Between learning some chords on an old, out-of-tune piano in a Toronto church basement to setting off on his journey in the blues in 1973 to his death in Calgary on Oct. 24, 2020, after battling cancer and numerous other health challenges, vocalist and musician Bill Dowey will be remembered for not only his music, but for his heart. No matter his stage appearances with Matt Guitar Murphy and Long John Baldry among many, and his tireless time mentoring nascent musicians, friends mention his sweet personality even before they mention his considerable musical contributions.
Promotor, broadcaster and artistic director Cindy McLeod recalls meeting him in the early 1980s at the King Eddy. “There was instant musical respect. He was a blues musician and I’m a jazz vocalist, but that didn’t matter; good music was good music. I had the glorious pleasure of watching him perform with every single great that came through the city.
“I learned more and more about how he influenced young players. He was a very benevolent, kind musician (who) really wanted to see the music continue into the future. He was a blues historian.
“You just can’t talk about Bill without talking about his beautiful, beautiful heart. He really did spread love everywhere he went. He made everyone feel good.”
Dowey ran jams around the city for the better part of 30 years, most memorably at the old King Eddy before it closed and was taken down (temporarily) in 2004. His Ruby Moon album, Bill Dowey and the Blues Devils’ Look On Yonder Wall: Live at the King Edward Hotel, documents his performances from that era, featuring tunes by Willie Dixon, Sam Cooke and Randy Newman among others. Later, he hosted jams at The Blues Can.
McLeod recalls, “You know, the blues is a very unique artform because it’s not institutionalized. It’s an apprentice-mentor relationship, and Bill was always very gracious about being a mentor and sharing the music, sharing the love, sharing the history, sharing Scotch, sharing skills.”
Nico Brennan also benefitted from Dowey’s brand of sharing. She spent decades singing with the Dino Martinis, whom Dowey invited to play the annual Christmas jam at the King Eddy for many years.
She and Jeff Kushner currently co-host a lovely Friday afternoon happy hour online, which Dowey often tuned in to. Brennan recalls: “I feel as though I best got to know Bill when he was hosting the jam at The Blues Can. By this time, I had started to teach myself how to play the ukulele and I was keen to try out my material in front of an audience. Even though I played the ukulele and my music was about as far away from the blues as you could get, he was consistently open to creating a space for me, and more than that for making me feel welcome.”
Blues singer, songwriter and guitarist Tim Williams, who produced the Ruby Moon album, met Dowey about 30 years back, also, surprise, at the King Eddy. Dowey was running the jam when Williams’ band Triple Threat was playing there. “Musicians are like Hell’s Angels; they don’t recruit new members; they just recognize one another when they come along. So, we became friends. I’d always hang around after we’d play that first set on the Eddy jam to have a beer. And then I produced his second album (Ruby Moon’s aforementioned Live at the Eddy.)
“We used to joke that we played the same rooms but we hardly got to play them together. He just dropped in at my gig a couple of weeks ago. He was still in good spirits.”
While Williams will remember Dowey for his incredible guitar, slide and harmonica playing, more than that he recalls: “He was a really sweet guy. I never met anybody who had an issue with Bill. Even at gigs when there were little minor screwups and stuff, nobody ever got mad at Bill. I think he’s the only person besides my wife who I’ve hugged since the pandemic.”
Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer.