Although Lawrence Welk was enormously popular for several decades, I’d be willing to bet that for most British folks their favorite accordion-playing bandleader during the same era would be a very different guy, and with Scotland in the news a lot lately it might be a good time to spotlight him. Sir Jimmy Shand MBE (he was knighted in 1999) was known as the King of Scottish Dance Music, but he eventually became a beloved figure throughout the British Empire.
James Shand was born into a large family in Scotland’s Fife County, the son of a farmer turned coal miner who was also skilled at the melodeon (a type of accordion). As Jimmy grew up in the years during and after World War I, he too learned the melodeon and a couple of other instruments besides, but he still followed tradition and at age 14 left school to begin working in the mines.
However, fate would intervene in a way that would change his life. After a few years in the mines, during which he continued to perform locally in his spare time, labor troubles caused a shutdown and his performances became a part of the effort to support striking miners. Although his friends went back to work eventually, Shand was unable to return to the mines and was forced to begin working in a music store. It turned out to be a good move, as it gave him the chance to build a career as a professional performer.
The late 1920s was an era of economic hardship, but he kept working hard on his craft and performing whenever possible while driving the countryside in his music store van. By the early 1930s he was finally able to get a chance to make a record, and after a couple of missteps began to find some success. Beginning as a soloist, he soon started working with small bands too, and sold a number of records during the years leading up to World War II.
Things naturally slowed down in Shand’s musical career during the war, although he did keep working while also fulfilling his Fire Brigade duties, but in the years following he really came into his own. He began generating lots of good-selling records and his live performances were also very popular. His success peaked in the 1950s with a hit record on one of the many songs he wrote — “Bluebell Polka” — but he continued working for many years, touring the world and even performing in New York’s Carnegie Hall. He finally slowed down in the 1970s but continued appearing from time to time, and eventually performed alongside his son and namesake. He was 92 when he died in 2000.