Renowned for his so-called "dum chuck" style wedding elements of jazz and Western swing with the traditional folk of his native Shetland, "Peerie" Willie Johnson was the most influential Scottish folk guitarist of his generation. Born December 10, 1920, on remote Yell, the Shetlands' second-largest island, Johnson earned the lifelong nickname "Peerie" because of his diminutive stature, the result of a childhood plagued by illness. Housebound for months at a time, he developed an enduring affection for the American jazz and country music broadcast via the family's shortwave radio, eventually teaching himself guitar on a second-hand ukulele. Cousin John Leach crafted Johnson's first guitar, and at 16 he made his professional debut with local favorites the Islesburgh Dance Band, led by Shetland fiddling giant Dr. Tom Anderson. Channeling the influences of Eddie Lang and Django Reinhardt, Johnson gradually transformed his role in the lineup from rhythmic accompaniment to featured instrumentalist, forging a singular guitar sound distinguished by its loping basslines. In 1938, he and Anderson co-founded the New Players Dance Band with pianist Billy Kaye, although the group was forced to split two years later when Johnson was called to serve in the RAF. During World War II he was stationed at Sullom Voe, regularly jamming with the base's resident dance combo and befriending a number of British jazz musicians. After the war, Johnson relocated to London and became a fixture of the local club circuit, but his inability to read music limited his prospects and he returned to the Shetlands in 1953. After settling in the islands' capital of Lerwick, Johnson resumed his collaboration with Anderson. Beginning in 1958, he also launched a partnership with fiddler Willie Hunter, that year traveling to London to play the Royal Festival Hall as well as record an unreleased album for the BBC at Abbey Road Studios. Johnson never released a proper LP in his lifetime, but nevertheless appears on a series of anthologies including 1963's Scottish Violin Music and 1978's Shetland Folk Fiddling, Vol. 2. In addition, he and Hunter were an annual highlight of the Edinburgh Festival between 1973 and 1980. After Shetland fiddler Aly Bain was named host of the Channel 4 series Down Home in 1988, Johnson made regular guest appearances in the years to follow. He and Hunter were also a steady presence on Norwegian television and radio. In 2005, the Shetland Arts Trust celebrated Johnson's legacy with the inauguration of the "Peerie Willie Guitar Festival." He died at home in Lerwick on May 22, 2007.
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