Elliott Wight could not have known just how much foot-stomping, hall dancing entertainment he would provide for decades to come when he plopped down $5 for a fiddle at age 16.
His longevity — and popularity — as a performer is remarkable considering Wight never took a lesson and to this day cannot read music.
The 75-year-old North River resident has always played by ear doing his best early on, he says, to mimic the once immensely popular Don Messer down east musical style.
While he owns three fiddles today, he has done most of his performing over the past 60 some years with the instrument that he first picked up as a teenager. The countless play on this particular fiddle is evident by a section rubbed completely clean of varnish where Wight rests his left wrist while playing.
And if not for his mother’s regular urgings for Wight to “get up and put the fiddle away’’ when he was getting frustrated with the sound he was producing, he is convinced that he would have shattered the instrument a dozen times over while practicing at home in Flat River.
Instead, he has brought to countless audiences so much joy over the years, a legacy that will be recognized today when he receives the Stompin’ Tom Award for his long-term contributions to the East Coast music industry.
“I would like to share the award with the former members of my band and to my fans that came every night — that’s why I was able to play so long,’’ said Wight.
“It’s (the recognition) a good feeling. It’s a great feeling. But I’ll tell you there is no better feeling than when you go to a dance hall to play for a dance and you open the door to go in and the place is full. That’s the best feeling there is. And that happened to be quite often.’’
The first group Wight played for was called the Country Ramblers, joining a bunch of guys he had never met before. His role was to play fiddle for step dancer Judy MacLean. He performed with the Country Ramblers for a couple years across the Island.
He bought his first amplifier in 1960 because his band was going to play in the New Haven Legion, which had just got a licence to sell beer. Admission was one dollar and a brew cost 75 cents. That gig ran for four years.
But where Wight truly made his mark was with his Elliott Wight Orchestra performing Saturday nights from 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. for 25 years in the 60s, 70s and 80s at the North River Fire Hall.
His band would typically play to a crowd of about 120 people that squeezed into the hall and enthusiastically filled the dance floor for the evening.
“It wasn’t a big place but it was always full,’’ he said.
Judy Lowe, who played keyboards with the Elliott Wight Orchestra for more than 40 years, says Wight developed his own style that won him a faithful following.
“Elliott had a sound that made people get up and dance and that is the best way to describe it,’’ said Lowe. “The way he played he just had a lively fiddle. People just had to get up on the floor.’’
Surprisingly, Wight says he has always felt jittery on stage when under the watchful gaze and intent collective ear of a crowd.
“I never liked it on stage…I’m nervous,’’ he conceded. “I was behind (other musicians) all the time because that was where I was comfortable.’’
Those nerves were working overtime after he performed his last dance at the North River Fire Hall in 1982 and was approached to play at the Charlottetown Legion.
He was intimidated at the thought of playing a venue twice the size of the comfortable, familiar fire hall. For one, he didn’t think he could fill the place, but relented when he was told sliding doors could be used to cut the room in half.
“When we got in to play that was the biggest surprise I ever got,’’ he recalled with a smile. “They had the doors open and both parts were full…my heart nearly stopped. I couldn’t believe it.’’
He played to good crowds at the Charlottetown Legion for a couple years but called it quits there when the numbers started dropping off.
Today, he performs at ceilidhs once a month and picks up other gigs along the way.
“I never got wealthy playing,’’ said Wight, who left school at age 16 and went on to work for 56 years at Palmer Electric, the bulk of which was spent fixing electric motors.
“The first number of years I played cost me money. Driving all over the country you’d end up with about 50 cents or something going home.’’
Wight has also done more than his share of benefit dances. He believes, as well, that he has played every single senior citizens home in Charlottetown for free, some several times over.
“When people ask you to do that, you can’t say no,’’ he said.
Looking back, Wight says his steady sideline as a fiddle player spanning six decades and counting has been a most fulfilling run.
“It was great,’’ he said.
“I have no regrets. I just had such a great crowd follow us and great band members all of my life. I was happy about that. You can’t ask much more than that.’’