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‘The big yin was my best yin’: How Billy Connolly ignited a friendship with a Dundee journalist which in turn sparked a love affair with the city

Crowds greeted Billy Connolly when he opened the new premises of the Dundee Resources Centre for the unemployed in November 1985.
Crowds greeted Billy Connolly when he opened the new premises of the Dundee Resources Centre for the unemployed in November 1985.

When getting married, a best man’s role is to bring in the laughs during the traditional reception speech. For some this is a hard task but for Fraser Elder’s choice of groomsman it was just like any other day in the office.

That’s because former Dundee artist and journalist Fraser had none other than the Big Yin, Billy Connolly, by his side as he married his second wife Kay in a 1984 ceremony in Glasgow.

Beginnings of a 30-year friendship

Fraser and Billy’s friendship had begun over 10 years earlier after Fraser had moved from the City of Discovery to the big smokes of Glasgow to join the BBC in 1968 and while there began socialising in the BBC Club.

In 1971 Billy was faced with going it alone after his former folk rock band The Humblebums had parted ways because of a falling out between Billy and bandmate Gerry Rafferty.

Billy Connolly in the 1970s.

“When Billy began trying to make his solo career work he would come to the BBC Club often as that is where a lot of people in the industry would be,” Fraser said.

“We got chatting while he was there and he was just marvellous company as you could imagine.

“He of course has this enormous personality on stage but in private he is actually a bit more reserved – he just loves being in company and hearing everyone else’s stories.

“Billy didn’t go about demanding to be the centre of attention which is one of my really fond memories of our friendship, he just enjoys being with other people.”

Protests brought friendships

Pastor Jack Glass was a Scottish Protestant preacher, evangelist and political activist who was often described as Scotland’s answer to Ian Paisley.

He would rarely miss an opportunity to hold protests or anti-Catholic speeches and so when Billy released a skit in the early 70s which placed the Last Supper in the Saracen’s Head public house in Glasgow it was no surprise the pastor took great offence.

Bizarrely it was one of Jack Glass’ protests though that would cement the friendship between Fraser and Billy for decades to come.

Fraser added: “Around the time that we had become quite friendly Billy was having a bit of trouble with a minister in Glasgow at that time called Pastor Jack Glass who had taken great offence to Billy’s version of the Last Supper.

“So by chance I was in Inverness one day and Billy was appearing at the Inverness Theatre and for some unaccountable reason this pastor had travelled to Inverness to have a protest outside the theatre.

“I went to speak to Jack Glass to ask him why he was doing this and told him he was making Billy’s life very uncomfortable and in time Jack Glass dropped that protest and on the strength of that Billy and I became very, very friendly indeed and jumping forward to 1984 Billy was my best man at my wedding in Glasgow.

“He flew across to Glasgow from Paris so he could be at the wedding and he was just great.”

The Big Yin’s love of Dundee

Fraser added: “When Billy first appeared at the Caird Hall in 1972 I went to meet him and he was staying at the Angus Hotel.

“The hotel is now no longer there but it was only around 200 yards from the venue so I said to him ‘why don’t you join the walk of fame in Dundee?’

“He had no idea what that was.

“For many years people performing at the Caird Hall have stayed close to the venue mainly in the Royal Hotel, Angus Hotel and Queen’s Hotel with people like Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra all walking along the Nethergate to the Caird Hall before their show so I said to Billy ‘I will walk you to the along and that will entitle you to be one of those who did the walk of fame.’

Following his first show in 1972, which consisted of four sold out shows over two days, Billy appeared at the venue numerous times for even more sell out performances right up until his final show in 2014.

However Billy didn’t just visit the city for his own gigs he would often support Fraser with fundraising and charity efforts too.

Billy during a rehearsal for the McGonagall Gala Dinner in July 1980.

Fraser added: “I got involved with the Dundee Rep in the early 80s when it was being run out of a church hall in Lochee.

“I was part of a fundraising effort to build a new theatre in Tay Square where the Rep is now.

“I decided to organise a William McGonagall supper in the Angus Hotel in 1984 and I invited Billy along to take part alongside some of my BBC colleagues and I for a night which involved McGonagall’s poems.

“There must have been 300-400 people there all dressed up as William McGonagall with men wearing a bonnet and women wearing shawls.

“At the end of the night Billy invited everybody to the lounge of the Angus Hotel and said he had a very special surprise for everyone – a chip butty.

Sir Jimmy Shand and Billy Connolly pictured before a fundraising concert at the Angus Hotel in August 1980.

“I asked him how he was going to manage that and he said to me ‘I have sent over to the Deep Sea Restaurant, which was across the road at the time, to make up 100 chip butties that are going to be delivered’.

“This was about midnight and the sight of everyone eating chip butties that were ordered by Billy Connolly each dressed up as William McGonagall was quite something.

“He was always up for coming and helping out at any charity events being held in the city and I think through our friendship he grew a great love for Dundee.

Billy and Fraser pictured together during a catch up at the Angus Hotel in the 80s.

“I last saw him a few years ago when he performed his final gig in Dundee and unfortunately with him being over in America and not keeping well at all at the minute we have lost touch with each other.

“I have many fond memories of our decades of friendship though, he was a fantastic friend.”

Fraser’s art immortalised many other famous faces

Fraser began his career at DC Thomson in 1958 and he became known for his caricatures.

Undoubtedly one of his most famous art works was a piece featuring The Beatles which he presented to the Fab Four at their Caird Hall gig in 1963.

Fraser presents his caricature to The Beatles at their 1963 Caird Hall gig.

Fraser added: “In all there were 14 prints of the caricatures done as each of The Beatles wanted a copy and we decided to give 10 autographed pieces away to readers of the Dundee People Journal as prizes.

“As recently as October last year one of the caricatures actually sold to an American for £20,000. Previously others had sold for around £7,000 but I was told that the latest one sold for so much more because it had my signature on it as well as the four boys.

“I was quite proud of my name being the reason that one sold for so much more.”

Fraser’s caricature of pal Billy Connolly.

Fraser also produced a caricature of pal Billy, Dundee and Dundee United players and even the King of Rock and Roll himself, Elvis Presley. Elvis’ caricature is even now on show at the Graceland home of the singer.