A birthday love letter to Willie P. Bennett from Peterborough

One of Canada's greatest songwriters would have been 65 years old today

Willie P. Bennett, pictured here in the 1970s, would have been 65 years old today. He died from a heart attack in his Peterborough home in 2008. (photo: Willie P. Legacy project)
Willie P. Bennett, pictured here in the 1970s, would have been 65 years old today. He died from a heart attack in his Peterborough home in 2008. (photo: Willie P. Legacy project)

Today (October 26, 2016) would have been folk musician Willie P. Bennett’s 65th birthday. He died in Peterborough on February 15, 2008, after suffering a heart attack at the home he shared with local artist Joe Stable.

William Patrick (“Willie P.”) Bennett was born in Toronto in 1951. He was part of the folk music scene in 1970s, alongside contemporaries like Bruce Cockburn, Stan Rogers, Murray McLauchlan, and David Wiffen. He released his first single (“White Line”) in 1969, and his final solo album (the Juno award winning Heartstrings) in 1998.

Throughout his career, Willie P. kept busy as a sideman in bands fronted by other artists including The Dixie Flyers, Joe Hall, Doug McArthur, Sneezy Waters, and Pat Temple and the High Lonesome Players.

In 1991, he joined Fred Eaglesmith’s band The Flying Squirrels with whom he toured for many years, playing mandolin and harmonica and singing.

VIDEO: “Blackie and The Rodeo King” by Willie P. Bennett with Ken Whitely in 1977

Although many people may never have heard Willie P. perform, many will recognize his songs, which are revered for their lyricism, compassion and humour, and depictions of loneliness and addiction.

In 1996, musicians (and friends of Willie P.) Tom Wilson, Colin Linden, and Stephen Fearing formed the roots-rock supergroup Blackie and the Rodeo Kings to record a one-off tribute album of Willie P.’s songs (the band is named after one of his tunes).

Colin Linden, Stephen Fearing, and Tom Wilson originally formed Blackie and the Rodeo Kings in 1996 as a tribute to the songs of Willie P. (photo: BARK)
Colin Linden, Stephen Fearing, and Tom Wilson originally formed Blackie and the Rodeo Kings in 1996 as a tribute to the songs of Willie P. (photo: BARK)

Although the band decided to stay together and has gone on to record eight more albums of mostly original material (their latest album Kings and Kings is out now), the trio still perform Willie P.’s songs in concert (their final song is always “White Line”).

Willie P.’s songs have also been covered by musicians like Old Man Luedecke, Prairie Oyster, Colleen Peterson, Stan Rogers, Garnet Rogers, David Wiffen, Matt Andersen, and Russell deCarle. Both Corb Lund and Kenny Butterill have written tribute songs for Willie P.

Willie P. was well-known and loved by many in the Peterborough community, including his roommate (artist Joe Stable), musicians like Washboard Hank and Dennis O’Toole, and many others.

VIDEO: “White Line” performed by Blackie and The Rodeo Kings at Peterborough’s Market Hall in 2012

“If you were ever at a Willie show, it was like an hour of musical perfection,” says Hank.

Willie P. is perhaps best known for his work with Canadian folk/country troubadour Fred J. Eaglesmith (who’s performing at Showplace Performance Centre in Peterborough on November 12th). Willie first appeared on Fred’s 1987 album Indiana Road and went on to accompany Fred until Willie’s death in 2008.

“Willie knew what he wanted out of life and he liked being the sideman,” Hank says. “He liked not having to be perfect on stage.”

Willie P. Bennett with his friend Washboard Hank on stage at Peterborough's Market Hall during a benefit concert for Willie P. on July 27, 2007 (photo: Rainer Soegtrop)
Willie P. Bennett with his friend Washboard Hank on stage at Peterborough’s Market Hall during a benefit concert for Willie P. on July 27, 2007 (photo: Rainer Soegtrop)

Although Willie P. won the Juno for Best Solo Roots/Traditional Album in 1998 for Heartstrings, his last official studio release, he never pursued success and fame.

“There are stories about him going to Nashville, walking into a record executive’s office and playing him a couple songs,” Hank says. “And the guy says, ‘This is fantastic, come back tomorrow and we’ll sign you up for forever and ever, and for millions of dollars.’”

Despite the indisputable quality of Willie P.’s songwriting, he seemed to fear his own success and continued to perform in relative obscurity. And it was while he was performing during a 2007 Victoria Day weekend concert in Midland that he suffered a heart attack on stage. He played through the heart attack but was forced to stop touring.

VIDEO: “Willie’s Diamond Joe” performed by Matt Andersen

In July 2007, a group of musicians — including Fred Eaglesmith, Stephen Fearing, Colin Linden, Tom Wilson, Washboard Hank, Brent Titcomb, Liam Titcomb, Brock Zeman, Reverend Ken, and more — hosted a benefit concert for Willie at the Market Hall in Peterborough. Willie P. joined the musicians on stage for a few numbers.

While Willie P. attempted to take better care of his health so he could resume touring, he suffered another — this time fatal — heart attack at his home in Peterborough on February 15, 2008.

In September 2010 in Edmonton Alberta, Willie P. was officially inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame during the Canadian Country Music Awards (CCMAs). The award was accepted by his mother, sister, and nephew.

Willie P. Bennett performing at a benefit in his honour at Peterborough's Market Hall on July 27, 2007. The concert raised funds for the musician, who had to stop touring after suffering a heart attack on stage. (Photo: Rainer Soegtrop)
Willie P. Bennett performing at a benefit in his honour at Peterborough’s Market Hall on July 27, 2007. The concert raised funds for the musician, who had to stop touring after suffering a heart attack on stage. (Photo: Rainer Soegtrop)

Before he died, Willie P. had recorded a final album, but it has never been publicly released due to family issues with his estate.

In February 2014, a group of Willie P.’s friends and fans launched the Willie P. Legacy project (www.willieplegacy.com), aimed at preserving and promoting the works of the late Canadian folk music icon, Willie P. Bennett.

Willie P. may be gone, but he’s not forgotten — especially by his friends in Peterborough. Every year since Willie P.’s death, musicians gather in February for the annual “Blue Valentine” tribute to the music and life of Willie P.

Wherever you are, Willie P., we all wish you a happy 65th birthday. You’ll never fade away.

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