Biography (Courtesy of The Box & Fiddle, by Charlie Todd, 2001).
Will Starr 1922-1976
‘The Daddy of Them All’
Having just lost the nation’s greatest exponent of the 3 row British Chromatic ever to grace the bandstand it was recently drawn to my attention by Jimmy Divers from Cleland, Wishaw that 6th March 2001 marked the 25th Anniversary of the death of the greatest 3-row player ever to grace the theatre stage – the legendary Will Starr.
I recall Derek Hamilton saying that it was the untimely death of Will on 6th March 1976 which prompted the NAAFC to start honouring notable musicians while they were still with us, and much valuable work has been done since then, but by then it was too late for the man of whom enthusiasts say to this day “once heard, never forgotten”.
He was born William Starrs in Smithstone Row in the small Dunbartonshire mining village of Croy on April 27th, 1922. His father, Joseph, played the melodeon and Will was only three years old when he too developed an interest.
Will was second eldest son in a family of five girls and three boys and it was along with his sister Rose, at the age of nine, that he started off on the road to success. At the small “go-as-you-please” village talent competitions of the time Will played the melodeon and Rose sang. These competitions were one of the highlights of the year for the host community and would attract competitors and large audiences from surrounding districts and beyond.
Will was one such competitor but he stood apart from the start because of his exceptional talent. Jimmy Divers learned from a friend of Will that although not a participant he picked up additional musical knowledge by attending and listening to Salvation Army Band practices in Kilsyth. His expertise was recognised when he was allowed to leave school a year early, at the age of thirteen, to pursue a career as a professional musician and bring in some much needed additional income for the family in those difficult times. His debut was made (wearing a velvet suit with silver buttons) at the old Glasgow Empress Theatre.
When war broke out in 1939 it was not the Forces that beckoned but the local mines where in time he became a “Bevin Boy” at Gartshore coal mine. However he did not neglect his music-making and it was during the war that he met Robert Wilson, the man who was to set him on the road to nationwide acclaim and stardom. Opinions vary as to the venue of that first meeting – it was either Dunoon or The Central Hotel in Glasgow. Robert invited Will to play the following Sunday at a cinema in Forfar and such was his impact that he was asked to join the White Heather Group.
Will cut his first 78 single for Parlophone in the 1940s on a Stradella Cooperativa. It was an own composition in a Continental waltz style and at that point in time was unnamed. Asked what it was to be called Will settled for the name of his current girlfriend and the unforgettable “Jacqueline Waltz” entered the Scottish Dance music repertoire. It was the first of two dozen 78s he released on that label and about ten LPs on the Thistle and Pye labels.
It was on tour with Robert Wilson’s White Heather Group that most people first came into contact with the strikingly handsome, clean-cut young Will Starr. Immaculately dressed the kilt or occasionally trews for his many stage appearances he created the image remembered today. Bearing in mind that his music was entirely unaccompanied, Will was still able to captivate both musicians and non-musicians alike with his blistering performances on what had previously been seen only as the humble melodeon.
Another notable feature for the time was that his performances consisted not only of Scottish melodies but dazzling Continental pieces by composers such as Peguri, Vacher and Peyronnin being heard live for the first time such as Four Accordion Solos As Played by Will Starr and published by J. S. Kerr in 1959 namely “Rhein de Musette”, “Les Triolets”, “Martelette” and “Bourrasque”.
Let’s hear though from someone who actually witnessed Will in action, Accordion Club regular and Starr enthusiast Jimmy Divers – “I first heard Will Starr around 1945/6 when I was at the tender age of sixteen. When the word came that the White Heather Group were appearing at a concert in the local Parochial Hall there was a scramble for tickets. Most people were interested in Robert Wilson or Jack Radcliffe but since my father played a 2-row, and my brother a 5-row, our interest lay farther down the bill. An uncle, who also played the 2-row and the dulcimer, had heard Will Starr in The Metropole and The Pavilion and told us not to miss him.
That night he had two spots, each lasting approximately fifteen minutes. His first spot consisted of a set of jigs, ‘The Cuckoo Waltz’, ‘Standchen’ and ‘The Martelette Polka’ and in the second he played ‘The Hills of Perth’, ‘The Jacqueline Waltz’, ‘The Last Post’ and finished with a set of hornpipes, which included ‘The Johnston Hornpipe’, ‘The High Level’ and ‘Harvest Home’.
To say that he was well received would be an understatement. His handling of the 3-row Franchitti was superb. Here was a diatonic player playing solo with a punch and flair not surpassed by any of the multi-couplered single action accordionists of his time.
As any diatonic player will attest, it is very difficult to play forcefully and retain control of the instrument. This was obviously not a problem to Will Starr. His control of the bellows, the air-bar and the keyboard was absolute. He was also the first I ever heard playing Musette Waltzes and Polkas.
After that first concert I was firmly hooked by the music of Will Starr. I heard him perform many times and never left disappointed. He played with such ‘lift’ and verve that you felt compelled to march or dance to the music. I have heard the phrase ‘it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck’ used and abused many times about much lesser mortals but if you want to really experience that feeling then listen to Will Starr playing ‘The Harvest Home Hornpipe’ or ‘The Martelette Polka’ to name just two examples of his outstanding playing. His last record had, for me, the most appropriate of titles The Daddy of Them All.”
As a matter of interest, Jimmy tells me that Franchitti accordions were made in Glasgow and that Will probably developed his interest in Continental music from the 78s of Emily Vacher, a French diatonic accordionist who had lost his left hand in a road accident and who recorded with banjo accompaniment.
It was in 1948 that the Group headed for Toronto in Canada. Their concert was a sell out and the audiences just wouldn’t let them off stage. This date was their only one at that time but word got round, which in turn led to regular tours of Canada and America with South Africa and Hong Kong sometimes thrown in for good measure.
One of his proudest moments was when he was presented with the freedom of Chilliwack in British Columbia during a tour in 1952. He had been asked to attend a civic dinner with other performers from the tour but knew nothing of the honour he was about to receive which created him “Honorary Mayor of Chilliwack”
With the death of Robert Wilson in 1963 following a road accident, Will had to move in new directions. The Royal Clansmen came into being after a spot in a show in Perth Theatre, which led to an opportunity for the group to appear on an episode of “Calum’s Ceilidh” with Calum Kennedy.
The Royal Clansmen
The Royal Clansmen, in turn, were given a show of their own on Grampian TV, which ran for four series and scored highly in the audience popularity ratings. Members of the group, at various times, will include many names well known to readers. They were Will, Alec Finlay, Arthur Spink, Dennis Clancy, George Hill, Billy Leslie, John Crawford, Joss Esplin, Blanche McInnes, Billy Marshall, Ronnie Coburn, Grant Fraser and Joe McBride.
By 1965 Will’s act was taking a new slant as he acted as feed man to Alec Finlay in comedy routines. He had a rather unique voice rather well suited to comedy. He also had a “peculiar” singing voice and this was always good for a laugh when he sang with the Clansmen. Earlier he had made a record for Parlophone singing a song called “Croy Hill”. This is an experience not to be missed if you ever get a chance to hear it.
Will’s last appearance on stage was at the Adam Smith Centre in Kirkcaldy in the summer of 1975 and his last TV appearance was on Grampian’s Hogmanay Show of 1975/6. By then he was seriously ill and his last remaining months were spent at his home in Croy. Despite having travelled the world he had always returned to his home village.
Ronnie Coburn, Will’s manager, fellow artiste and close personal friend says of Will “He was a professional’s professional and in all his working years I never heard him once criticise a fellow artiste – in fact he went out of his way to help and advise any newcomer to the world of showbusiness”. Such a case in point was the then young accordionist from Coatbridge, Billy Marshall.
Will’s funeral on March 10th 1976 was an enormous affair as befitted a man who had contributed so much to Scottish Dance music and to Croy. The funeral cortege, with most of the mourners on foot, stretched for over a mile as it covered the distance between Croy and Kilsyth Cemetery. At the graveside the honour of playing Will’s favourite tune “The Mist covered Mountains”, on Will’s own black Shand Morino, fell to Bill Powrie.
Will’s two black Shand Morinos recently re-entered the music scene when sisters Rose and Teresa decided to sell. The 4-row version with the “dummy” row resides in the huge collection of Northern Ireland’s very own Ken Hopkins while the 3-row is now in the very capable playing hands of Jim MacKay from Inverness. Both of these accordions got an airing at the Button-key Shand Morino Day at the end of January.
My thanks to Ronnie Coburn, who is about to embark on his 41st tour of Canada with “The Breath of Scotland”, and Jimmy Divers for their assistance with information.
Twenty five years have now elapsed since Will’s death yet his memory remains as strong as ever, and will do I am quite sure, for as long as Scottish Dance music is played and enjoyed.
You can listen to short samples from some of the tracks from this artist using the player below.
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