boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe

Mac Morgan, 89; bass-baritone known for his tone, diction

Mac Morgan had been singing in concert halls and on the radio for years when he was asked to be a soloist at the Mass in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross for John F. Kennedy after the president was assassinated. For the first time, he worried he might not make it through Mozart's "Requiem."

"When he went up to the stage he was shaking," said Mr. Morgan's wife, Helen. "He said afterward, 'I don't ever remember going to a performance where I felt like I wasn't going to be able to make a sound.' But he did, of course."

A bass-baritone known for his rich tone and enviable diction, Mr. Morgan performed under conductors such as Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa, and taught for many years at Boston University, where he was chairman of the voice department. He died June 12 in Tanner Medical Center near his home in Carrollton, Ga. Mr. Morgan, who was 89, had been admitted a few days earlier and had battled pneumonia.

"He had a warmth in his sound that I think was unique," said his daughter, Kathryn Lynn Skoglund of Amherst, N.H. "We've all heard singers who were good technical singers, but you don't have the sensation that they are in the music and the music is part of them. I think we've always felt that way about him."

"There was no break in his voice from top to bottom; it was absolutely seamless from the top note to the bottom note," his wife said. "He never sang an insincere word, whether it was in English, French, Italian, or German. He was a master of inflection."

Born in Texarkana, Texas, he grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., and studied trombone before taking up voice studies as a teenager. One day he sang for John Charles Thomas, a noted baritone, who encouraged Mr. Morgan to study at the Eastman School of Music, part of the University of Rochester in New York.

Arthur Craft, a teacher at Eastman, recognized Mr. Morgan's talent and arranged for him to practice with an accompanist, Helen Neilly.

"I must say that the first time I heard Mac sing I thought, 'That is for me,' " she said.

They married in 1941 and moved to New York City, where he found a manager and was on his first tour singing when he received word that he had been drafted into the Army. He served for 3 1/2 years in the South Pacific islands and in Australia, where he was assigned full time to sing and perform in cities throughout that country.

"He was lucky," his wife said. "That meant that by the time he was discharged and came back to New York, he was in good voice, and a lot of his contemporaries were not and dropped out of singing."

In New York, Mr. Morgan began singing on "Highways in Melody," an NBC radio program.

"Every Friday night at 8 o'clock he was on the air for an hour," his wife said. "The money was $130 a week, and we couldn't believe it. We hadn't imagined there was that money in the world, let alone for one week."

The couple lived in Connecticut until moving in the early 1950s to Stockbridge, where Mr. Morgan performed at Tanglewood and traveled to other engagements around the country. While on the road, he always sent letters to his three daughters.

"He wrote things he knew we couldn't quite read at the time, but would read, and he was a remarkable letter writer," his daughter said. "He had beautiful penmanship. That whole art of formal letter writing was a real skill of his."

The Morgan household, meanwhile, was filled with music: his singing, his wife's playing, and the sounds of their colleagues and students.

"We were, by the way, forbidden to listen to rock 'n' roll in the house while we were growing up, even in junior high and high school," his daughter said. Instead, "the house was always full of recordings or people working on music with my father. We were aware that this was a kind of special situation. There was always a very, very high quality of performance and music in our household."

Mr. Morgan, who sang for many years with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, also performed under Sarah Caldwell and Igor Stravinsky and with the Goldovsky Opera Theater and the New York Philharmonic.

While the family lived in Stockbridge, Norman Rockwell asked if one of their daughters could model for some of his Saturday Evening Post illustrations. Eventually, he asked Mr. Morgan to sit for him, as well.

"One day Norman said: 'May I sketch you? There isn't a flat plane on your face -- it's all curves,' " his wife recalled. "Mac said, 'Sure, I'd be flattered.' Norman became a very dear friend."

Mr. Morgan used the charcoal drawing by Rockwell as part of his publicity for a 1958 solo recital at Town Hall in New York City, and the original is still in the family's Carrollton home. Also among the memorabilia from his performing career are "beautifully framed notes from Rose Kennedy and Jackie thanking him for his part in the Mass" for President Kennedy, his wife said.

In the early 1960s Mr. Morgan began teaching at New England Conservatory, his daughter said, then he switched to Boston University, where he taught until 1982. Meanwhile, the Morgans lived in Swampscott and then Topsfield before moving to Atlanta after he left Boston University. He taught part time at Emory University until the early 1990s.

When his voice could no longer meet his exacting standards, Mr. Morgan stopped performing as a soloist, but continued to provide the speaking narration at some concerts. "He was extraordinary, everybody would say, because he would speak from the Tanglewood stage without any amplification and he could be heard from every corner," his wife said. "He had an unusual projection."

"He reached people in the audience," his daughter said. "I also remember his eye contact was incredible from the stage. He made connections with people. It was such a personal delivery."

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Morgan leaves two other daughters, Anne of Atlanta and Elizabeth Morgan Graf of Carrollton, Ga.; a sister, Dr. Mary Lynn Morgan McGill of Atlanta; three grandsons; and a granddaughter.

A service has been held.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES