Bill Powrie's Button Boxes

by Bill Powrie

 

Bill Powrie's Hohner Shand Morino

Shand Morino No.56 ex Forbes Dundee 1955.
(Single bar on the grille).

My uncle, Bill Powrie, died in 1980 at the age of 48, after a massive heart attack at the Mull Accordion and Fiddle Festival. I suppose for a musician, that is as good a way to go as any. It is just a pity that he was taken from us at such a young age, and I often wonder where his playing career would have taken him if he had still been with us today.
 
A few days later, I went with my Mum and Aunty Mary, to his house at Shianbank Farm, just opposite Scone Aerodrome. The Shianbank Two-Step, named after his farm, was one of several compositions written by Bill. He wrote three tunes which won the Angus M. Howie Challenge Cup at the Perth and Kinross Accordion & Fiddle Club’s New Composition Competition for 3 years in a row (1997-79). The tunes are Cherrybank Polka, Captain Robert B. Coupar, and Miss Elizabeth Duncan LRAM LTCL.


(Cup being presented by Alastair Hunter)

As we were leaving, I picked up his maroon accordion case containing his beloved Shand Morino. I figured that he would have wanted either me, or my younger brother Graham to have it, as we were the only two that could just about knock out a tune on it. However I was told in no uncertain terms by both Mum and Mary, that it now belonged to his estate and that I should put it back.  As a 28 year old I could not afford to buy it and promised myself that one day I would make enough money to buy it back.
 
The years rolled by and Graham was allowed to borrow it for a while and was able to play a few tunes in C, before returning it. Three years before Bills death, I found a Swiss music teacher called Ron Wigna, in London, who sold me a Hohner Gaelic 111S, and I started taking lessons from him in 1977. He had never played a button box before but was giving lessons on the piano accordion to a merchant seaman, posting cassette tapes to his ship every two weeks!
 
Sometime around 2005 I began to make enquiries about the whereabouts of the Morino, but by then it been sold, and the receipt for it had been lost. The only information I had was that it was sold to a man from around The Black Isle somewhere.
 
I then spoke to John Crawford, that well known and respected accordion repair man, player and judge, from Freuchie. John keeps a “wee black book” with the names and addresses of all his clients, and he felt sure that he had repaired that box, and would see if he could track it down for me. Unfortunately he had misplaced his black book, and so for the moment he could not help me.
 
I phoned Bruce Lindsay and asked him if he would put out an appeal to trace the box at the Shand Morino Day at Windygates. Bruce kindly announced my request before the show, but despite the large gathering of Morino players in the hall that day, nobody knew where it had gone.
 
Time wore on and I would occasionally ring John for a blether, but nothing doing.
Then, out of the blue, John rang me in March 2013. “You’ll never guess what I’ve got sittin’ on my settee”, he said. I drew breath and waited. “Your Uncle Bill’s box!”
I could hardly believe it, but within minutes I set off from Finzean near Banchory to drive through to Freuchie to see if it was true.
 
On the way I kept asking myself the question I had been asking myself for many years. “How will I know for certain that it is in fact Bill’s box, if I ever do find it?” The answer that I had come up with was that I would always remember that the case was a dark maroon colour, and inside it Bill had a purple velvet cloth to protect it from the straps when carrying it, and I would recognize this immediately. But then I thought to myself, “It’s 33 years, that cloth will be in tatters by now, but still, the case will tell me that it is Bill's box.”
 
When I arrived at John’s, I could hardly contain my excitement, and John ushered me into his living room, where, as usual, the floor was covered with accordion cases. He pointed to a tan leather case and said “There it is. That’s Bill's box”. My jaw dropped because it was clearly not Bill's box, as I distinctly remembered that Bill’s came in a maroon case. “It belongs to Jimmy Mackay from Perth, and he’s asked me to tune it up for sale”. The Morino was now too heavy for Jimmy to play and he had a small two-row that he was keeping to play. “He’s made a braw job o’ re-covering the auld case in that nice leather!” I was feeling better already!
 
After having a wee tune on it, I drove to Perth to meet Jimmy Mackay, and we agreed the deal. To seal the provenance, Jimmy produced an envelope which he kept in the case, containing a letter from my Uncle Ian, who was living in Blairgowrie at the time, enclosing a photo of Bill playing his Morino at the Salutation Hotel in Perth, being accompanied by Pam Wilkie on piano. Here was the definitive proof that I needed, that I had managed to find my late uncle’s box after 33 years! Jimmy went on to describe how in 1996 he had placed an advert in the Dundee Courier for a Shand Morino, and he had subsequently bought it.
 
I was now faced with a dilemma. Having struggled for years trying to play the piano box, should I keep the button key in a case and admire it, as a family heirloom, and leave it to gather stoor in my study, or should I, once again, try to learn how to play the damn thing, having struggled along playing only in one key (C), off and on for 50 years? I was put in touch with Ian Cruickshanks at Kirriemuir by Bill Young and am now learning to play the Morino with Ian’s help, and a great deal of his patience!

 

Bill Powrie's Borsini BCC# 80 Bass


 

 

I was so chuffed to have returned the Morino back into the Powrie family, that I decided to post this news on melodeon.net, a forum for melodeon and button accordion players. I received a surprising reply from Bill Young from Largs, a regular contributor to Box & Fiddle, who said that if I was Bill Powrie’s nephew, that I might just be interested in a series of photographs of a 3 row stepped keyboard Borsini that had been submitted by Peter Dunk from Isle of Oxney, Kent. Peter wanted to know if it might have at one time belonged to somebody famous, as this would potentially have increased its value. As it was, it was a bit of wreck!

 

 

Bill Young had gone to some trouble to identify the box as having belonged to my late uncle. He dug out his copy of the book “Who’s on the Dance Music Tonight?” (by James L. Helm, Ayr), and magnified the photo of the Borsini, to show up a black mark on the top left hand side, near the word “Castelfidardo”.

This same mark was evident on Peter’s images, and Bill even went further by identifying two patches on the pearloid where the pattern matched too.
 
Contacting John Crawford, I mentioned this mark, and with a fantastic memory, John was able to tell me, as if it had just happened yesterday, how that black mark had come about. He remembered Bill coming into Bill Wilkie’s shop in Perth, to collect his box, and telling him that he had been practicing up in his bedroom at Bankhead Farm Dupplin Estate, near Forteviot, when his mother had shouted him down for a cup of tea. He had left it sitting too close to the electric fire, and when he returned, part of the grey/green pearloid had melted, leaving that black mark! My mother confirmed that it got quite cold in that stone-built farmhouse! Without that unfortunate accident, Bill Young would not have been able to identify it as Bill’s box!!
 
I contacted Peter Dunk and he informed me that he had been planning to carry out the repairs himself, but that it had proved too big a task and he had sold it to a chap called Will Nesbitt from Nottingham. So my search continued!
 
Back on melodeon.net I contacted Will, who plays Morris dance music, and he too had been planning to do the repairs as a “project”, as he had recently set himself up as an accordion repair specialist. However, faced with a long list of repairs, he too found that it was beyond his developing capability, and he was more than happy to see it returned to the Powrie family. In June 2013 I met up with Will in the motorway services at Ferrybridge, on the M62, half way between my daughter’s house in North Yorkshire and Will’s home in Nottingham, and the exchange took place over a hot latte!

List of repairs.

Here is Will’s list of what was wrong with it!

  • Bass plate came with mismatched screws. An extended period where it had been left off left it warped.

  • Bellows straps broken.

  • Bellows gaskets long past their best.

  • Shoulder strap brackets unsecure due to screws shearing the wood.

  • 'Monitor grille' at the back had been badly glued on.

  • Treble mechanism had broken at an anchor point on the front. Had been glued back on but had broken again.

  • Pallet broken off.

  • Squeaky action.

  • Multiple pet spiders!

  • Several chips in the celluloid.

  • Bass reed block was split and bowing.

  • Reeds needed overhauling.

  • Grille cloth could have done with being replaced.

  • Missing some bellows pins.

  • Tremolo was unbearable.

On the way home to Finzean I called in to see John Crawford, with my heart in my mouth, suspecting that if it had been a car it would have been a write-off, and fearing that John would tell me, as Peter Dunk had already done, to keep it in its case as an artifact, but that it was beyond repair. On the contrary, John saw no insurmountable obstacles to repairing it, and set about the task. After a week, I borrowed it back before it was properly ready, to display in a Button Box Exhibition, arranged by Jim Brown from Newtyle, in the Masonic Hall in Glamis. Here Ian Cruickshanks and a few others had a chance to play it, and by all accounts it was sounding good. John had tuned it much wider than it would have been (-24/+25), when Bill played it in the Jim Cameron Band from 1955 to 1964. He explained that it had been tuned to blend in with May Cameron’s piano box and the fiddle. Ian Cruickshank’s first comments on hearing it were “It sounds just like a Morino!! 

John completed the repairs, and I left the box with Ian Cruickshanks who kindly offered to play a couple of tunes on it in a broadcast, as a tribute to Bill. 

Robbie Shepherd was kind enough to read out my email outlining my search for the Borsini, and I was delighted to hear from Malcolm (Mac) Harcus, who had heard the broadcast. Mac had been with Bill on the very day that Bill had brought the box home to Bankhead for the first time, and they played a tune together in the open air! Thanks to Mac’s good memory, we are able to put a year on that day, which was in 1944! 

On the reed blocks there are two numbers, 11 on the treble and 12 on the bass side. This suggests that the box would have been made up in the factory, the reeds then taken out until delivery. When re assembling the box it appears that two different sides have been put together. I am still waiting for Borsini to confirm the date of manufacture, so Mac’s date is all I have to go on. 

It is possible that it was made as a continental accordion and converted just prior to sale into a British Chromatic Accordion (BCA). The air valve is undersized for a bisonoric box, and one set of bass reeds (the larger ones), have been removed presumably to conserve air.

According to John Crawford these larger reeds do not sound unless a long bass note is sustained, and this is not really a feature of traditional Scottish music. Added to the stepped keyboard, the lack of air presents a bit of a challenge in playing it, and only enhances my admiration for Bill’s playing ability.
 
Jimmy Lindsay, that well-known button box player from Amulree, was delighted when I took the Morino to let him have a tune, and I have promised to do the same with the Borsini. Jimmy has fond memories of Bill coming home to the farm in Glenalmond, with Jimmy’s father after the market. He remembers too, Bill handing him the Borsini at the Young Farmers dances, for him to play a tune in the interval. Jimmy was a bit hesitant due to the stepped keyboard, but was reassured by Bill that it would be “nae bother”.  The last time Jimmy played the Borsini was when he was 17, so I am sure it will bring back many happy memories!   


 

The Powrie Band circa 1949: Stan Peacock (drums), Jack Ewan (piano accordion), Bert Smith (bass), Ian Powrie (fiddle), Chick Ewan (piano) and Bill on the Borsini.


Bill Powrie

 

Borsini Timeline

1944  The Borsini is brought home to Bankhead for the first time.

1949  Bill plays it in the original Powrie Band.  Line up is: Stan Peacock (drums), Jack Ewan (piano box), Bert Smith (bass), Ian Powrie (fiddle), Chick Ewan (piano) and Bill on the Borsini.

1952  At enormous expense, my Granny Powrie airfreights out Bill’s box to Hong Kong* where he is on National Service, as he is “hameseek” for his beloved Borsini!  (See note* below) (If you are in that photo or recognise any of the faces please get in touch with me!)

1955-1964  Returning from National Service, Jimmy Blue is in the button box seat in the Powrie Band and Bill plays for Jim Cameron’s Band

1972  John Crawford repairs it in Bill Wilkie’s shop. His initials and date are still on the inside of the bellows

1972-1993  Bill McHardy from Friockheim reckons he bought it from a chap in Glencarse but cannot remember his name, or the person to whom he sold it. (If any reader knows anything about this period, especially the name of the man from Glencarse, please get in touch with me!)

1993  Matthew Wright buys it from an antique shop in Southampton! (How on earth did it get away doon there?)

July 2009  Due to illness, Matthew sells it to Peter Dunk. Peter says, ‘The stepping on the Borsini was huge by comparison to my Serenellini and this, combined with massive air leaks, caused me to put the box aside to concentrate on a few other boxes I was fettling at the time.’

October 2011  Peter sells it to Will Nesbitt from Nottingham

June 2013  Will sells it to me, and it is back in the Powrie family once again

  

RAF Mess. If you are in this photo or recognise any of the faces, please get in touch with Bill Powrie!

     *Bill came second in an “Opportunity Knocks” style talent show on the radio. The following day the phone rang on the RAF base, and a voice asked for LAC Powrie. It was the Chief of Hong Kong Police, an old friend of Bill’s father, who had heard him play on the radio. Bill was invited for afternoon tea with the Chief and was given a police motorbike, with the freedom to travel anywhere he liked! All of this, because of his Scottish family connection, his musical talent, and his beloved Borsini!

 

Ian Powrie's Wedding Band in 1951: Bobby MacLeod, Bill Powrie, Jimmy Shand,
Angus Fitchet, Wull Powrie (my granddad), Jack Ewan and Bill Wilkie.

 

The Jim Cameron Band c. 1955: Dod Michie, Jim Cameron, Henry Webster,
May Cameron, Bill Powrie and Nigel Alexander.

 

Bill plays both boxes (not at the same time!) on The Bankhead Tapes CD TRCD0701 (available from several suppliers e.g. Music in Scotland and The Music Box ). I arranged to have this CD made in 2007 by David Cunningham at Thane Multimedia in Cupar, from a reel-to-reel tape of Bill playing at the farm on Dupplin Estate, near Forteviot, where my grandfather was farm manager. Bill plays 17 solos, and 6 duets with my grandfather Will Powrie, who was known as the Angus Ploughman, who recorded 78’s on the Beltona label in the 1930s, often accompanied by my uncle Ian Powrie at 9 years old. 

I will leave the last word to Ian Cruickshanks who had the Borsini on loan to do a broadcast with it as a tribute to Bill on 'Take The Floor' (BBC Radio Scotland; broadcast 18th January 2014).

 

“The first time I heard this Borsini was this summer (2013) at a Button Box display at the Masonic Hall in Glamis, and I was amazed at how good it sounded. My late Uncle Angus told me countless times about Bill Powrie and his Borsini wi' the stepped keyboard, as Angus danced a lot to Jim Cameron's Band. My Grandfather, Alexander Cruickshanks, was in the bothy at The Reidie farm just outside Kirrie with Jim Cameron round about WW1, and whenever Angus was at a dance, Jim Cameron aye asked after his faither, so Angus got to know the band members quite well. 

I was delighted when the present Bill Powrie offered me a shot of the box, and to play it for a while. Naturally, I find the stepped keyboard very strange and cannot look at my fingers when I'm playing it. I do have to lift my fingers higher than normal to get across the rows, but it is surprisingly good in tone and quality, and I do wonder if the Shand Morino hadn't come into being, whether we would all be playing one of these. This box has some lovely internal harmonics going on, and the bass is lovely as most Italian boxes are.  
Personally, I love these old instruments as they have a character in their sound that modern boxes don't have (and probably never will). Furthermore, this particular box is an iconic one to me, due to the original owner and his links with Kirrie and my family before me. I only ever saw Bill Powrie a couple of times playing his Shand Morino at the Perth Club in the 70s, having already heard his recordings on Jimmy Blue's Accordion Club LP,
and of course I've since greatly admired his handling of the infernal 3-row machine on the 'Bankhead Tapes' and retrospectively, on the Beltona records he did in his brother Ian's band in the early fifties”
 

 
Ian Cruickshanks


Bill Powrie and Ian Cruickshanks

 

I would like to thank Gillian Powrie (Bill’s daughter), Ian Cruickshanks and Peter Dunk for the use of their photographs

 Bill Powrie

©2014 Bill Powrie

(Anyone with information about the history of the Borsini box, or anyone in the RAF Mess photo, is invited to contact Bill Powrie via the Forum PM system (members only, link above) or by email to info@buttonbox.org.uk).