© Malcolm Burns [Click on this photograph to enlarge the image]
William Burns' parents, Malcolm and Christina, came from Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Malcolm had served in the First World War at Gallipoli and later in the Royal Flying Corps. In the late 1920's they emigrated to Australia taking their young son Malcolm with them. In Australia, a second son, Bruce, was born in 1929 at Bruce Rock and then Willie was born on 5th November 1932 in Howard, Queensland.
Three or four years later the family returned to Scotland, first to Fraserburgh where their daughter Ishbel was born in 1937, and then to Joppa, by the seafront resort of Portobello, Edinburgh. There they stayed until moving back to Stornoway in 1950.
In Joppa, as a young boy, Willie met Stan Greig and Johnny Twiss who lived nearby and were friends of his older brothers Malcolm (Mal) and Bruce.
Willie's mother Christina always had a friendly and open home at the house on Esplanade Terrace and there were kids running wild there every day. The location was perfect for children - right on the beach with miles of golden sand and the huge outdoor Lido pool (now sadly closed) at the other end. There were lots of opportunities for fun.
Stan of course went to Edinburgh's Royal High School where he teamed up with Sandy Brown and Al Fairweather, initially playing drums and then moving to piano. Johnny was also a feature in the band, playing banjo and guitar.
Willie, though at a different private school, George Watson's, was keen on music and had already learned to play drums in a local pipe band. Being a great extrovert, he probably volunteered himself (probably pestered!) Sandy to let him join the band that his brothers' pals were playing in.
It must have helped that the Esplanade Terrace house was available for noisy rehearsals and apparently also lent itself to impromptu public performances. Willie's sister Ishbel recalls the band practicing frequently in the upstairs lounge, a front room with big bay windows facing onto the promenade. These would sometimes be thrown open during the busy summer season, attracting throngs of holidaymakers off the beach to enjoy unofficial jazz concerts.
© Malcolm Burns
Willie with Stan Greig and Johnny Twiss, according to Stan's niece, Ann Ferguson, the picture was taken at Stan's parents' house in Morton Street, Joppa.
Family legend has it that Willie was still only 14 years old when the band were playing gigs at Rose Street pubs in Edinburgh's City Centre.
A regular gig was at Dalhousie Castle in the Midlothian countryside a few miles south of Edinburgh, where the band would play for weekend dances. The ancient castle had been a stately home (and is now a posh country house hotel) but for a period it was used as a private preparatory boarding school. One of the masters was a keen jazz buff who made sure that the Sandy Brown band played there frequently - and it seems his collection of records and books also helped educate and shape the band's musical tastes. Willie also had fond memories of carting equipment including drums and double bass out to 'The Castle' on public transport.
A 1947 photograph taken of the Sandy Brown band at Dalhousie Castle in Edinburgh showed Sandy and Stan towering over Willie, emphasising that he had not yet reached adult height!
© Malcolm Burns. 'The Castle Jazz Band' - date not known. Personnel uncertain but suggested by Malcolm as ( left to right) Stu Crockett, John Semple, Archie Semple, Willie Burns, Johnny Twiss and Stan Greig. [Click on this photograph for a slightly larger image]
© Malcolm Burns. A photograph from the local Evening Despatch (which later merged with the Evening News). This appears to be the same personnel as in the previous photograph. [Click on this photograph for a larger image].
On the 29th October 1949, Willie was with Al Fairweather (trumpet), Sandy Brown (clarinet), Stan Greig (piano) John Twiss (banjo) and Will Redpath (bass) for the band's first studio recordings of Melancholy Blues, Irish Black Bottom, Alexander and Of All The Wrongs You've Done To Me. These were issued in 1950 on the S&M (Swarbrick and Mossman) label (S&M 1001 and 1002) and are now rare recordings.
© Malcolm Burns
Johnny Twiss, Stan Greig, Sandy Brown, Al Fairweather, Willie Burns. The picture was taken at Stan's parents' house in Morton Street, Joppa.
[Click on this photograph to enlarge the image]
Willie continued to play with the band until he left with the family to return to Lewis in 1950, his place at the drums being taken by Bill Strachan and Farrie Forsyth.
When he left school, Willie had gone to college to study engineering in Edinburgh and then took up an apprenticeship as an engineer at Henry Robb's shipyard in Leith, not far from Portobello. Working in a shipyard was probably not the desired outcome for aspiring parents who sent their kids to Edinburgh private schools, but when the family returned to Stornoway in 1950, Willie completed his apprenticeship there, and went on to become one of the youngest chief engineers at sea, acquiring his ticket at the age of 25.
With Alfred Holt's Blue Funnel Line he sailed frequently to the far east and across the Atlantic where he would regularly go to New York's jazz clubs to hear some of his heroes play. The music at that time was moving away from traditional jazz to be-bop, but Willie always preferred 'trad'.
© Malcolm Burns.
Willie with Cozy Cole at the Metropole Club on 7th Avenue, New York. Willie sat in on drums and successfully impressed the great man.
Willie married Barbara, a girl from Lewis, and while she was at college in Glasgow they often went to jazz hops in the city. There they also heard the now-famous Sandy play in concerts in the late 1950s, and joined him backstage on at least on memorable occasion.
In the early 1960s, Willie quit his career at sea and returned again to Stornoway where he and Barbara brought up four sons. Willie worked with his brothers in a family business manufacturing Harris Tweed. Using his engineering skills, he took charge of the machinery in the various tweed mills until in the 1970s he set up his own small engineering business in the town.
On 5th May 1993, at the age of 60, Willie suddenly died of a heart attack at work.
Looking back, Willie’s son Malcolm remembers his father as a talented guy, very funny to be with, always the life and soul of the party and able to do a turn singing, vamping on piano or keyboard, strumming the ukulele-banjo and otherwise entertaining at the drop of a hat. Sadly though, Willie also suffered from periods of depression.
Willie never owned a drum kit in later life and didn’t play professionally, but was nonetheless famous locally as a really great drummer. Malcolm remebers that occasionally some drummer would bring a drum kit to the house and they would hear Willie play. “Unaccompanied drums are not always much fun for most people but he could keep any audience spellbound for hours, just improvising. He also occasionally did this at functions like weddings and dinner dances. I used to be embarrassed as well as impressed when he would sit down with the band and they would just let him play. Now I feel sorry that he didn’t have the opportunity to do it more often, since he clearly loved playing.”
Willie’s love of music rubbed off on to his son who took up guitar in the 1970’s. Willie encouraged Malcolm’s playing, even though he didn’t always appreciate the noise Malky made trying to reproduce the blues from Robert Johnson to Eric Clapton. “I realise now how, although he must have know really quite well the fields I was ploughing, he never let me feel that I wasn’t doing something brand new for myself. I started a band which became the first punk band in the Western Isles in the late 1970’s – we spawned a whole local scene which was captured on our own now-exceedingly rare recording Sad Day We Left The Croft in 1980 and which is now the subject of a forthcoming TV documentary and a re-issued CD.”
Some of Malky’s own children are now accomplished guitar players, and one also plays the bagpipes, keeping going the family’s musical line. "Although they probably think New Orleans jazz is very old hat, I have made sure they have all heard Muskrat Ramble, and I know they’ll come to understand it better when they are a little older!”
At eight years old, Malky’s daughter is already a prize-winning Gaelic singer who has a jazzman grampa, Jim Galloway, on the other side of the family. Jim comes from Fife and plays clarinet and saxophone with a love of Charlie Parker’s music. Malky comments “He and my father would have had some differences of opinion if they’d ever met, but I’m sure they’d have enjoyed the crack and the music anyway.”
Malky loves the idea that a band his dad was playing with as a kid in 1947/1949 would three years later play a gig at the Usher Hall with Big Bill Broonzy, and then go on to be a key part of the jazz scene.
© Malcolm Burns/Ian Maund 2007-2015
Willie Burns' son, Malcolm featured in a BBC2 Scotland documentary on Punk bands from the Isle of Lewis. It is a fascinating programme, not simply to get a look at Malcolm (!) but to see how Punk was embraced by young people in the Scottish Islands in the 1970s and then picked up by other young people at a Peace Festival march and concert in Stornoway in 1981. (Did you know that Punk kicked off at a two day festival at the 100 Club in London in 1976?). You can watch the documentary video which is in three parts and partly subtitled to interpret the Gaelic by clicking here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKqNinmZmro (Make sure you have your speakers turned on).