From their first BBC broadcast in 1957, to their last in 2008, John Ellis and his Highland Country Band made their own small piece of history as the longest serving broadcasting Scottish Dance Band.
John Ellis was born and brought up at the foot of the Sidlaw hills, just North of Dundee. It would’ve been a musical house – his father and uncle both fiddle players, his mother a cousin of the legendary fiddler Angus Fitchet. He grew up in the time of Jimmy Shand, so despite being surrounded by the fiddle, Ellis’s early aspirations lay towards the accordion. By his 14th birthday he’d come round to the idea and was given a fiddle, taking the first lessons with his uncle using a Honeymoon self-tutor book.
In his twenties, he was summoned to the London war office to complete his national service. At the time, London had quite the Scottish Dance Band scene, one he quickly found himself part of.
Ellis went out one night to hear The Donnie McBain Band. But before the dance could start, Donnie McBain came up and asked him where his fiddle was – word had gotten round that he was a musician, and his band were down a member. McBain took Ellis back to his digs, retrieved the fiddle, and he became a member of the band for the next two years. Their gigs took them all over England, including to the BBC, where in 1954 the Donnie McBain Band recorded a TV broadcast. Back in Scotland, the whole village crowded round two TVs, delighted to see their local hero on the big screen.
Whilst in London, Ellis explored another musical interest – the saxophone – taking lessons from Harry Hayes, who’s other pupils included Ronnie Scott. His progress was hampered by the difficulty of finding a place to practice, but he found solutions which included stuffing socks into the bell of the saxophone, and practicing whilst his colleagues in the 15th floor office went for lunch. He was quickly ordered to cease the lunchtime practice when the noise flooding down to the street was found to be drawing attention to the war office, and presenting a risk to national security!
His national service came to an end in 1955. On returning to Scotland, Ellis was immediately asked to join two different bands. Struggling with the decision, he asked Jimmy Shand for advice. Shand responded “Start your own one”. So began John Ellis and his Highland Country Band. For the next fifty years, the band became a fixture on the Scottish dance band scene.
The band released their first self-titled album in 1968 with CBS. Many releases would follow, and be enjoyed by fans all over the world, through labels including Emerald Gem, Polydor, and Lismore. They travelled the world to play live, including welcoming the Millennium with a dance in Vancouver.
Over the years, the band’s lineup included: Arlene McLeay (piano), Johnny Philip (fiddle), John Ellis (fiddle), Aileen Simpson McIntosh (accordion) and Sandy Ford (drums), Irene Dear (accordion), Jimmy Boal (accordion), Jean Dowell (piano), Doug Proctor (bass), Douglas Muir (accordion), George Boath (drums), and Chick Bonnar (piano).
After a time, the front line settled, with Ellis on fiddle, Douglas Muir on lead accordion, and Irene Dear on second accordion. It was this combination that led to the definitive sound that saw the many successes of the band.
These three also handled the practicalities of running the band. Muir responsible for researching material and putting together arrangements, and Dear organising bookings and setlists for dances.
Having achieved such stalwart status didn’t deter the band from continuing to develop. On putting together new material, Ellis once remarked: “We like researching new material. I think that broadcasting bands have a duty to keep the standard up”.
Ellis’s approach to the music was straightforward, keeping it simple and tight. He cited his musical influences as including the bands of Jimmy Shand, Ian Powrie, Jim Cameron, Ian Downie, and Bobby MacLeod – a veritable who’s who of Scottish Dance Bands. Over their time together, his own band earned their place amongst these names. Writing for the Box and Fiddle Magazine, Derek Hamilton said: “They, indeed, have almost become the standard by which everyone else is judged… So meticulous and tidy, light and lively, and more than anything, accurate”.
Not that such matters concerned them. Reflecting on their years together, John Ellis said:
“Commercialism was never in our minds, making good music was all that really mattered to us. Everyone had a part to play in the band…. It was a happy band”.