Born: October 5, 1925; Died: January 23, 2013.
John Waterson, who has died aged 87, was one of the best-known and most respected figures in the licensed trade in Scotland. Not only did he own some of Glasgow's most famous hostelries, he played a pivotal role in turning Scottish pubs into much more than simply places where men could go and drink the night away. He was pivotal in the Scottish music scene in its heyday from the 1960s to the early 1980s, when he gave many young musicians a platform to perform their music in public, and was also active in the leadership of the licensed trade. He was also a member of the children's panel.
He was born in Great Hamilton Street in the Calton district of Glasgow and not too much is known of his early years. He attended St Alphonse Primary School, although attended might be too strong a word as he always said when asked that he was far too busy to bother about going to school. Friends were thin on the ground, his class being "the biggest shower of rogues and vagabonds ever assembled under one roof".
In 1938, aged 13, he was walking up Hope Street in Glasgow when on a whim he went into the Central Hotel and asked if there were any jobs. He was told if the bell-boy uniform fitted he could start the next day. It did, and this started a career which would last for more than 70 years.
His next step was as a waiter, learning his trade in various Glasgow hotels and restaurants. After the Second World War he joined MacLauchlan's the brewers and worked as a waiter in the Whitehall Restaurant in Renfield Street. Later he took charge of the cocktail bar and became an active member of the United Kingdom Bartenders' Guild.
In 1957 MacLauchlan's leased him the Moss-Side Inn in Paisley. This was successful and in 1962 he bought his first pub – the run-down Burns Bar at Paisley Road Toll in Govan. On the face of it, this was perhaps not a great career move in the early 1960s: a Catholic buying a Rangers pub in Govan, inhabited by hard-drinking dockers.
On his first day the regulars came in only to tell him they had all barred themselves. By closing time on day one he had sold two pints of heavy: one to a Catholic docker who wanted to meet the bravest publican in Glasgow, and one to the Jewish shopkeeper next door who wanted to meet the most stupid publican in Glasgow.
Slowly but surely he worked his magic based on fast, efficient service, good products and a razor-sharp sense of humour.
Regular customers came back, the Rangers bus ran from the pub again and within a year he had revamped the décor, changed the name to Burns Cottage, filled it with Burns memorabilia and in became one of only two pubs in Glasgow licensed for the performance of live music. Musicians starved of venues in which to perform flocked there in droves.
Within two years STV ran a live talent show from the lounge on a Saturday night – a 1960s Scottish X Factor coming live from surely Britain's first themed pub. He was always ahead of the game.
He opened his most famous pub, the Burns Howff, in 1967. Over the years till the mid-1990s he opened a Burns Howff in Renfrew, the Wee Howff in Paisley and, among other acquisitions, McCalls Bar in Hope Street, Glasgow, which became the Pot Still, and much to his enjoyment he bought the Whitehall in Renfield Street which became the Maltman in 1982. The 39 Steps followed in 1986.
That was the last pub he owned. He moved into the hotel business, firstly at the Gleniffer in Paisley, then the Stuart and Bruce hotels in East Kilbride and lastly the Golden Lion hotel in Stirling, which the family still own.
Both Burns Cottage and the Burns Howff played host to most of Scotland's best musicians, many of whom subsequently became world- famous. They included Alex Harvey, Simple Minds, Midge Ure and the members of The Average White Band, to name a few. All played for Mr Waterson although his relationship with musicians could be fraught. They were tightly controlled and played for virtually nothing. When one was interviewed and said he would never forget Mr Waterson for giving him his big break, he bemoaned the fact he and his band were only paid £20 a night. Mr Waterson retorted that this was slander – he never paid any band more than £15.
Underpinning everything he was a licensed trade man, a publican, through and through. He instinctively knew what his customers wanted and could always see change coming – who else would have taken the chance and opened a no-smoking bar, the successful Maltman in 1982?
He was active in trade politics, as president of both Strathclyde and the Scottish Licensed Trade Association. He was a past director of the Scottish Licensed Trade Benevolent Society, a member of the Incorporation of Maltmen in Glasgow, a past chairman of Strathclyde Youth and formerly a member of the Children's Panel in Glasgow.
He said he would never retire and never did, still doing deals well into his 80s.
He is survived by Josephine, his wife of 65 years, children Paul, Josephine, Jonathan and Mark, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. His eldest daughter Kathleen was killed in a car accident in the US in 1979.
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