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Jimmy Shand


An Appreciation
PLUS Biography (Courtesy of the Artist's site, 2005).

For thousands of people around the world, Jimmy Shand's name was synonymous with Scottish Country Dance music. For years, his was the familiar sound that brought in the New Year on radio and television, the sound that, in simpler times, made households rush to get the Saturday tea-time dishes cleared away so that they could settle down beside the radio and be warmed by the famous Shand 'dunt'.

The 'dunt' was the natural sense of swing that Shand's band brought to everything they played. If, as a melodeon player, tunesmith and icon born in the twentieth century, Shand became to Scottish music what the fiddlers James Scott Skinner and Niel [correct spelling] Gow had become as, respectively, nineteenth and eighteenth century-born players and composers, he was also up there with his American contemporaries, a world musician long before the term world music was considered.

The late Scots-born trombonist George Chisholm was among the jazz musicians who rated Shand alongside jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie as a bandleader. For younger musicians also, for whom a bald, getting on a bit melodeon player might well be seen as decidedly uncool, Shand was simply awe-inspiring.

Accordionist extraordinaire Phil Cunningham recalls a pilgrimage which resulted in him sitting in his car near Shand's home in Auchtermuchty, too terrified to approach this legend. And songwriter-guitarist Richard Thompson not only wrote his humorous but seriously reverent warning to partygoers, Don't Sit On My Jimmy Shands, but also name-checked Shand as his greatest influence alongside Jimi Hendrix and recorded his instrumental album Strict Tempo, which included a Shand favourite, The Bluebell Polka, in tribute to his hero.

Icon, legend, hero: of course, none of these words would have sat at all well with Shand himself. Modest to a fault, and almost pathologically shy, he was, as far as he was concerned, simply a box player - albeit one who could extract the most music from the minimum of finger and bellows movement. Tunes, as he once helpfully explained the composer's art, just sort of came to him at times. Hundreds of times.

Shand was born on January 28, 1908 in the Fife coal-mining village of East Wemyss. The sixth of nine children, he picked up his love of music from his father, Erskine, who, in his time off from working as a pit-head contractor and, before that, as a farm worker, played traditional tunes on the single-keyed melodeon and took a great interest in the brass bands that flourished in Fife's mining communities.

The first musical instrument the young Jimmy owned was a Hohner mouth organ, bought for a tanner (2 1/2 pence) saved from the proceeds of a spare-time job in a paper shop, and which he 'sooked and blawed awa at' constantly. Later, for about a year, he took fiddle lessons. But it was the melodeon that exercised a fascination.

As well as his father, his elder brother Dod played well, and determined to equal Dod, Jimmy took every opportunity to have a shot on dad's box, often taking it out into the stairwell outside the family's tenement flat where he got the best sound quality - an aid later endorsed by the Scots singing-songwriting duo Gallagher & Lyle. Music became a constant study as he all but wore out his dad's collection of pre-78rpm cylinders or sat outside the local pub of an evening, listening to the many good local melodeon players entertaining the customers.

By the age of twelve, Shand was entertaining customers of his own, at picnics and parties, already watching people's reactions to what he played and learning about the importance of variety in his repertoire. He was, however, also already painfully aware of being watched himself as he played and would look anywhere but at his audience, a habit that later aroused suspicions of, wrongly, displeasure from fellow musicians and, preposterously because offstage he was perfectly genial, aloofness from unfamiliar audiences.

At fourteen, Shand left school, joined the stream of men heading for Fife's coal pits in the early morning and discovered the appetite for hard work that was to sustain him through his music career. In the evenings and at weekends he played at functions, at first cycling and later when the speed freak in him came out, motorcycling all over Fife, to Stirling and Perthshire for engagements.

This pattern was abruptly halted by the General Strike of 1926, during which Shand raised funds for the miners, who stayed out well beyond the Strike's duration, but after which he sought alternative employment, including navvying and working for his brother's concrete block company.

By now well known locally, in 1934, Shand made the move which really kick-started his musical career in taking up a long-standing job offer from Charles Forbes, the owner of a music shop in Dundee who had marvelled at Shand's prowess while trying out the shop's range of melodeons. As well as a van, which the car-daft Shand was to drive all over the north of Scotland, selling accordions and, less attractively, collecting bad debts, Forbes had connections in London. Having failed an audition for the BBC - because, bizarrely, he kept time with his foot, Shand headed back south uncertainly to make his first recording for Beltona Records.

Before long, the legend "by Shand" had become established on 78rpm record labels and his name a regular on radio schedules, the accordion manufacturers Hohner were making melodeons to Shand's specifications (he was as much an expert on the instrument's internal workings as on its musical propensities), and Shand was appearing in a promo film, shown in cinemas where he was disappointed to see his fingers move in a blur as the sound system played a slow air.

Prevented by a digestive disorder from joining the RAF, he spent the war years with the Fire Service and during this time made a discovery which proved crucial in his playing for dancing - the discipline of set lengths for each dance and the importance of taking his tempo from the best dancer on the floor.

Armed with this knowledge, he formed his first band and instead of playing with whichever pianist was provided, he developed a distinctive ensemble sound of melodeon, accordion, fiddle, piano and drums, later including double bass. The sound they made suggested long hours of dedicated rehearsal and polishing, but as Shand later pointed out, they "just somehow seemed to hit on a way o' playin' Scottish dance music that folk like."

The Jimmy Shand Band made its first New Year broadcast on January 1, 1945 and with the war over it found itself in huge demand, quickly turning full-time and heading out to all points every night of the week. Whatever the journey involved, however - and this was a schedule which might read Inverness one night, London the next - Shand always insisted on driving home afterwards, often at breakneck speed, to his own bed in Dundee. Sometimes the musicians would have barely three hours' sleep before getting up and setting off again, a lifestyle that even hardy rock 'n' rollers, still some way off, might have baulked at.

Unlike the Hello-wooing celebrities of today, though, to whose levels of fame his own, at its height, was not incomparable (he shared a record label and producer, George Martin, with the Beatles in the 1960s), success genuinely never changed Shand. The man who played to thousands in the Royal Albert Hall, and got mobbed for his trouble, would think nothing of visiting an old mining colleague's wife in hospital and playing her a tune to cheer her up on one of the tours of Canada, Australia and New Zealand which became a standard part of his band's itinerary in the late 1950s.

No matter the pressures of work which saw him contemplate escape several times before, in 1972, he finally "retired" (a euphemism because he continued playing regularly for old folks homes, hospitals and charities long afterwards), Shand remained the consummate professional, always on time and utterly unflappable. When he could have settled for week-long engagements in city theatres he insisted on continuing to play small venues in out of the way places for a reduced fee.

Admirers, for Shand, were his bread and butter. He always made time to meet them, sign an autograph or hear "their crack". So much so that he would stay behind for hours after gigs. On one Australian tour, Jimmy Logan watched a local parade of thousands wend its long way down the street and when asked by a friend where he supposed all these people had come from, he replied: "probably from Jimmy Shand's dressing room."

Over the years, Shand's band became something of a Scottish Country Dance Music finishing school, those who passed through on their way to forming their own bands including fiddler Angus Fitchet and accordionists Bert Shorthouse, Jim Johnstone, John Carmichael and Shand's older son, Erskine (who played as Jimmy Shand Jr). And over the years, they became used to Shand's pithy comments.

The most famous Shandism came on one of those rare occasions when the band stopped overnight at a B&B. Arriving for breakfast, Shand picked up one of those tiny jars of honey that such establishments provide and commented to the waitress: "I see you keep a bee."

Shand also hated what he felt was undue fuss. On another Australian visit, the welcome from the capacity audience at Sydney Opera House, before a note was played, was mighty and prolonged. "I wish they'd stop that," he told John Carmichael, "till we get a wee tune going."

All the same, as honours came his way, he had to get used to such embarrassments. To his MBE in 1962, he added, among others, an Honorary Master of Arts degree from Dundee University in 1985, a British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors Gold Badge of Merit in 1996 and - not before time - a knighthood in 1999. Mind you, the man who answered Eamonn Andrews' "Jimmy Shand, This is Your Life" with an unassuming "very nice, thank you" was probably just as chuffed to be given the Freedom of Auchtermuchty in 1974 and to have a locomotive and a horse named after him or to know that he was the inspiration behind the proliferation of Eskimo women melodeon players.

From East Wemyss to Auchtermuchty isn't a great distance, but the miles Jimmy Shand travelled in between will ensure that his name lives on long after his passing.

� 2001 Rob Adamsed

Biography (Courtesy of the Artist's site, 2005).
Sir Jimmy Shand MBE. MA.

James Shand (1908�2000)
was a Scottish musician who played traditional Scottish dance music on the accordion.

Early life
James Shand was born in East Wemyss in Fife, son of a farm ploughman turned miner. One of nine children, they soon moved to the burgh of Auchtermuchty. The town is known as the birthplace of the brothers Charlie and Craig of "The Proclaimers" and now boasts a larger than life-sized sculpture of Shand. His father was a skilled melodeon player. Jimmy started with the mouth organ and soon played the fiddle. At the age of 14 he had to leave school and go down the mines. He played at social events and competitions. His enthusiasm for motor-bikes turned to an advantage when he played for events all round Fife. In 1926 he did benefit gigs for striking miners and was consequently prevented from returning to colliery work. One day Jimmy and a friend were admiring the instruments in the window of Forbes' Music Shop in Dundee. His friend said "It wouldn't cost you to try one". Jimmy walked in and strapped on an accordion. The owner heard Jimmy and immediately offered him a job as travelling salesman and debt-collector. He soon acquired a van and drove all over the north of Scotland. He switched to the chromatic button accordion, an instrument he stuck with for the rest of his file.

Early musical career
Shortly afterwards, he failed an audition for the BBC because he kept time with his foot. At a time when gramophones were very much luxury items he made two records for the Regal Zonophone label in 1933. His career took off when he switched to making 78s for the Beltona label (1935 - 1940). Most of the Beltona recordings were solo, but he experimented with small bands. This boosted sales. He appeared in a promo film shown in cinemas. While the image showed his fingers moving in a blur, Jimmy was disappointed to hear the sound track playing a slow air. He was prevented from joining the RAF by a digestive disorder, and spent the war years in the Fire Service. On new year's morning on 1945 he made his first broadcast with "Jimmy Shand and Band". This was the first of many such BBC radio and television appearances.

Soon after the war he became a full-time musician and adopted a punishing life-style later adopted by rock bands. He would play Inverness one night, London the next night and still drive the van back, at breakneck speed, to bed in Dundee. He took his trade mark bald head, Buddy Holly specs and full kilted regalia, Scottish reels, waltzes, jigs and strathspeys to North America, Australia and New Zealand, including Carnegie Hall in New York. Now on the EMI/ Parlophone label, he released one single per month in the mid fifties, including his only top 20 hit - "The Bluebell Polka" (1955). It was produced by George Martin, who was later to work with the Beatles. He was awarded an MBE in 1962, the same year that he appeared on "Top of the Pops". This period is remembered affectionately by Richard Thompson, who played Shand tunes on "Henry the Human Fly" and "Strict Tempo". In 1972 he went into semi-retirement. From then he played only small venues in out of the way places for a reduced fee. He was made a freeman of Auchtermuchty in 1974, North East Fife in 1980 and Fife in 1998. He became Sir Jimmy Shand in 1999. His portrait is in the Scottish National Gallery , close to Niel Gow. In 1983 he released a retrospective album with the cheeky title "The First 50 years". At the age of 88 he recorded an album and video with his son, "Dancing with the Shands". His signature tune was "Kate Dalrymple".

More than 330 compositions are credited to Jimmy Shand. He recorded more tracks than the Beatles and Elvis Presley combined. In 1985, British Rail named an electric diesel locomotive Jimmy Shand. He was dissatisfied with the chromatic button-key accordions available on the market in the 1940s so he designed his own one. The Hohner company still manufactures the "Shand Morino" to his specifications.

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