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Mike Whellans - Car breakdown won't keep one-man band off the road

Mike Whellans has the blues. Just as his one-time influence, Bob Dylan had the Stuck Outside of Memphis with the Mobile Blues Again, Whellans, Europe’s greatest one-man blues band, has the Stuck Outside the Danish Shipping Company Office in Esbjerg with the Immobile Blues.

His car having packed up on his latest tour of Denmark, where the Borders-born Whellans spends much of his time, he’s trying to ship his equipment back to Lauder. And he’s not having much luck: the office doesn’t open till 1pm and it’s just gone noon. This might not be the best time to ask Whellans to cast his mind back to playing the opening night of Edinburgh Folk Club, an event whose fortieth anniversary he is celebrating with a return booking next week.

With time on his hands, however, the garrulous Whellans – he’s a happy blues singer really – is content to go over his back pages, and soon he’s reminiscing about the time his band, the Castle Kings, supported a group from Liverpool called the Quarrymen in Hawick Town Hall, how his duo with a then unknown Shetland fiddler called Aly Bain got together and how the regulars in the Lauderdale Hotel in Whellans’ hometown responded to his efforts at singing the Bob Dylan songbook.

“I’d heard Dylan and bought myself a harmonica holder and there I was on a Friday night, trying to sound like Bob Dylan,” he says, “and the guys in the bar were shouting, ‘Oh for God’s sake, Mike, gie’s peace.’”

Audience responses had been a touch more genteel when Whellans started his musical career as a thirteen-year-old drummer in local Scottish country dance bands, playing, as photographic evidence confirms, whist drives as well as dances around the Borders. His father, who died when Whellans was only six weeks old in 1944, had been a drummer before going off to war and the young Mike found his drum kit in the attic and immediately became fascinated, going on to sow the seeds of the mouth percussion with which he wows audiences these days by studying drum masters Louie Bellson, Kenny Clarke and Buddy Rich.

When rock’n’roll came in Whellans got a guitar and formed the Castle Kings. Friday and Saturday nights generally found them playing around the Borders, opening for the main attractions who included the Merseybeats and the group that Whellans later spotted on the BBC’s Crackerjack programme, singing Love Me Do.

“I thought, jeez, that’s the guys we played with in Hawick,” he says. “And I had to ask myself, did that really happen? But it did and I’ve had a few pints bought for me on the strength of being someone who shook John Lennon’s hand. He was quite friendly, came in and said ‘Hello, lads’ while Harrison and McCartney were a bit stand-offish. Their drummer on that tour was a painter and decorator called Dougie Moore and they weren’t called the Beatles yet. But the rest, as they say, is history.”

From the Castle Kings, Whellans moved on to folk music, courtesy of hearing Archie Fisher in the legendary Crown Bar in Edinburgh. With an acoustic guitar and a regular supply of imported Folkways albums bought from Coull’s in Galashiels, he dug into folk, blues and bluegrass and it was as a Doc Watson-styled flatpicker that he encountered Aly Bain in the Green Tree bar in Dunfermline.

“Arthur Argo had brought Aly down from Shetland and he thought we’d work well together, so we did this gig in Dunfermline where I played a bit, then Aly played a bit and then said, Let’s do something as a duo. So without any preparation we went on and played and the crowd loved it. We were together for about three and a half years after that.”

Whellans and Bain then met Robin Morton and Cathal McConnell, who had come over from Ireland with the first edition of Boys of the Lough, only for the third Boy, Tommy Gunn, to give up and go home. Despite reservations, Whellans agreed to merge the two duos but by the time the first Boys of the Lough album was released, Dick Gaughan had taken his place.

“I’d been thinking about exploring different kinds of music,” he says. “I was really more into the blues and jazz and I wanted to try the one-man band thing with guitar, harmonica and drums. There were two great examples to follow for me: I’d seen Duster Bennett at Edinburgh Uni and thought, Wow. That was blues in the raw. He was a real stomper and a great bluesman considering he came from Ham in Surrey. But there was also Joe Hill Louis from Mississippi who was a real inspiration. Of course, us white guys never quite get the same feeling that the old black musicians had but it’s great fun trying.”

And try he continues to do, with no little success, especially in Scandinavia where his Danish-born son is keeping up the family drumming tradition in a heavy metal band. He’s also been working in a duo with Danish jazz guitarist Uffe Steen, whom he hopes to bring over to Scotland sometime soon. For the Edinburgh Folk Club gig, however, he’ll be back on his own: one man, a guitar, a harmonica and his drum kit.

“Yeah, international shipping permitting,” he says. “But I shouldn’t complain. I’ll be seventy in April and apart from my car dying on me half-way through a tour, life’s great.”

From The Herald, October 4, 2013.

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