always looked for the idea that would attract the most attention.

''He is vague about the vibrations he's getting from the US, however.

About 1,000 US radio stations have played his records - roughly half of them regularly - according to Judy Friedman, the New Jersey housewife who has been his main promoter in the US. She met him backstage in tears after one of his performances in Canada.

''My agent sees them, and she doesn't get much joy from them,'' Kamahl says of contacts with recording executives here. ''Usually, what they want is proof; they want you to give them a hit and when you do they will help you. That's the story all over. The Beatles were rejected a number of times . . . It doesn't happen overnight.

''I've always been aware that I live 12,000 miles away, so I cannot hope to achieve anything terribly much with that ocean dividing us. If, somewhere along the way, something did happen, well and good. But one of these days I'm going to be spread so thin I'll never collect myself. That could be dangerous too.

''Ninety-nine percent (of the promoters) say, 'You're mad. This is foreign. This is strange; nobody would want it.' And yet, when the music has been played on the local stations, I get very warm, very good response.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.