Jim Johnstone: Accordionist and band leader
Born: 21 January, 1937, in Tranent. Died: 4 August, 2008, in Edinburgh, aged 71.
JIM Johnstone was predestined to become a major force in the Scottish dance band scene. Born in Tranent in 1937, he became the ultimate star in the galaxy of musical talent that was the Johnstone family.
His grandparents' home boasted six accordionists, a trumpeter and a fiddler, and the house was a magnet for visitors, including Jimmy Shand. His father, George, and his Uncle John were regular pre-war broadcasters, and when Jim formed his own line-up, there were four Johnstone bands in Tranent.
Jim started accordion lessons aged nine, his greatest influence being Chrissie Leatham, who gave him a thorough grounding in music, though, oddly enough, not of the Scottish genre. A prodigious inherited talent and dedication to practice marked Jim out for success. As a boy, he would play 78rpm records at half speed on an old wind-up gramophone to copy down the notes.
At 13, Jim made his first broadcast, on BBC Radio's Children's Hour, and two years later he formed his first band, a duo with his close friend Bobby Colgan on drums, gaining valuable experience while working by day as a mechanic with Baxter's, a local haulage firm. Initially, their public engagements were standing in for his dad when he was unavailable, but gradually they became known in their own right, adding second accordionist Willie Donaldson to make a trio.
After National Service, Jim had a spell with the great Andrew Rankine, and then set up his own band in 1963. Two years later, he was catapulted into the big time, joining Jimmy Shand, with whom he toured Australia and New Zealand, playing in stadiums with audiences of thousands. Following a spell with Jimmy Blue, Jim came into his own, aided by television exposure which brought national recognition through programmes such as The White Heather Club and Thingummyjig.
Jim's band displayed a crisp, tightly controlled delivery, driven with bravura by the man himself. Passionate about quality of performance, Jim drove himself hard and required the same discipline of his players. The turning point in his career came with the release in 1971 of his LP A Measure of Scotch, in which his distinctive style became a benchmark for others to measure themselves against. Amazingly, the record might never have appeared. It was actually in the shops, but was withdrawn because a mining strike had led to a shortage of vinylite, and the record company melted down all the copies to give priority to pop music.
Although his fame spread worldwide, Jim never forgot his East Lothian roots. He boosted the profile of Scottish music in East Lothian when he established Musselburgh's Brunton Halls as the venue for the annual Accordion and Fiddle Festival.
He could easily have made a great PR man for the county, among the jewels of which he especially counted the village of Garvald, scene of so many of his early memories. His maternal grandparents lived there, and in latter years, he feared its magical quality might be spoiled by an explosion of house building.
In 2005 Jim's contribution to the Scottish music scene was justly – many would say belatedly – recognised when he was inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame. He was a perfectionist in performance, whose motto was: "Always remember to play for your audience."
Anyone who knew Jim could sum him up in the single word "generous". Many of today's bandleaders are indebted to him for his freely given time and advice. When Radio Scotland's Take The Floor presenter Robbie Shepherd praised him for continually bringing in younger players, Jim typically deflected the praise on to them for refreshing the band with their enthusiasm.
One local example typifies his incurably obliging nature. Unable to accept an engagement to entertain a group of pensioners at Wallyford Miners' Institute because he had a dance at Berwick the same evening, he arranged for the audience to be seated by 6:30pm and the band gave them a session of foot-tapping music before rushing off. And he wouldn't take a penny for it.
Tragically, a stroke four years ago confined him to a nursing home, but Jim never lost his cheerfulness or his interest in the music. Recently, a heart attack coupled with pneumonia left him too weak to recover. The huge turn-out for Jim's funeral at Pencaitland on 11 August bore eloquent testimony to the respect and affection in which he was held.
Jim Johnstone is survived by his two sons and two daughters.
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