The blues world mourns the loss of Tam White

I DON'T imagine there would be much argument over the claim that Tam White was the greatest blues singer to come out of Scotland, but he rated highly on a much wider and more challenging scale, standing alongside the best of the modern global bluesmen.

On one level his career can be seen as a missed opportunity, a series of what-might-have-been scenarios that began as a teenage pop prospect in the 1960s. Against that, there was no shortage of genuine and lasting achievements to balance the score, and he was held in the kind of esteem and affection by his fans and fellow musicians that money cannot buy.

The singer, who died on Monday, was never bitter about the vagaries of his career, and his alternative trade as a stonemason – memories of bitter winter mornings trying to manipulate a heavy hammer with numbed hands in a biting Edinburgh wind – gave him a wry perspective on the ups and downs of the music business.

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He was always disarmingly frank about the mistakes and misjudgements he made along the way, and his own drinking and general wildness contributed in considerable measure to losing out on those early possibilities of success.

He could easily have ended up just another forgotten wannabe, but he was made of sterner stuff. He gave up drinking a quarter century ago, and not only put his musical career back on track but added another strand to his CV with occasional – if somewhat reluctant – roles as an actor, a door that opened when he overdubbed Robbie Coltrane's vocals in John Byrne's Tutti Frutti.

He is best known as the Chief of Clan MacGregor in Braveheart, but perhaps his most characteristic role was as a down-on-his-luck country singer in Sandy Johnston's Wreck On The Highway, one that echoed aspects of his own situation.

"Sandy was looking for somebody with an Edinburgh accent so he called and asked if I was interested," White told me in an interview in 1990. "He asked me if I could act, and I asked him if I was getting paid. I played a country singer who had a hit in the 1960s, but then went on the skids for a while, and is now trying to get back into the business. It's a good human interest story about a guy who has had a few hard times, some of his own making."

Remind you of anyone? Tam did indeed get back in the business, initially in a now legendary residence at Edinburgh's Preservation Hall with lifelong friend Toto McNaughton in The Dexters, and subsequently with a larger group co-led with ex-King Crimson bassist Boz Burrell that included several top UK jazz musicians.

Ever aware of the value of a buck and of the manifold difficulties of music business economics, White also formed smaller but more viable units in his Eco-Drive (as in economy rather than ecology) Band and Shoestring Trio. He reinvented himself as a singer in the process, augmenting his trademark gravelly, blues-saturated approach (in which I always heard inflections of Captain Beefheart and Tom Waits, although he denied having heard either) with a more sophisticated, jazz-inflected slant on vocal tone and phrasing, most obviously in his excellent duo with pianist Brian Kellock.

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"I feel I've been doing a bit too much growling, and I'm trying to work more with vocal tone now than in the past," he told me around the time of the formation of the octet with Burrell. "Boz and I decided to expand the band because that is the sound we wanted. We decided it was time to get serious, to bring in some more jazz-oriented players who would also be committed to the music."

Songwriting was another facet of his work, and his best songs stand up well. He drew on his own experiences and memories of Edinburgh, notably in The Boogie Woogie Piano Player, based on a memory of growing up in the Grassmarket, and the self-explanatory Stonemason's Blues.

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His early refusal to conform to the wishes of misguided record producers – including Mickie Most, who gave him a Top 40 hit that led to his becoming the first performer to insist on singing live rather than miming on Top Of The Pops, and Decca Records' attempts to mould him as "the next Tom Jones" – ultimately allowed his career to develop in a very different way, and arguably an artistically (if not financially) richer one.

His passing leaves an undeniable gap in the Scottish jazz scene, where he remained a popular presence. I last saw him perform only a month ago in a setting which gave him great pride and immense musical satisfaction – singing the songs of Ray Charles and Big Joe Williams with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra at the Perth Festival.

He had an idiosyncratic career and was probably too much of a one-off to have followers, but his contribution to the Scottish music scene will not be forgotten by anyone who knew or heard him.

• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, June 27, 2010