Obituary: Bill Wilkie, master of Scottish accordion music played for prime ministers and with the stars
Bill Wilkie was widely regarded as one of the great pillars of Scottish accordion music, a master and tireless champion of the instrument, who established the All-Scotland Accordion and Fiddle Festival and was a hugely influential figure in traditional Scottish music.
Wilkie had the ability to pick up an instrument and get a tune out of it, whether it was a harmonica, guitar, melodeon, fiddle or accordion, but it was on the latter that he established his reputation. Although he travelled the world and played to the great and the good, he was a rare breed in that he always returned home to the town he loved, Perth.
Over five decades, he met and played for a number of prime ministers including Edward Heath, Harold Wilson and Alec Douglas-Home as well as Margaret Thatcher. “Maggie Thatcher was doing her walk around and we were playing Over the Rainbow,” he recalled. “She comes up and says, Over the Rainbow? My favourite is, Who’s Taking You Home Tonight? And I remember thinking, ‘It’ll likely be that big detective standing behind you.’”
A good natured, fun-loving man, Wilkie enjoyed many adventures during the Second World War, and his talents brought him to the attention of the famous stage director Ralph Reader, the squadron leader in charge of official entertainment and creator of the Gang Show. He travelled to India and other outposts of the Empire with an ensemble called Just Five.
It was an illustrious group, including Norrie Paramor, whose orchestra became an international success, and a young drummer called Peter Sellers, who later went from Gang Show to Goon Show, with whom Wilkie forged an immediate rapport.
The pair remained firm friends and, although Sellers became a famous Hollywood star, he was regularly reunited with the Scot he affectionately called ‘Tottie Wee’ – both because of Wilkie’s diminutive stature and his penchant for a dram or two of whisky.
Born in Perth in 1922, Bill Wilkie was the youngest of four – a brother and two sisters. His father, who played a traditional fiddle, was a self-employed tailor and his mother was a homemaker, although in the late 1920s, during times of hardship, she worked at a local music shop, Paterson’s, as a caretaker with young Bill occasionally accompanying her; sometimes they sat and listened to the musicians practising in the studios above.
Aged five, his mother gave him his first mouth organ which he took to easily, soon mastering some of his father’s repertoire. Shortly afterwards he had a bicycle accident and hurt his foot, which left him incapacitated over the summer holidays. Unperturbed, he lay in bed listening to the wireless and, remarkably, learned to play all the big band ballroom tunes on the mouth organ.
Wilkie started to develop his enthusiasm for the accordion during the Depression of the 1930s when he borrowed one from a farmer’s son during a Scout camp - it really captured his imagination. Eventually, after much scrimping and saving, his mother bought him a second-hand 48 bass Hohner Verdi I with metal grille and green scroll on the front.
Playing mainly by ear at this stage, with the odd lesson with a music teacher thrown in, Wilkie blossomed and, aged 13, the self-confessed showman and entertainer was constantly organising concerts. His natural ability, nurtured by tutor Dr Edward Sarafin, helped him win the accordion class at the 1938 Dundee Music Festival, aged 16.
Wilkie was already playing with the Perth-based Collegians dance band and was advertised as ‘The band’s latest discovery - Willie Wilkie, 15-year-old piano accordionist playing old-tyme melodies’. He gained a good grounding in correct ballroom dance tempo, which later stood him in good stead.
In 1940, Wilkie was called up into the RAF, completing his initial training at Redcar. Posted to Kinnell, near Friockheim, in Angus, he asked about the possibility of becoming an RAF musician but was told there were no vacancies and in any case, musicians were classed as Group 5, the lowest of the low. He was in as a works hand with chippies, brickies and Irish navvies.
On his first day of service in the RAF, Wilkie was ordered by a burly sergeant to paint a circle of large stones white. He looked aghast and replied, “No way.” That earned him a stern rebuke.
When the bristling sergeant returned later, the youngster had not even opened the paint tin, so he was he marched in front of his commanding officer.
“Well, I could set up a concert party, run your dance band, get the troops singing and what do you do? Give me some stones to paint,” Wilkie told him. “A total waste of manpower!”
The following day, he started as the CO’s clerk. He duly formed a concert party and dance band and, after a brief posting to Aberdeen, returned to Kinnell, then went to Tealing, where he joined that station’s entertainment section as a solo accordionist doing garrison theatre shows. He developed an ambition to arrange for big dance bands.
After joining Reader’s Just Five, Wilkie found himself in India on an exciting and exhilarating but very arduous tour, travelling vast distances in extreme conditions. The group even performed for the Maharajah in the magnificent Chitta Palace.
Wilkie later recalled one eventful evening, “We missed the last transport back to base after a night on the town in Karachi and were walking back in the dark, with Peter (Sellers) recounting spooky stories, when we were suddenly confronted with a mob of the natives wailing and brandishing lighted torches.
“Our hair stood on end, and even more so when we saw a corpse with its head fully exposed. This was too much; we took to our heels, not stopping until we had reached the safety of the camp. How were we supposed to have recognised it was a funeral procession?”
With the war over in Europe, Wilkie returned and joined Gang No.6 to do a tour of France playing at some upmarket venues in Paris, Cannes and elsewhere. The French sojourn was followed by tours of Germany, Belgium and Holland.
Wilkie’s lasting memories were of the horrific devastation in the Ruhr – not a building stood in some areas.
After demobilisation in 1946, Wilkie returned to Perth and married his pre-war sweetheart Ena, an organist in her father’s church, and a local dance band pianist.
He also went back to Paterson’s on ‘instrument’ sales. He eventually formed his own dance band and accordion orchestra the Bill Wilkie Dance Band.
The couple established a teaching studio at home and, in 1949, ‘Mr Music’, as he was known, founded the inaugural All-Scotland Accordion & Fiddle Festival with the invaluable help of his wife.
In 1959, Wilkie transformed a former cobblers’ shop in Perth into Wilkie’s Music House, which buzzed with activity and greeted many luminaries throughout the next half century. Phil Cunningham, a fellow accordion player, recalled it being an Aladdin’s cave for youngsters.
Ena died in 2003. Wilkie is survived by his daughter, and grandchildren Sharon, Stephen and Richard, who plays drums with Snow Patrol and the Scottish rock band Belle and Sebastian.
Wilkie described his life “as one big adventure, with a fair bit of misadventure thrown in.”