Opera singer Mack Harrell was born on October 8, 1909, in Celeste, Hunt County, Texas, to Mack Kendree Harrell and Virginia Marr “Molly” (Kelly) Harrell. The family moved to nearby Greenville, where Mack grew up. An older brother, Lynn Mozart “Son” Harrell, was born in 1902, and as a student at the University of Texas at Austin in 1923 he recorded on piano with Jimmie’s Joys, an early Texas jazz band. At age ten Mack began violin lessons and continued for the next twelve years, including study at Oklahoma City University and later on scholarship at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where the quality of his baritone voice was discovered. He then began voice studies at the Juilliard School in New York and made his concert debut at the city’s Town Hall in 1938, singing opera and lieder. Also in 1938 he won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions.
In his singing of opera Harrell exhibited a voice of great lyrical beauty, and he was considered one of the finest American-born lieder singers of his generation. In 1939 the music firm of Charles Fischer published Harrell’s book, The Sacred Hour of Song: A Collection of Sacred Solos Suitable for Christian Science Services. (In the mid-1930s he had been appointed soloist for the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston.) On December 16, 1939, he made his professional debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Biterolf in Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Harrell sang at the Met every year through 1948 and returned for the 1949–50, 1952–54, and 1957–58 seasons. His many roles included Baron Douphol in Verdi’s La Traviata, Masetto in Don Giovanni, Papageno in Die Zauberflöte of Mozart, and Shchelkalov in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. He created the role of Sampson in the 1947 production of Bernard Rogers’s The Warrior and portrayed Nick Shadow in the American premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, performed and recorded in 1953 with the Metropolitan Opera conducted by the composer. In 1951 Harrell had recorded—live—the title role in Berg’s Wozzeck with Dmitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic and Eileen Farrell as Marie. Even years later, his vocal prowess has been lauded by listeners; one among several Amazon.com reviewers of the same mind rated Harrell’s performance as Wozzeck, out of the opera’s many recorded versions, as the “pick of the litter….He is probably the best on records: a powerful voice used to great effect….” During his career, Harrell also performed with other opera companies. He made his debut at New York City Opera in 1944 and also sang in Chicago and San Francisco. From 1945 to 1956 Harrell taught voice at the Juilliard School, and by 1954 he became the director of the Aspen Music Festival and School.
Harrell met Marjorie Fulton, his wife-to-be, at the Curtis Institute when both were violin students in the 1930s. They were married on December 22, 1934, in Greenville, Texas. They had two sons and a daughter. Their son Lynn was born in 1944 and was apparently named for his Uncle Lynn Mozart Harrell. At age eight Lynn Harrell took up the cello, and in later years he became the principal cellist in the Cleveland Orchestra, from 1964 to 1971. The Harrell family moved to Dallas by 1957, when Mack joined the voice faculty of Southern Methodist University. His wife was on the music faculty of North Texas State College (now University of North Texas). Mack Harrell died of cancer at Baylor Hospital in Dallas on January 29, 1960. His body was cremated at Restland Crematory. His wife died in a car accident in 1962. Sadly, neither parent lived to hear their son Lynn carry on a family tradition of outstanding musicianship. In 2001 the Dallas Symphony Orchestra established the Lynn Harrell Concerto Competition in his honor. A Texas Historical Marker was erected honoring Mack Harrell at his birthplace in Celeste in 1986.