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James Shand was born in East Wemyss in Fife, son of a farm ploughman turned miner and one of nine children. The family soon moved to the burgh of Auchtermuchty. The town now boasts a larger than life-sized sculpture of Shand. His father was a skilled melodeon player. Jimmy started with the mouth organ and soon played the fiddle. At the age of 14 he had to leave school and go down the mines. He played at social events and competitions. His enthusiasm for motor-bikes turned into an advantage when he played for events all round Fife. In 1926 he did benefit gigs for striking miners and was consequently prevented from returning to colliery work. One day Jimmy and a friend were admiring the instruments in the window of a music shop in Dundee. His friend said: "It wouldn't cost you to try one," so Jimmy walked in and strapped on an accordion. The owner, Charles Forbes, heard Jimmy and immediately offered him a job as travelling salesman and debt-collector. He soon acquired a van and drove all over the north of Scotland. He switched to the British chromatic button accordion, an instrument he stuck with for the rest of his life.
Being a keen motorcyclist, Shand was also an enthusiastic supporter and spectator at the annual Isle of Man TT races. Jimmy also sponsored a motorcycle road racer from Errol, Perthshire called Jack Gow, a multiple Scottish Motorcycle Racing champion and later a motorcycle dealer in Dundee. Jack Gow was the son of Andy Gow who drove the bus which transported the Shand tour. Shand's interest in motorcycles began when a boyfriend of his sister had problems with his bike, which had broken down. Shand repaired it and was allowed to use it.
He failed an audition for the BBC because he kept time with his foot. At a time when gramophones were very much luxury items he made two records for the Regal Zonophone label in 1933. His career took off when he switched to making 78s for the Beltona label (1935–1940). Most of the Beltona recordings were solo, but he experimented with small bands. This boosted sales. He appeared in a promo film shown in cinemas. While the image showed his fingers moving in a blur, Jimmy was disappointed to hear the sound track playing a slow air. He was prevented from joining the RAF by a digestive disorder, and spent the war years in the Fire Service. On New Year's Day morning in 1945 he made his first broadcast with "Jimmy Shand and his Band". This was the first of many such BBC radio and television appearances.
Soon after the war he became a full-time musician and adopted a punishing life-style later adopted by rock bands. He would play Inverness one night, London the next night and still drive the van back, at breakneck speed, to bed in Dundee. He took his trademark bald head, Buddy Holly spectacles and full kilted regalia, Scottish reels, jigs and strathspeys to Australia, New Zealand and North America, including Carnegie Hall in New York. Now on the EMI/ Parlophone label, he released one single per month in the mid fifties, including his only top 20 hit in the UK Singles Chart – "The Bluebell Polka" (1955). It was produced by George Martin, who was later to work with the Beatles. He was awarded an MBE in 1962. This period is remembered affectionately by Richard Thompson, who played Shand tunes on his Henry the Human Fly and Strict Tempo! albums. Thompson's Scottish father had been a keen Shand collector. In 1991, Thompson paid tribute to Shand with an original song, "Don't Sit on My Jimmy Shands", from his 1991 album Rumor and Sigh.
In 1972, Shand went into semi-retirement. From then he played only small venues in out-of-the-way places for a reduced fee. He was made a freeman of Auchtermuchty in 1974, North East Fife in 1980 and Fife in 1998. He became Sir Jimmy Shand in 1999. His portrait is in the Scottish National Gallery, close to Niel Gow. In 1983 he released a retrospective album with the cheeky title The First 50 Years. At the age of 88 he recorded an album and video with his son, Dancing with the Shands.
More than 330 compositions are credited to Jimmy Shand. He recorded more tracks than the Beatles and Elvis Presley combined. In 1985, British Rail named a locomotive Jimmy Shand. He was dissatisfied with the chromatic button-key accordions available on the market in the 1940s so he designed his own one. The Hohner company manufactured the "Shand Morino" until the 1970s. He is the only artist worldwide to have his name used by the Hohner company as a model name for a musical instrument. There is a biography The Jimmy Shand Story: The King of Scottish Dance Music by Ian Cameron (2001). A number of his older recordings have been re-released by Beltona Records.
Since the 1950s the crowd at Dunfermline Athletic F.C. have left the ground after the game to the sound of Shand's "The Bluebell Polka".
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