Sir Donald Bradman and Kamahl forged a lasting friendship based on a shared love of cricket and music. (Supplied: Sam Hood / Facebook: Kamahl)
When the entertainer Kamahl was about 10 years old and living in Kuala Lumpur, he was hit in the face by a cricket ball while batting in a local game.
He remembers rushing home on a bike, his mouth bleeding, and then being taken to hospital.
“My nose was okay but my teeth were pushed in. The doctor gently eased the teeth back to where they should be,” he told the ABC.
“I was told never to play cricket again. Then I came to Australia and I decided to play and I got selected for the school and did very well.”
Kamahl’s life might have turned out very differently if he had lost those teeth, because it was his pearly white smile and rich and resonant voice that helped him forge a decades-long career as a TV crooner and as a regular on Hey, Hey It’s Saturday.
But one anonymous ABC reader who is, we suspect, a Kamahl fan recently asked Curious Adelaide to investigate some less well-known facts about the man.
“Is it true that Kamahl was an excellent cricketer in Adelaide and was championed by both Don Bradman and Rupert Murdoch?”
So we decided to investigate.
And it turns out, not only did Kamahl demonstrate great prowess as a cricketer, but forged deep friendships with Sir Donald Bradman — whom he released a song about — and Rupert Murdoch.
And who better to tell us about such matters than Kamahl himself?
A hat-trick and a first encounter
When Kamahl first met the Don in the 1950s, the budding baritone was playing cricket for Bradman’s former side Kensington in Adelaide’s eastern suburbs.
The meeting itself was only the second-most remarkable cricketing feat Kamahl achieved that day.
Earlier, he had taken a hat-trick with his first three balls of the season, and finished with figures of 7/55.
“The captain came to me and said ‘what do you do?’ And I said ‘I’m an off-spinner’,” Kamahl recalled more than 60 years later.
“I just rolled my arm over and the first one hit the wicket, the next one somebody caught it, and the third one was caught and bowled.”
After the day’s play, Kamahl and the other Kensington players were in the dressing room mingling with a group of people he didn’t know.
“Amongst them was a guy. One of my fellow cricketers said ‘do you have any idea who you just met?'” Kamahl said.
“I said ‘who?’ He said ‘It’s Sir Donald Bradman’. I said ‘you’ve got to be kidding’.
“I was actually disappointed because he was so much smaller and had a higher voice than I anticipated my hero to have.
“But then my admiration for him took over.”
Kamahl doesn’t remember the next time they crossed paths at a gig in North Adelaide, but has strong memories of the third occasion in 1988, and the anxiety he felt.
In the lead-up, Kamahl had been on a plane with Test cricketer Max Walker.
“He said to me ‘you look very nervous’. I said ‘yeah, I’m meeting God’. Then I told him who it was and he asked ‘can you get an autograph for my sons?’ which I subsequently did.”
Little did Kamahl know at the time, but the encounter at Bradman’s home on Holden Street — a stone’s throw from Kensington Oval — would mark the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
A career launched by Rupert Murdoch
‘Kamahl’ is the stage name of Kandiah Kamalesvaran.
He was born to Tamil Hindu parents in Malaysia and arrived in Adelaide as a schoolboy in 1953 to pursue a higher education.
At the time, the White Australia policy was still very much in effect.
“I was conspicuously aware of my blackness, and I found myself in a psychological hole,” Kamahl remembered.
“In company, occasionally, you would shake hands and people would wipe their hands thinking I had dirtied them.”
As his university studies floundered, immigration authorities attempted to deport him, but singing helped save him.
As a boy, Kamahl had never coveted a career on stage, but he enjoyed singing to himself and attempted to imitate Nat King Cole and Paul Robeson.
“I wasn’t taught to sing the way I do. It was trial and error,” he said.
Kamahl started to perform at clubs around Adelaide and, gradually, he started to get noticed.
After securing the support of some powerful benefactors, he was able to keep the immigration authorities at bay.
A little later, in the late 1950s, he met a young Rupert Murdoch, who was sufficiently impressed to arrange for Kamahl’s first performance on television.
“He bought the television station [Channel 9], I did the very first show in October 1959. Fortunately, the critics were very generous to me,” Kamahl said.
A few years later, with Kamahl’s star on the rise, the Murdochs invited him to Sydney, sending him a plane ticket and organising a six-week season at one of Sydney’s most upmarket hotels.
“On the final Saturday, I went to say goodbye and thank them profusely for their irrational generosity,” he said.
“Rupert said ‘where do you think you’re going?’ and I said ‘I’m going back to Adelaide’ and he said ‘no you’re not’.
“I said ‘where will I stay?’ and he said ‘stay with us’, so for the next two-and-a half-years I stayed with them at Darling Point.”
A privileged friendship yielding laughs and tears
Kamahl’s meeting with Bradman on Melbourne Cup day in 1988 came about not as a result of their shared passion for cricket, but because of their mutual love of music.
Bradman himself was a very talented piano player who wrote a song called Every Day is a Rainbow Day for Me, which was recorded in 1930.
Before their catch up, Kamahl had written to Bradman and sent him a copy of his single What Is Australia to Me? which referenced “the style of Donald Bradman”.
The letter elicited a reply from the Don, who said the recording would “be a cherished possession as long as I am spared”.
Over the next 13 years of Bradman’s life, the two continued to catch up and exchange gifts.
“I would see him or have dinner with him and Lady Bradman, Jessie, two or three times a year,” he said.
“He had a boy scout sense of humour.
“We had a lot of laughs and there were a few tears.”
Their correspondence stretches to about 80 letters, which contain discussions about music, but also personal details about Bradman’s devastation following his wife’s death from cancer.
Kamahl is unsure of what will eventually become of the letters, but is contemplating selling them and donating the money to the charity Variety.
Seven years after Bradman’s own death in 2001, songwriter Greg Champion wrote a song for Kamahl called I Was a Mate of Don Bradman.
“Bradman would be turning in his grave if he knew I called him ‘mate’,” Kamahl joked.
“To have that kind of friendship with someone extraordinary was a privilege.”