Peerie Willie Johnson
|Group or Soloist:||Accompanist|
|Years active:||1934 - 2007|
|Musical Style:||Folk, Jazz, Blues|
William Henry Johnson, most commonly known through Shetland as 'Peerie' Willie Johnson, (born on 10th December 1920 at Bouster, The Herra, Yell, died 22nd May 2007 in Lerwick) was a musician from Shetland.
1920 - 1953
When Willie was a young child he was confined to the house for many months due to illness. During this time his mother bought him a ukulele, which he taught himself to play. Willie was a big fan of jazz guitarist Eddie Lang and was fascinated by the complex structure of jazz chords. When he became limited by the ukulele, he progressed to the guitar and joined his first band aged 14. In 1936 Willie had fallen under the influence of jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, and by a chance encounter he was invited to join the Islesburgh Dance Band lead by now-legendary fiddler Dr. Tom Anderson who he continued to accompany on and off for many years. Willie and Tom also formed another group, in 1938, called the New Players Dance Band with the piano/organ player Billy Kay, but this band was wound up when Willie and Billy were called up for war service in 1940. Following WW2, Johnson briefly moved down to London where he made a living playing music with wartime contacts.
1953 - 1988
Willie returned to Shetland, settled down, and married Ethel Johnson in 1953. He had various odd jobs and occasionally toured with other musicians. In 1958 he travelled down to London with Tom Anderson and Shetland fiddler Willie Hunter to play in the Royal Festival Hall. During that same trip, he and Hunter also recorded an LP for the BBC which was never released. The whole album was recorded in a single morning, with the aid of a bottle of whisky. Willie remarked, at the time of the recording, "The second half of the album is much better than the first".
The 2 Willies were regular performers at the Edinburgh Festival between 1973 and 1980.
Although Willie never recorded a solo album, he appeared as an accompanying artist on the recordings of many others, including Tom Anderson, Violet Tulloch, and Aly Bain, who he joined in 1978 and 1979 to tour America with the Boys of the Lough.
During this period Willie's distinctive accompanist style appeared on albums such as; "Scottish Violin Music" (1963); "Shetland Folk Fiddling Vol 2" (1978); Cathal McConnell's "On Lough Erne's Shore" (1978); and Aly Bain's "First Album" (1984), which contains Johnson's unique interpretation of Margaret's Waltz, a tune which is arguably the best known piece played by either Willie or Aly.
1988 - 2007
Willie made regular appearances on the Channel 4 television show Down Home which Aly Bain started hosting in 1988. Willie also made several appearances on Norwegian TV and radio with Willie Hunter.
In 1995 Willie appeared on the album "Silver Bow - Fiddle Music of Shetland".
Willie's playing style has influenced many other artists, including the Wrigley Sisters from Orkney, and Jazz guitarist Martin Taylor who made a radio documentary about Willie in 2005.
Taylor had this to say about Willie:
"I don't think I've ever met another musician who was so full of music. It's almost as if he was more than a musician. Every atom in his body was music, and his enthusiasm was quite amazing. If he was in the Lounge and someone started to play, he just picked up whatever instrument was there, whatever just came to hand, he was just so natural."
Willie was the first musician to be inducted to the Scottish Traditional Music Hall Of Fame in 2005. 2005 continued to be a successful year for Willie as he saw the creation of the first Peerie Willie Johnson Guitar Festival, an annual festival to celebrate his achievements, and now his life.
William Johnson had battled with arthritis for a large part of his later life, making playing increasingly difficult. Willie died on the 22nd of May, 2007 aged 86. To many of the older generation Willie was one of their biggest influences to play music.
A CD of Willie's music, titled "Willie's World", was released on the 10th November 2007.
A memorial to Peerie Willie, built in stone by Yell craftsman Adam Brown, and incorporating a graphic plaque,was unveiled in sight of his birthplace, at Bouster, The Herra, Yell on 22nd May 2010 by S.I.C. Convenor Sandy Cluness at a gathering of Willie's friends and fellow musicians. Most of the stone used was from the Uphouse croft where Willie was born.
The beautiful "Margaret's Waltz" with Aly Bain
- Shetland News article, following Willie's death
- Michael Marra performing his tribute to Peerie Willie 'Schenectady calling Peerie Willie Johnson'
- Peerie Willie Johnson in Scottish Traditional Music - Hall of Fame