The career of East Lothian accordionist Jim Johnstone stands as a landmark bridge between today’s Scottish music and the dance-band heyday of the 1940s to the 1960s. The latter is an era whose importance is sometimes overlooked nowadays, outwith box-and-fiddle circles, but which saw Scottish musicians playing to stadium-sized crowds around the world, and reaching audiences in their tens of millions via some of the period’s most popular radio and television programmes.
Born in Tranent, Jim grew up surrounded by accordion music: his father and three uncles were all noted players, regularly performing on radio before and after World War II. Jim himself began taking lessons aged nine, initially with another local hero, Bobby Anderson – himself a former pupil of the revered Peter Leatham – and then with Leatham’s daughter Chrissie, a guiding influence on Jim’s playing throughout much of his career. A rigorous technical grounding in the light-classical repertoire of Frosini and his peers was complemented by a diet of folk music at home, with Jim’s exceptional talents gaining early recognition when he appeared on Children’s Hour in 1950, aged thirteen. Within a couple of years, he’d formed his first band, featuring his lifelong friend and colleague Bobby Colgan on drums, initially picking up the odd gig his dad wasn’t able to play, but soon beginning to make a name in their own right.
After the interruption of National Service (a minimal hiatus, given the amount of time he spent playing for officers’ dances), Jim worked with the family band for several years, afterwards briefly joining the illustrious outfit then led by Andrew Rankine – also featuring the likes of Billy Thom and Ron Gonella – before reconvening his own line-up in 1963.
Two years later, Jim joined the hallowed company of Jimmy Shand’s band, accompanying Scotland’s greatest ever accordionist on his historic tours of Australia and New Zealand. This was followed by an 18-month stint playing alongside Jimmy Blue, after which Jim finally stepped up to centre-stage himself, as leader of the White Heather Club band, playing up to six nights a week in the touring version of the hugely popular BBC television series. During the 1970s, Jim frequently graced the small screen himself, as a regular guest on the long-running Songs of Scotland. In more recent years, his celebrated summer shows at Edinburgh’s King James Hotel not only became a magnet for visitors to Scotland, but offered an invaluable apprenticeship to numerous up-and-coming players.
While aficionados still luxuriate in the outstanding technical sophistication and intricate subtleties to be heard on Jim’s recordings, his own musical credo remained simple: “Above all, always play for your audience.” Together with his formidable musicianship, it’s this essentially giving attitude – also reflected in his willingness to share his secrets with younger players – that will see us dancing to Jim’s tune for many a year to come.
Jim passed away in 2008.