Will Starr was a virtuoso accordionist and consummate showman, regarded as “the king” by the likes of the great Jimmy Shand. A button-row player whose prowess is still venerated among today’s accordion fraternity, Starr took the sound of Scotland to international audiences while remaining firmly rooted in his native mining village of Croy, Lanarkshire.
Willie Starrs, to use his family name, was born in Smithston Row in 1922, one of eight children. According to family lore, he was just two years of age when he started toying with an old melodeon belonging to his father, himself an accomplished player, and his first recognisable tune was Poor Old Joe. With his father’s encouragement, the youngster’s innate musicality developed and Will and his singing sister Rosie were soon performing at local events. He was just ten when, in 1932, he won the Scottish Accordion Championship, playing a three-row Franchetti button accordion which, like his later instruments, he modified, substituting his showbiz name “Starr” for the maker’s name on the instrument.
His musical development was further sustained by involvement with Kilsyth Salvation Army and Croy Silver bands, then he was introduced to John Kilpatrick, manager of the Glasgow’s Pavilion Theatre, who helped launch him into a show business career at the age of 14. Initially he performed under the stage name of Ivan Starovisky, but it was as simple Will Starr (dropping the “s” from his family name) that his reputation flourished.
With the advent of the Second World War, Starr became a “Bevin Boy”, as volunteer coal miners in the war effort were known (after Ernest Bevin, then Minister of Labour and National Service). Back on the surface, however, he continued to perform and was approached by Robert Wilson, the famous Scottish tenor, who offered the young Starr a spot, sharing the bill with himself and the comedian Will Fyfe the following Sunday. It earned him £14 – a fortune in those days.
Wilson remained a colleague and friend and in 1948 Starr crossed the Atlantic with him to make the first of 26 North American tours, which would ultimately take in New York’s Carnegie Hall. A ceremonial silver key still hangs in the family home in Croy, a memento of when he was made Honorary Mayor of Chilliwack, in British Columbia, Canada.
Musical influences cited by Starr included the Norwegian five-row button accordionist Toralf Tollefsen, as well as his friend Robert Wilson, for whom he wrote The Robert Wilson Waltz.
As well as his nimble-fingered playing of Scottish traditional songs, popular tunes and pipe music, he was a master of the French bal musette style, spending time in Paris studying it, and employing it in perhaps his most enduring composition, The Jacqueline Waltz. He was also an accomplished classical player – once famously serenading a dumfounded acquaintance with Handel’s Messiah.
A consummate showman with his trademark “kick”, Starr carefully chose his kilts and dress jackets according to venue, while he fitted his black, three-row Hohner Morino with an extravagant fourth row of dummy buttons. He could also be very funny: among his recordings, his only venture into singing was the tongue-in-cheek Croy Hill, giving full vent to his corncrake baritone voice.
As well as his recording and stage career, the latter often with the Royal Clansmen, alongside his friend and manager Ronnie “fastest drummer in Fife” Coburn, he made an early radio appearance on BBC Scotland’s Down at the Mains children’s programme in 1943, and also appeared on such TV shows as The White Heather Club and Calum’s Ceilidh (with singer Calum Kennedy) as well as playing the signature tune for the BBC’s first, highly popular Para Handy series in 1959.
Even at the height of his fame, he remained a notably humble man, still living in his beloved Croy. Ronnie Coburn described him as “a professional’s professional. In all his working years I never heard him once criticise a fellow artiste.”
Like many in show business, Starr had his brush with the bottle, although it never seemed to affect his performances and he quit drinking seven years before his death. Later, in a car accident he sustained a spinal injury, which developed into cancer. He died at home in March 1976. His coffin was escorted from his home by the Croy Silver band, and the dance bandleader Bill Powrie played one of Will’s own accordions at the graveside.
Asked about Starr’s legacy, one accordionist pointed to today’s Scottish accordion club scene: “These people still revere Will’s name and look to him as the benchmark for the playing standard they strive to achieve.”