Born: June 25, 1934;
Died: January 9, 2020.
Tom Alexander, who has died aged 85, will forever be known as one half of The Alexander Brothers, the musical double act formed with his brother Jack and which became a Scottish institution. Drawing from traditional folk and country, the duo added a tartan showbiz twist that tapped into a crowd-pleasing hybrid of music hall kitsch and American country influences.
With Jack singing and Tom on accordion, The Alexander Brothers signed to Pye Records, where they were put into the musical care of song-writer and producer Tony Hatch, who would later become known for songs such as Downtown, a hit for Petula Clark. Hatch’s magic worked its charms on his new charges pretty quickly, with the Alexander Brothers’ debut album, Highland Fling (1961), being the first of several best-sellers. Their 1964 version of Nobody’s Child became a bona fide pop hit and was reported to have sold more copies in Scotland that year than the Beatles did.
The Alexander Brothers went on to international success, playing Carnegie Hall in New York and Sydney Opera House, as well as sharing a bill with Shirley Bassey at the London Palladium and becoming stars of the small screen in their own series. This was all a far cry from the siblings’ early life, when they played working men’s clubs while holding down jobs as painters and decorators before turning fully professional. It was a gamble that paid off, and even as musical fashions and fads changed, they remained revered by many. While Tom Alexander continued his musical partnership with his brother right up to their retirement in 2012 shortly before Jack’s passing, he had a fertile musical life in his own right beyond, and was regarded as one of the finest box accordion players of his kind.
Thomas Armit Alexander was born in Cambusnethan, near Wishaw, the eldest son of Jimmy and Helen Alexander. With both Tom and Jack encouraged by their musical mother, Tom picked up the accordion at the age of nine, while Jack followed later on piano. Tom’s formal music lessons saw him flourish to the extent that he was invited to attend Bill Brown of the Brown School of Accordionists.
Dedication and commitment saw Alexander entered for the 1952 National Accordion Organisation Championships at the Christian Institute in Glasgow. At the time he was playing an old Hohner model, but at Brown’s last-minute suggestion used his Fratelli Crosio, which duly enabled him to win the championship, playing Pietro Frosini’s Bats at Sunset and Eugene Ettore’s Spanish Holiday.
With their father wary of his sons moving into showbusiness, he ensured they got a trade, and they served their time as painter and decorators by day, playing church halls and old people’s homes by night. Nevertheless, in 1958 the pair turned professional, and secured a season at the Webster Theatre, Arbroath, as part of a variety show called the Arbroath Follies. Their initial repertoire of light classics, performed in suits, failed to endear them to audiences, and only when their manager Ross Bowie urged them to ditch the serious stuff and hitch up their kilts did they begin to make an impression.
Dates at the Glasgow Metropole followed, and on the back of Highland Fling, Nobody’s Child, These are My Mountains and numerous other songs they soon went global, tapping into a nostalgic expat market in America and Canada. The Alexander Brothers were famously parodied by Stanley Baxter, something which both brothers found hilarious, while their tartan-shortbread image arguably influenced popular culture several generations on.
Both brothers were awarded MBEs for services to music in 2005. In 2012, however, and after more than half a century, Jack’s increasing bad health saw the Alexander Brothers hanging up their kilts for good, with Tom occasionally stepping out of retirement for solo shows following Jack’s passing in November 2013, at the age of 77.
Tom Alexander’s musical heroes included familiar names such as Jimmy Shand, but he also held in esteem the Norwegian accordion genius, Toralf Tollefsen. Tollefsen was renowned for his world-class prowess on the five-button accordion, an instrument Alexander regretted never using and thus expanding his range. This did not stop him travelling the country’s circuit of accordion clubs, playing a mix of of light classics and Irish tunes as well as the traditional Scots works that appeared on his numerous solo albums.
As a composer too, Alexander excelled with numerous self-penned works such as Isle of My Heart, Bowie’s Boat, and Kenmore Gardens. Alexander was a jazz fan, and while he never played in that genre, he gave a particular nod to the improvising accordionist, Jack Emblow. Alexander was nevertheless keen to experiment, and, inbetween painting pictures rather than walls, retained an interest in accordion music until the end. Alexander’s passing may mark the end of an era, but his musical legacy lives on.
Alexander is survived by his wife, Betty.
The Herald, January 22nd.