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Peerie Willie Johnson

'Peerie' Willie Johnson was undoubtedly one of Shetlands most revered and well-known musicians, unquestionably one of the islands finest and most original guitarists, and it would not be overplaying the statement to say that he was recognised as such the world over.

Willie died on the 22nd May 2007 in Lerwick.

Musical Beginnings

Peerie Wille Johnson and his good friend Martin TaylorPeerie Wille Johnson and his good friend Martin Taylor

Willie was born in 'The Herra' on the Shetland island of Yell in 1920. His first real taste of self-made music came about under somewhat unusual circumstances. While still very young he became seriously ill - "nearly snuffed it" - as Willie eloquently puts it. This necessitated him remaining indoors, mostly confined to bed, for a period of some nine months.

While confined in this manner, Willie turned to reading and listening to the radio to relieve the boredom. His choice of listening was normally American forces radio, programmes that nurtured his life long love affair with jazz.

One day, while thumbing through a Sunday paper, he came across a western story. The illustration with the article showed a cowboy playing a ukulele, and also gave some examples of the instruments chording. Willie knew right away that he wanted to try this out, to further relieve the boredom of ongoing ill health if nothing else.

His mother bought him a ukulele for "ten bob - a lot of money in those days" as Willie put it. During his enforced confinement he taught himself to play the instrument, soon progressing to the guitar. The legend had begun.

First Band

He joined his first local band at the age of 14. In 1936 a chance meeting in a local music store was to lead to a lifetime of music, mostly accompanying one of Shetland's most famous fiddlers - Dr Tom Anderson - who immediately suggested that Willie join his band.

Peerie Willie and Tom AndersonTom Anderson & Peerie Willie

Willie could never be termed a mere carbon copy guitarist. He loved listening to jazz, especially the great gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. Willie emulated his style, soon realising that the chording and style of swing jazz could equally be applied, to local traditional music accompaniment. This was a highly original approach at the time, and remains so to this day.

During another search through a national newspaper, Willie saw an advert for a music book "Every Known Guitar Chord" by an eminent guitarist of the day. Excitedly he sent for the book hoping to further expand his knowledge. "I waited weeks for it to arrive, and when it did I wis hellish disappointed" Willie said. "It certainly wisna as good as it said it wis. I already knew all the chords in the book, so I added a few they had missed oot and sent it back to dem" he modestly admits.

War Breaks...

But war intervened and he joined the RAF, being posted to Sullom Voe in Shetland which, at that time, acted as a base for 'Catalina' flying boats carrying out raids on occupied Norway and sub hunting duties in the northern North Sea. Willie was part of the ground crew detailed to service the aircraft.

While stationed there he encountered several professional, and quite well known, jazz musicians. Willie joined their RAF band, playing at local dances and honing his jazz techniques and his love of the genre still further.

London

At the end of the war he was 'demobbed' and headed for London, once again contacting some of the musicians he had met and performed with during the war. Inevitably he was asked to join one of the bands and, for some time, made his living performing with them in and around the capital.

But he was soon to return to Shetland, renewing his musical liaison with Tom Anderson among others and becoming a founder member of Tom's new Islesburgh Dance Band in 1949. Throughout the following years Tom and Willie found themselves much in demand, carrying Shetland traditional music to local, national and international stages.

In 1958 Willie, together with local fiddle legend Willie Hunter, recorded an album for the BBC in Abbey Road Studios while in London to perform at the Royal Festival Hall. This was, of course, the same Abbey Road studios that would later become legendary due to the patronisation of a group called 'The Beatles' "The second half of the album is much better than the first" Willie observes. Why is that? "Well du sees during the recording interval they sent out for wis a bottle o whiskey" Willie chortles.

Willie and Tom were much sought after at many prestigious events such as the Edinburgh Festival, where they were regulars for an unprecedented period from 1973-1980. Their music also proved to be a passport to world travel, visiting the USA, Canada, Alaska, Norway and Switzerland, to name but a few. "Oh, and I wis a couple of times in Bressay" Willie joked. Bressay being a local island about 1 mile from his home-town of Lerwick.

America

Strangely, while on one visit to America he actually found himself performing live on one of the very radio stations that he had listened to as a young man, and where he had originally "learned his trade from", so many years earlier. "A kinda strange experience" as he put it himself.

But Willie's talents were also well known to another Shetland fiddle ambassador, none other than Aly Bain. Together with local piano virtuoso Violet Tulloch, Aly invited Willie to accompany him on several national tours and international dates, not to mention several high profile television productions - a far cry from his 'ten-bob' ukulele.

Davie Gardner and Peerie WillieDavie Gardner presents Willie with his Hall of Fame trophy.

In recognition of his abilities and contribution to the islands music and international profile, Shetland Arts named their inaugural Guitar Festival 2005 after him and it will now carry his name on an annual basis. This first festival featured a number of internationally renowned guitarists including Martin Taylor, who is now patron of the 'Peerie Willie Guitar Festival.

In December 2005 Willie was again nationally recognised, being an inaugural inductee into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame. "Whit way wid they want me in that?" Willie, modest as always, asked when told of the honour. I think the rest of us know exactly why.

'Peerie Willie Johnson' will live forever as a true ambassador for Shetland and its music.

Willie's World

In November 2007 an album of recordings of Willie entitled 'Willie's World' was released. The CD features tracks taken from various sources including albums by other artists on which he played and informal home recordings, and includes insightful sleeve notes written by his sister Evelyn.

Musicians appearing alongside Willie on these recordings include Billy Kay, Drew Robertson, Norman Goudie, Harris Playfair, Jimmy Elliot, Nathan Leask, George Manson, Frankie Sinclair, Willie Hunter, Ron Mathewson, Harold Mathewson, Aly Bain and Debbie Scott.

Click here for more information and samples of the recordings on 'Willie's World'

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