Bill Wilkie MBE is one of the great pillars of Scottish accordion music, a master and tireless champion of the instrument and an impresario and businessman who has promoted and encouraged many of the leading players on the Scottish music scene.
Born in Perth on January 6, 1922, Bill began playing the harmonica in the Scouts and made his public debut with the Bridgend Melody Boys, whose signature tune was Lord Lovat’s Lament played on harmonicas and mandolins. It was the melodeon that he encountered and borrowed from a farmer’s son during one Scout camp, however, that really captured his imagination.
Times were hard in the 1930s and Bill had to wait until he started work in Paterson’s music shop in Methven Street before he could afford his own accordion. Taking lessons from Paterson’s visiting tutor, Dr Edward Sarafin, Bill made swift progress and in 1938, aged sixteen, he won the accordion class at Dundee Music Festival.
From there Bill went on to further festival success, eventually became assistant teacher to Dr Sarafin and played in dance bands including the RAPCATS (Royal Army Pay Corps and Auxiliary Territorial Service) group, as a civilian, and the Collegiates before he was called up for war service with the RAF.
Invited to audition for the Entertainment Unit, Bill impressed the unit director, the famous stage director Sir Ralph Reader, who placed Bill with RAF Gang Show Number Ten, whose members included actor and comedian Peter Sellars. Bill and the film star-to-be became great friends (and yes, Bill did meet Britt Ekland) as the show undertook a year’s tour of India, Burma and Ceylon, including a concert in the magnificent Chitta Palace of the Maharajah of Jodhpur. Further tours of France, Germany, Belgium and Holland followed.
After the war Bill returned to Perth and resumed his work in dance bands, eventually forming his own dance band and accordion orchestra. He also set up a teaching studio at home and in 1950 he founded the All Scotland Accordion & Fiddle Festival with the invaluable help of his wife, Ena, who would go on to timetable the event’s forty-seven different classes. Shortly after the first edition of the festival, Bill was approached by the National Accordion Association and invited to run their North East Scotland festival in conjunction with his own. Bill agreed and, noting that the NAA’s syllabus was limited to classical music, he quickly introduced classes for Scottish traditional music, resulting in Scottish airs becoming prominent in accordion festivals all over the UK.
In 1959, Bill took over the lease of a dusty old cobbler’s shop on the corner of Canal Street and Charterhouse Lane in Perth and turned it into a hub of accordion music, Wilkie’s Music House. Running this in conjunction with his music school, the Perth All Scotland Accordion & Fiddle Festival, which celebrated its diamond jubilee with a spectacular celebrity show in November 2009, his many concert promotions and bands, Bill has become synonymous with the accordion to people from all over the world. As the late Jim Johnstone, just one of the innumerable accordionists and bandleaders who have held him in reverence, said of Bill Wilkie with complete justification: “He’s a one-off.”