Wick-born fiddler, accordionist and guitarist Addie Harper Junior was brought up surrounded by music, since leading a prolific career as a performer, record producer and tutor.
He started on the mouth organ, performing his first concert at the Tannach school aged five years old. Following in his father’s footsteps, shortly after he began violin lessons with Margaret Henderson, a highly respected local tutor.
Young Addie took to the violin, progressing quickly, but his one downfall was reading sheet music. For the first five years or so he would ask Miss Henderson to play sections of the music, pick it up quickly by ear and then imitate her. His ruse was foiled one day though when she played him a different tune to what was on the score. As Addie said, “then the whole world turned against me!”
From this day he started learning to read music as well as playing by ear!
Addie’s father – Addie Harper Senior was also a musician, who for many years led The Wick Scottish Dance Band, latterly forming Addie Harper and the Wick Band which would feature Addie Jnr and his mother Isobel on accordion and piano respectively.
For The Wick Scottish Dance Band’s 1975 release Northern Stars, Addie Snr put together a group called The Wick Fiddlers. The fiddlers were to feature on a track on the album with a guest appearance by Sir Jimmy Shand. Aged eleven at the time, being included as part of the group was a real motivation for Addie Jnr to keep practicing.
His hard work at the fiddle was paying off in other ways too. Young Addie began entering competitions and seeing some results. One such win came at the same time as one by another young musician from Cooper Angus musician – accordionist Gordon Pattullo. Together, they did a turn on another of the Wick Scottish Dance Band’s records Northern Welcome, released in 1976, with Addie on fiddle, Gordon on first accordion, and Stuart Anderson on second accordion.
The following year, Addie and Gordon went on to make an album together – The Young Traditionals, which released when they were aged thirteen and fifteen respectively. On its fortieth anniversary in 2017, the album was re-released on CD. They’ve got seven years now until the fiftieth anniversary, for which they have been talking about making a new recording.
At the age of eleven, Addie also took up the accordion, in part inspired by knowing and playing music with Gordon.
John Carmichael (Accordion) and Duncan Findlay (Guitar) playing were also big influences, in those early days Addie would listen to and play along with their records. Of course, being around his dad and the musicians in The Wick Band helped too, getting pointers from Eann Nicolson, and Bobby Coghill.
The regular cast of musical visitors to the Harper household were always on hand to provide tips and advice too. Addie recalled one night where he and fellow Wick fiddle player – Gordon Gunn had planned to head out for a game of snooker. On leaving the house, they ran into Sir Jimmy Shand on his way in to see Addie Snr. They elected to stay, and ended up playing tunes with him. A similar occurrence happened with Bobby MacLeod, who ended up giving Addie Jnr a number of useful pointers on a tune he was having difficulty with.
When talking about his upbringing in music, Addie is incredibly gracious, ever keen to thank all of those who have helped him along the way.
His first solo album was made in 1990: A Change from the Box (Scottish music played on guitar). The lineup featuring himself, his mum Isobel on piano, Lucien Desharnais on pedal steel, Gordon Gunn on Mandolin and John Hunter on Drums.
Addie’s work as a recording engineer is almost as prolific as what he’s done as a musician. He worked for Grampian Records for a time, before going on to make recordings for Harp Records from 1986, some work for Ross Records and various other labels, as well as musicians: Gordon Gunn, Daniel McPhee, Ruaridh MacLean, Roya MacLean, Alexander MacKenzie, and a host of others. He first became interested in recording because of the ability to layer up multiple tracks – a great thing for a multi-instrumentalist to create a full sound on their own, or with one or two others.
He’s since come full circle though, coming to enjoy most recording a well rehearsed band playing naturally, “as live”.
Around twenty years ago, Addie recorded David Bowen’s Sounds of the Old Morino, with David Bowen on accordion, Dennis Morrison on Piano and 2nd accordion, and Billy Thom on drums. Billy at the time was one of the most in-demand drummers in the country, having played on over three hundred albums. Billy and Addie were out for a drink one night when Addie asked Billy how he’d ended up having such a prolific career.
Billy gave three reasons. One: “You need the confidence to go out there and do it”, two: “If you play an accompanying instrument, you must do your best to make whoever you’re playing with sound better – it’s not about you”. Of the third reason, he said: “If Elvis asked you to do a gig, you wouldn’t hesitate about whether you were capable of doing it – if you did you’d lose the gig. So you just have to say yes and get on with it”.
This is advice that Addie took to heart, and has put in to practice throughout his career. Last year, he did a count and realised that he’s regularly involved with thirteen different bands and outfits, as well as many more which have come and gone over the years. None of which Addie would hasten to add, have ended acrimoniously, saying: “I would happily go back and play again with anyone I’ve played with over the years”.
A fixture in Addie’s life for the past twenty years has been his work with Fergie MacDonald – producing and recording around ten of his albums, as well as playing accordion in his band. He’s full of praise for the ceilidh king: “A musician always wonders what others do that you yourself might not. When recording Fergie, part of my job is to make guide tracks for everyone else to play to. Getting to listen to Fergie’s playing up close like this… he’s got so much life and snap in how he plays”.
No overview of Addie’s career would be complete without mention of his work as a teacher. He has always had a group of pupils, on accordion, fiddle, guitar, and sometimes piano. Seeing them improve and progress, “leaving the nest” so to speak, is a source of great satisfaction.
One such pupil was Richard Smith, Addie said: “I taught Richard one of my own tunes called Waterfall 99. I’d recorded it live in Kelso with the Ian MacPhail band for an album put together by Jimmy Clinkscale in 1981”. Many years later I gave the tune to Richard on the piano, who worked it up and sent me this great video of him playing it. I showed it to my mum, who said it was the best version of it she’d ever heard!”
He talks with great pride about many of his pupils, a number of whom have since gone on to join him to play gigs around the country. Addie was also very keen to include a huge thank-you to the Fèisean movement for providing such great opportunities.
On hearing the news of his induction to the Hall of Fame, Addie remarked “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It’s been a difficult year all round, and the news was certainly a bit of a boost!” For a musician as modest as he is talented, the recognition is very well deserved.