Few musicians’ names become interchangeable with the style of music they play in the way that Jimmy Shand came to define Scottish Country Dance music to the broader audience.
For countless numbers of people across the world, the sound of an accordion playing Scottish music instantly registered the Shand legend and for decades no Scottish New Year was complete without Jimmy’s signature tune, The Bluebell Polka.
Born on January 28, 1908, in the Fife coal-mining village of East Wemyss, Jimmy inherited his love of music from his box-playing father, Erskine. The button-keyed accordion was popular around the village and Jimmy regularly heard its sounds coming out of local pubs and houses as well as watching his dad and older brother, Dod, play.
Determined to equal Dod’s ability, Jimmy took every opportunity to play their dad’s accordion, often taking it into the stairwell outside the family’s tenement flat where he found the best sound quality. He also listened avidly to Erskine’s cylinder collection – the forerunner of 78rpm records – learning tunes and picking up subtleties of phrasing.
By the age of twelve Jimmy was entertaining audiences at picnics and parties and when he left school at fourteen to work in the mines, he began cycling and later motorcycling all over Fife, to Stirling and Perthshire to engagements.
In 1934, Jimmy took up a long-standing job offer from a music shop owner in Dundee as a salesman. This proved significant as his new boss, Charles Forbes, had music business connections in London. Soon afterwards, Jimmy made his first recording for Beltona Records.
Even the Second World War didn’t hamper Jimmy’s progress. He served the war years with the Fire Service and formed his first band, developing a distinctive ensemble sound of two accordions, fiddle, piano, and drums, later adding double bass.
The Jimmy Shand Band made its first New Year broadcast on January 1, 1945 and with the war over it found itself in huge demand, turning professional and keeping up a hectic schedule of gigs, radio broadcasts and recording sessions.
The records that singer-songwriter Richard Thompson memorably celebrated in his song, Don’t Sit on My Jimmy Shands, sold in vast quantities and in time Jimmy didn’t just share a record company with The Beatles – their record sales vied for top place on the charts too.
Success genuinely never changed Jimmy, though. A naturally shy man, he never smiled onstage. But he always made time after gigs to sign autographs and would stay for hours chatting to fans backstage.
He received many honours over the years. To his MBE in 1962 was added, among others, an honorary Master of Arts degree from Dundee University in 1985, a British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors gold badge of merit in 1996, and a knighthood in 1999. Yet as far as Sir Jimmy Shand was concerned, he was just a box player. His legions of admirers know that he was much more than that.