It has been over 40 years since Burra Isle fisherman Thomas Fraser passed away aged only 50. Yet his memory lives on and interest in Thomas’s fascinating legacy has never been greater. November 2002 saw the release of the first ever Thomas Fraser CD ‘Long Gone Lonesome Blues’ while a tribute to Thomas Fraser concert was held in Burra with musicians far and wide performing to a packed-out audience. The CD was the first Thomas Fraser release since 1984 and features 25 tracks, most of which had not been heard publicly before. This biography describes the process of restoring Thomas’s work to CD while attempting to tell the story of his brief but eventful life and great passion for music.
Thomas Fraser died in 1978; a crofter, a fisherman – a hard worker. Not at all unusual in his native Burra Isle. But Thomas had a talent, an extraordinary talent and a passion for music which drove him to painstakingly record thousands of his unique takes of favourite blues, country, jazz and traditional tunes of the era.
Thomas’ nephew Bobby was asked to look after the huge collection of reel-to-reel tapes that had been left behind by Thomas in the house at Setter. As the years passed, Bobby found that requests for Thomas Fraser compilations became very frequent. Despite the release of two Thomas Fraser cassettes in the early 1980s (‘ Memories of Yesterday’ , Volumes 1 & 2), requests became so numerous that Bobby simply found that he could not continue. Being immersed in the normal routines of work and my own musical ‘twiddlings’, I never really found the time to really appreciate my Grandfather’s music let alone find time to do anything constructive with it. The tapes remained at Bobby’s until one night in the late 1990s when Mam and I went to Bobby’s to visit. Bobby produced his tape recorder and put on a reel. Having acquired a more ‘mature’ musical outlook, I listened with amazement at what my Grandfather had done all those years ago.
Thomas James Fraser was born in Outterabrake, Burra Isle on the 20th March 1927 to Thomas Goodlad Fraser and May Jean Jamieson. Thomas Jnr. was the youngest brother to Robbie, Aggie (Fullerton), Jeannie (Fullerton), Walter and Betsy (Ward). At age 8, the Fiddle was Thomas’s introduction to music. The instrument was given to him by brother Walter who acquired it while in the Merchant Navy. The influence of another Walter, his Uncle, was important to Thomas’s musical development for Walter yodelled a bit and the young Thomas embraced the style. Thereafter, Thomas could be heard walking along the Setter road, yodelling at the top of his voice.
It is thought that Thomas’s first guitar, on which he rapidly became proficient, was given to him by his brother in-law, the late James Fullerton. Thereafter, he was rarely without the instrument and would be seen cycling along with it strapped across his back. Around this time Thomas also took up the mandolin and was known to tinker with the piano and banjo. The final piece in this musical jigsaw was a gramophone given by Stewart Jamieson, father of Alfie o’ Meal. Thomas listened to records non-stop. Fed up with the ‘noise’, Thomas’s parents banished the gramophone to the loft! Blues records were favourites but the most common discs to find their way on to the turntable were of Jimmie Rodgers and the young Thomas began to learn the ‘Brakeman’s’ style of playing and singing note for note. Later, the similarity would become uncanny
At age 16, Thomas joined the fishing. It is thought that the Fifie ‘Orcades’ was the first boat he worked on with John Fraser. Ashore from the fishing, Thomas began singing at concerts locally as well as weddings. Thomas was very shy about playing in public. At Setter aged 18, he was coaxed into playing at his sister Betsy’s wedding but on the condition that he was hidden from view. As Thomas played fiddle in the closet, folk danced in da butt-end of the Setter house. Given Thomas’s general vocal delivery, really ‘living the song’, I was surprised but friend Arthur Pottinger recalls Thomas as being “desperately shy”.
It must have been with some trepidation then that Thomas lined up with Ruby Inkster’s band at Hamnavoe in 1948 for what was among the first of his public appearances. He would join Ruby’s band for Up Helly Aa at the Central School the following year. Around this time Thomas would often play fiddle at the Hamnavoe Hall, either solo or as part of ‘The Hamnavoe Band’.
Meanwhile, Thomas could still be seen cycling around Burra but there was now another travelling companion – 12 Worthingtons! Thomas’s soon began performing all around Shetland in dance halls. It is said that when he took the stage, the ‘roof came off’. The way Thomas sung and played became spoken about. Indeed, if Thomas happened to be anywhere in a particular vicinity playing & singing, word would spread from house to house until there was a big crowd gathered around to listen.
It became clear to me through my conversations what an impact Thomas had had on people and how he was still fondly remembered all these years later. In my mind, the thought of leaving the precious collection of tapes to rot became obscene – something had to be done. Consequently, a lot of thought went into how I would tackle what I began to call a project – I really wanted to do Granda’s memory justice. A CD release was obvious but not just any CD, I wanted the best sound possible and for it to be packaged appropriately.
The project began in a practical sense during September 2001. I was between jobs and decided to take 2 weeks off to get things kick-started. For the first time in over 20 years, the reel-to-reels left the safe-haven of Bobby’s house.
Considering the reels were almost half a century old, they had kept well but it was necessary to re-record the collection in its entirety on to CD as quickly as possible. This was a lengthy process which involved many a long day and night. Over 1000 minutes of material was transferred in those 2 weeks. However, I soon learned that I had been naïve. I was using Bobby’s old Truvox 4-track tape recorder which had seen better days. This machine was directly linked to a CD-writer that I had bought before arriving in Shetland. Firstly, the old tape heads on the Truvox meant that I had spent 2 weeks solid obliviously recording a duller, ‘wooly’ sound onto CD. Secondly, the fact that most of the tapes were 2 track, meant that playback on a 4-track machine also reduced slightly what precious sound quality was on the reels. In hindsight, the only useful thing the 2 weeks achieved was to catalogue a large part of the collection: some 500 songs along with many parties, conversations of the fishing and of general day-to-day things, radio reports and the arrival of my mother, a baby crying in the sitting room while the clock ticked in the background.
Thomas met my Grandmother Phyllis Inkster in the early 50s. They married at Lerwick in February 1955. Phyllis also had a keen musical interest and husband and wife played and recorded together, Phyllis accompanying Thomas on guitar. Their first child, May, was born in August 1956. A 2 nd child, Phyllis Margaret, was born in October 1957 but died only a few days old. The couple were to have no more children. This period was an eventful one for the Fraser household for Thomas was now self-employed with the recent acquisition of the lobster boat, ‘The Lark’. At night, like many Burra men, supplementary income to fishing was gleaned from machine-knitting jumpers.
As May grew up, father and daughter would sing and record together whilst my Mum would record her own versions of old country songs. Not surprising in these circumstances, her voice really developed and kick started a singing career which continues to this day. After having spent all day listening to scenarios like these, I would stumble out in the early hours of the morning having felt like I was in some kind of time warp. Exacerbating this surreal feeling was the stunning news emerging from the US and the aftermath of ‘9/11’.
The overwhelming feeling being relayed through the old tape was Thomas’s passion for the music. He really poured everything into his recordings. This was a fact not lost on the many musical friends who would regularly visit Setter. The house became a musical magnet for people all over Shetland with the likes of Arthur Pottinger, Davie Manson from Quarff, Robbie Cumming, Bobby Fraser, cousin Alan Jamieson, Geordie Goodlad, Eddie Williamson, Victor Inkster, Ian Stewart, Tammie Johnson as well as Alec Pottinger & family and brothers John and Scott Christie, making regular visits. People would come not only to play with Thomas but to listen and learn from him. Budding young musicians would comment that although they wouldn’t mind being able to play like Django Reinhardt, they really wished they could sing like Thomas Fraser….
Of course, Thomas was delighted to welcome the visitors and would take turns at playing tunes on their guitars and vice-versa. Strangely, no alcohol was consumed at these ‘sessions’, such was the seriousness placed on them & the dedication of those involved. Phyllis would supply copious amounts of Brünie and tea while May would stand shyly at the door, looking in at the throng. Little would they know that I would be poring over it nearly 40 years later…..
It became clear to me that the transfers I had made were going to be of no use commercially. I had to seek specialist opinion. Over the next few months I became something of a reel-to-reel tape machine enthusiast; phoning around, trying to sift through all the masses of information about. The best machines around were those of Swiss manufacturer, Revox. I bought a restored 2 track Revox A77 machine in early 2002 and promptly took 2 weeks off to go home and re-record the best songs for inclusion on the CD. The result were an immeasurable improvement. Songs were brought to life sounding crisp and clear.
Given his circumstances and environment, Thomas achieved an unbelievable sound. He must have worked really hard to achieve the perfect microphone balance between vocal and guitar. It occurred to me that a great deal of time, money and care had gone in to his recordings. As his friend Eddie Williamson recently pointed out to me, recording was simply Thomas’s hobby and he spent a great deal of time and money buying and using the best possible equipment.
Life in the Fraser household was a normal routine of hard work at the fishing, and crofting. No doubt, doing well at the fishing reflected in his often elaborate purchases – one of the first TVs in Burra and in 1960, his first ‘proper’ guitar: a brand new Levin ‘Goliath’. The guitar cost £60 – a massive spend for the day. Another musical friend, Davie Manson, comments on how the purchase reflected Thomas’s passion for the guitar above all else. The Levin still survives and still plays and sounds beautifully. Most significant however, was Thomas’s (and Burra’s) first reel-to-reel tape recorder. Since home recording was then at the cutting-edge of technology, great interest surrounded the machine’s arrival. Immediately, Thomas set about recording himself playing and singing. He would learn and record versions of his favourite artists who now included Stephane Grappelli, Big Bill Broonzy, The Inkspots, Hank Williams and Django Reinhardt.
Initially, recording was not done for posterity, rather the sheer novelty of hearing one’s self on tape. Soon, Thomas received requests for recordings and people would send Thomas a song complete with a message asking him to record his own version. As the years went on, Thomas recorded thousands of songs. Today, we have around 600 of these. Unfortunately, many have withered with age or are incomplete for Thomas was a perfectionist and would often record then re-record in a quest for the best ‘take’. It is clear that without Phyllis, Thomas’ tapes may never have survived him. Phyllis would buy tape, mark the boxes, store them and also operate the reel to reel recorder for Thomas ensuring clean starts and stops. They could never have envisaged the release of Thomas’ work commercially and indeed, would probably have squirmed at the thought! Who knows what Thomas might have been capable of in a professional recording environment or with access to the kind of technology available to musicians today. Even in the ’60s he was experimenting with recording techniques. Bobby Fraser recollects late nights experimenting with new recording techniques such as multi-tracking. Bobby fondly recalls entire nights spent recording with the two enthusiasts only stopping when Phyllis rose to go out and maet da sheep!
Thomas was never far away from music and he constantly practised be it at home or aboard his lobster boat. Many people recollect hearing Thomas yodelling in the Voe off Setter on clear, calm nights.
Unfortunately, rougher times were ahead. On October 19th 1973 Thomas ran aground on the Waster Skerrie off Burra. As he clung to the Skerrie his boat, ‘The Active’, was smashed on the rocks. Thomas wept as he heard the last splutters of the engine beneath the sea – the boat was not insured. As the tide rose, the icy-cold sea started to pass over his head. Luckily, Jim Anderson had seen a man on the Skerrie and with time running out, word got to two Burra boats which were nearby. Thomas was thrown a lifeline and dragged aboard, semi-conscious. The Doctor claimed that he was extremely lucky to escape with his life. Having an immense dislike for hospitals, Thomas discharged himself the following day.
The following year was brighter after daughter May’s marriage and the arrival of grandchildren Karl and Rhonda. However, another accident at sea on ‘The Branch’ in early 1977 was to have more dire consequences. Thomas was struck in the face while dredging scallops. Raymie Cowie saw the boat drifting and seeing the extent of his injury, took Thomas ashore at Whiteness to phone for an ambulance. Thomas was flown to Aberdeen for treatment. Upon return, Thomas was tormented by headaches and played little thereafter. The last recordings he made were in April 1977, before the accident. Despite the constant pain Thomas was suffering, he refused to go to the Doctor. Thomas Fraser died on the night of 6th January 1978 at Setter aged 50. Phyllis continued to live alone and stoically tend to the croft at Setter. A third grandchild, Fraser Thomas was born in 1981. Phyllis was to pass away four years later on 8 th May 1985.
Transferring the reels developed into a harrowing task. It seemed to me that on this fragile tape were the entire history of my family. Many of the reels were at the end of their natural lives and very brittle. The slightest false move and you could wipe out a song, possibly the only surviving version of that song. It was fascinating but at the same time enormously stressful.
Despite this, I returned south on the plane with 4 master CDs feeling happier. However, doubts in my own mind were festering. I had the nagging feeling that better results still could be achieved. The only way to prove this would be to send the tapes south to a specialist engineer. Earlier on, I had decided against this because of the risk-factor. I was highly dubious of our Postal service and couldn’t bear to think of the scenario if the tapes had got lost.
I tried to weigh things up in my mind. One thing for sure, I would not have been able to live with myself if I released the CD having not been sure of the quality of the songs contained therein. And what use would the reels be if they could not be released on a usable format? There was no argument. As an experiment, I decided to send four reels down to a company named Pristine Audio in Faversham, Kent.
In remarkably quick time, a CD arrived. Pristine Audio lived up to their name. In a few days, it’s proprietor Andrew Rose had achieved better sound than I had done in months. Of course, Andrew was a Senior sound engineer at the BBC. I decided to send all the reels for the CD south to put my mind at rest.
Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio takes up the story…..
When the tapes first arrived they seemed like just another batch of reels to transfer to CD. I’ve been handling all sorts of audio material for years, so you rarely expect to find anything particularly special – the previous job had been a rich businessman’s Bar Mitzvah recording from 1963…
The Thomas Fraser tapes was something different – very different. Here was something I’d actually want in my own collection, something I’d listen to. My initial impression was of the similarity between what Thomas was doing and the kind of groundwork that some British pop pioneers did back in the 50’s – in particular the much-overlooked side of Lonnie Donegan’s early output, digging out old blues songs and either performing them straight or reinventing them for skiffle. It seemed to me that while Donegan had been busy mining the Leadbelly songbook, Thomas had cast his net wider and brought together an altogether more eclectic catch of styles and songwriters.
Karl started by sending me some of the four-track tapes, which form the smaller part of the collection. By squeezing four tracks onto tape designed to take two there is an inevitable loss in sound quality, but I was pleased with the results I was able to get. Four-track tape never really became a professional format, and there were very few truly high-end recorders ever made. Fortunately there was a gap for ‘semi-professional’ 4-track recorders in the market, and the output from my own mid-60’s valve-driven Akai is remarkably good, as well as being true to the technology Thomas used.
Clearly my efforts made a good impression – a few weeks later several large packages arrived with more tapes – this time the two-track recordings. These I was able to play from a true top-of-the-range Studer A807 professional tape deck – the sort of machine that retailed for more than the cost of a new car!
Every effort was made to ensure I extracted as much as possible from the tapes – heads were judiciously cleaned and realigned for each tape; the sound was digitized at the highest possible resolution; masters were saved onto hard disc at even higher resolution. Despite the wonders of modern digital technology, the most crucial point and potentially weakest link in the chain is the analogue playback and digitization. You can only restore what’s there, and you need to extract every last nuance before taking it any further.
With each of the songs there were a series of processes designed to bring out the recording beneath the tape hiss and often distortion of these old recordings. Hiss was the hardest thing to deal with in these takes, as it shares the same frequencies that give the recordings their life – take too much away and it sounds dull, leave too much in and it becomes an irritating distraction.
Meanwhile at the other end of the audio spectrum many of the recordings lacked bass warmth, probably a by-product of the microphones used. Some were better than others in this respect, but again something needed to be done.
Thus began a painstaking process of addressing each aspect of the sound – for each individual song. Using a mixture of elaborate software for noise reduction, frequency enhancement, equalization and gentle compression I tried to bring out the best in each recording. It was decided early on not to try to add artificial reverb or try and make these mono recordings fake-stereo, but instead to remain true to the direct nature of the sound.
I hope this is what has been achieved. Throughout the process, as each layer of grime was peeled back to reveal the gem beneath, I wanted to try and uncover the sound that I might have heard as a visitor to the Fraser house all those years ago. I hope Thomas would recognise the results as true to his own performances.
As the masters arrived from Andrew, 25 of the best tracks were selected. This was perhaps an even harder task than the transfer work earlier. What distinguishes the songs for me is their openness to interpretation. All have equal validity in a blues, country or roots scenario. On this release, I wanted to present a better cross-section of Thomas’s music with his favourite blues and country supplemented by a couple of jazz tunes and of course, a traditional fiddle reel.
I was determined to lay down a memento for future generations and to give the public a better insight into a unique talent. I felt that it was important that the recording career of one of Shetland’s most talented musicians was not forgotten.
I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I finally was able to take delivery of the finished product. It has been a lengthy, difficult and at times, frustrating process but when I listen to the music, it gives me an immense feeling of satisfaction.