Dapper, debonair and devastatingly quick-witted, Alexander Armstrong is instantly recognisable – as much for his perfectly enunciated voice as his impeccably groomed appearance. He is also a man who likes to take chances. Alexander made his name in comedy at the turn of the millennium, as one half of the BAFTA winning duo Armstrong & Miller. Then in 2009, on the back of his success as a regular guest host on “Have I Got News For You”, he was offered a permanent role as the host of BBC1’s “Pointless”. Always one for a new challenge, Armstrong leapt at the chance. Now, he is branching out again.
Forty years after he became a choirboy, Armstrong is returning to his first love of music with the release of his debut album A Year Of Songs released on East West Records on November 6th. Showcasing a classical baritone voice, the album is a collection of lavishly orchestrated songs produced by Grammy ® award winning producer Simon Franglen; some traditional, some more modern, but all of them of special significance to him. “It started out as a collection of pastoral English songs,” he says. “But we wanted this, being a first album, to have a broad reach. So it grew to encompass songs from Britain and Ireland… and we’ve cheated a little by going further afield. I suppose what they all have in common is that they are all songs I love.” Armstrong has also announced that he will take to the road this January for a 9 date UK tour starting January 17th in Liverpool.
Many are songs he has sung since he was a small child at school in his birthplace of Northumberland. He quickly joined the choir, going on to win successive choral scholarships to St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh, Durham Cathedral School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read English. “It all dates back to my first school, Mowden Hall,” he recalls. Clearly music is in the blood of a man who has traced his family’s roots all the way back to William The Conqueror.
His childhood was filled with music and he learned to play the piano, cello and oboe. After singing on several choral CDs at Cambridge, where he finished as principal bass soloist, he gave serious thought to studying singing at the Royal College of Music – but, after meeting fellow Cambridge graduate Ben Miller, he opted instead for a career in comedy. Twenty years on, he has grabbed a second chance to return to music. The songs on A Year of Songs ranges from familiar classics such as “Summertime”, Gershwin’s evergreen standard from “Porgy and Bess”, to “Hushabye Mountain” from “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”, and “Stranger In Paradise”, a Borodin song but one forever associated with Bing Crosby.
Others have a particularly personal resonance for their singer. “Londonderry Air” – the tune behind Irish folk standard “Danny Boy” – has been dubbed “The National Anthem of Northern Ireland” and has a link to Armstrong’s family history too. “The sheet music was discovered in a church in Limavady in County Derry, where my mother’s family come from, so we’ve always felt it was somehow ‘ours’.”
Equally personal is “Rothbury Hills”, for which Armstrong wrote the lyrics himself, paying tribute to the picturesque area in Northumberland where he grew up. “I am Rothbury born and bred. The song was originally written for the Northumbrian pipes, by Jack Armstrong (no relation), who was for years the piper to the Duke of Northumberland.” As Armstrong says, not all the songs are British and Irish: “We’ve taken a couple of liberties.” One such being “On Days Like These” the theme tune of the original 1960s film “The Italian Job”, written by Quincy Jones and Don Black.
Although he had sung in sketches for “Armstrong & Miller”, it was invariably for comic effect, usually as a filthy parody of Flanders & Swann, on songs such as “The Older Women Song”, “Knocking Out A Crafty One” and “What Must It Be Like To Be Gay?”. All the more surprising, then, that his first solo singing appearance on TV came only two years ago, though it was once again with a comic element: a hilarious spoof of Susan Boyle – complete with unexpected soprano voice. “I never actually abandoned singing,” he stresses. “I have sung at lots of friends’ weddings and family events to keep up my classical repertoire, and I get together with a music teacher every few months.” Every Christmas Alexander also takes part in an informal carol concert with friends Tim Rice and Kit Hesketh-Harvey in London.
That’s where this album began life, when Sir Tim invited him to sing his song “No Rhyme For Richard” (from “Blondel”) at a Royal Festival Hall tribute, “Sir Tim Rice: A Life In Song”, broadcast on Christmas Day 2014. “Ever since then things have gone up a few gears”. There followed a Christmas Day performance of “Winter Wonderland” for “Pointless Celebrities,” an appearance at the VE Day 70 Concert at Horse Guards Parade last May, where he sang “London Pride” and “We Must All Stick Together” and a duet with Josh Groban on “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Earlier this year, he co-hosted BBC1’s “Frank Sinatra: Our Way” and he currently hosts two weekend radio shows on Classic FM.