Sometimes known as “the provost of Forgandenny”, referring to the Perthshire village he made his home, Jimmy Blue became a household name and an international performer as a Scottish dance band musician, his button accordion prowess taking him from rural halls, through widespread theatre and television work with Andy Stewart to playing before audiences of thousands in New York’s Carnegie Hall and Sydney Opera House.
As a contemporary observed some years ago, meeting the snappily dressed Blue in the street, complete with briefcase, you’d be hard put to realise that he was a world-class accordionist – or that he had driven a pair of Clydesdale plough horses during his younger days.
Born in 1929 in Newton Mearns, Glasgow, Jimmy spent much of his youth in Clynder, Dunbartonshire, where his father worked for a period as a gardener for Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, at Roseneath Castle. He was inspired to take up accordion by seeing the legendary Will Starr playing in Helensburgh. After dabbling briefly with the piano accordion, he shifted to the button key instrument, his interest further fostered by a family of button row players who had moved in next door.
By this time Jimmy, having left school at 14, was working as a ploughman. His neighbour, Bob Dalrymple, got hold of a melodeon for him, following that up with a well-used two-row 36 bass L’Organola. Working from printed tutors, he taught himself to play the instrument, as well as to read music, and joined the band run by the Dalrymples.
In 1949, his father was looking for more lucrative work and was swithering between two possible jobs, one at Gatehouse of Fleet, the other at Dunning, Perthshire. Jimmy persuaded the family to move to the latter, as it would take him nearer his dance band heroes such as Jimmy Shand and Ian Powrie. The move would more than fulfil his ambitions. Working on local farms, he soon gained a reputation for his playing and met another young accordionist, Mickey Ainsworth, with whom he teamed up, the duo becoming semi-professional, recording and broadcasting on BBC radio – everything from Children’s Hour to the Overseas Service.
Mickey also played with Bill Wilkie’s Accordion Orchestra in Perth – whose pianist, Joan McNeill, would become Jimmy’s wife. In the meantime, Jimmy won the Scottish championship – the Jimmy Shand Shield – in 1950 and 1952 and the great fiddler Ian Powrie asked him to join his band as lead accordionist.
Jimmy and Joan married in 1955 and settled in Forgandenny, with Jimmy juggling tractor driving and his music career, not to mention becoming a keen gardener, helping to revive the Forgandenny Village Show.
The Sixties saw the Powrie Band appearing regularly in the White Heather Club on TV, and when Andy Stewart asked them to do a season at the Empire Theatre in Glasgow in 1961, the start of a longstanding relationship between Stewart and the band, Jimmy made the decision to go professional. Now with Jimmy’s old partner Mickey Ainsworth in their ranks, the Powrie band toured internationally, while, back at home, the Andy Stewart Show broke all box office records at HM Theatre, Aberdeen, and Andy and Jimmy struck up a firm relationship, doing summer seasons there until 1976 (and becoming regular golfing partners offstage).
In 1966 Powrie emigrated to Australia, and Jimmy adopted the band under his own name, continuing with extensive tours of North America, Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia and South Africa, as well as a residency with Andy Stewart’s STV series Scotch Corner. Various permutations included Jim Johnstone, Davie Stewart and Jimmy Cassidy sharing second accordion duties, Ronnie Kerr or Angus Fitchet on fiddle, Bobby Colgan or Dave Blyth on drums and Pam Brough or Joan Blue on piano.
The new band released the album Jimmy Blue’s Welcome to Scotland in 1969, to considerable acclaim. That year also saw them play their most unusual engagement, in the film Country Dance (later retitled Brotherly Love), starring Peter O’Toole and Susannah York, which involved them recording the music for the dance sequences at Shepperton Studios, then miming to their own playing on the set at Tinakilly House, in Co, Wicklow, Ireland. When Jimmy and Joan attended the premiere in Edinburgh, they found that a tune Jimmy had written, Bonnie Lass of Scotland, had been orchestrated and also used in the score.
Though not as prolific a composer as some of his contemporaries, Jimmy wrote some fine tunes, not least for Andy Stewart’s songs, as well as strathspeys, polkas and pipe marches such as Ian Powrie’s Farewell to Scotland.
In the late Seventies, wearying of the overseas touring, Jimmy returned to the land, taking up a job as head gardener at Kilgraston School near Forgandenny, while continuing to play in a semi-professional capacity. His wife, Joan, recalls: “Seeing him mowing the lawns at Kilgraston School one day, I thought to myself that the girls had no idea that their gardener had played solo accordion in Carnegie Hall and Sydney Opera House and Stadium, and had driven through the bush in South Africa, having played concerts from Johannesburg to Pretoria.”
In 1970, he established an accordion and fiddle club in Perth and, as similar clubs sprang up across the country, proposed the formation of an umbrella organisation, and the National Association of Accordion and Fiddle Clubs came into being, with Jimmy chairing it for 19 years.
Fifteen years after his death in 1999, the association continues to flourish, bringing on new generations of fine players.