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Thomas Fraser (1927 - 1978)

The story of Thomas Fraser is probably one of the most remarkable in Shetland's long musical history.

Thomas FraserThomas Fraser

Born in 1927 Thomas made his living as a fisherman, working his own boat from the small island of Burra on Shetland's west coast, mainly during the 1950's and 60's. When Thomas was not working his other great passion was music, especially country music and blues, and he owned a very impressive record collection, much of which was 'imported' - with his favourites being the songs of the 'Singing Brakeman' Jimmy Rodgers.

But Thomas not only enjoyed listening to music he also enjoyed performing the songs he loved (he possessed a quite remarkable and unique singing voice) and was also a more than capable guitar, fiddle and mandolin player. Harnessing this talent he played and sang with a number of local bands and was incredibly popular in many of the local Shetland country halls at the time.

He also possessed one of the very first 'reel-to-reel' tape recorders in Shetland, and using this he recorded himself performing literally thousands of the songs and tunes he loved. This was of course done primarily for his own interest and entertainment, most certainly not with any commercial, or possibly even historical connotation in mind.

A number of these recordings were done in the company of local musical acquaintances who would regularly visit him at the family home at Setter on Burra Isle, purely to take part in social music making and to trade tunes and songs. Thomas young daughter May would also participate in, and even feature on, some of the recordings and, perhaps more importantly, witness many of the musical sessions in the family home, something that inevitably had a profound musical effect on her - but more of this later.

Musical acquaintance Arthur Pottinger laughed as he recalled that "Many of the recordings were undertaken in the bathroom of the family home for acoustic purposes, with a single microphone vertically suspended from the light-fitting with us gathered around it".

His nephew Bobby also recalled that Thomas would occasionally record two separate tracks of instruments, or even backing vocals, then re-run the recordings together - an early attempt at over-dubbing.

Little did Thomas know at the time that he was making these recordings, more or less for fun, that they would ultimately create, or even unleash, something he could never have imagined in his widest dreams.

In 1978 Thomas died at the relatively young age of 50, and his collection of home recorded tapes were passed to his nephew Bobby for safe keeping. There they lay for around 25 years, literally gathering dust and inevitably slowly deteriorating until Thomas grandson Karl Simpson started to diligently go through them with a view to committing the collection to CD, initially simply to ensure his grandfathers recordings, music and legacy was not lost to the ravishes of time.

While undertaking this project Karl slowly came to realise not only the quality or potential historical value of the recordings themselves, but also the esteem in which his grandfather had been held locally. As such he decided it would be a good idea to digitally 'clean' and enhance at least some of the recordings with a view to releasing a CD of some of the best tracks. And so the first Thomas Fraser album 'Long Gone Lonesome Blues was released, and a remarkable and largely unplanned bandwagon started to role.

Karl's commitment, not to mention his expertise in presentation and marketing, ensured that the album would be heard much further afield than Shetland, and almost immediately rave reviews started to appear in national and indeed international country music magazines.

And from there? Well, to cut a long story short, Thomas legacy has subsequently reached remarkable proportions and continual new heights. Another two internationally acclaimed albums have been released - with more planned for the future; there are regular Thomas Fraser features in international music and guitar magazines; a Thomas Fraser concert ( now bordering on a three day festival) is now held annually on his home island of Burra - taking place each November and with a growing list of international music 'names' appearing at the event; his family and musical acquaintances have received invites to speak and perform in Nashville; a replica Thomas Fraser guitar has recently been produced and, perhaps most remarkable of all, Thomas family now have ties with the family of the late 'Singing Brakeman' himself Jimmy Rodgers - Thomas own musical hero, way back when.

And what of his daughter May who witnessed those now historic recordings and sessions? Well she is a very fine and acclaimed country singer in her own right, co-fronting the band 'May and Mackie' with her husband Mackie Sutherland, not only one of Shetland's finest country bands, but many believe one of the best in the UK.

What Thomas would have made of it all we can only guess - but what would we give to know.


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