Bill King: Sharps, Flats and a Camera Lens

Cashbox Canada April 19 Bill King.jpg

Submitted by Don Graham

Bill King, a native of Indiana, a resident of Toronto and a Citizen of the World  is an artist in every sense of the word. An accomplished pianist and record producer, King also adds photographer to his repertoire.

Bill has been playing piano since he was a child and has fond memories of his grandmother’s house in Indiana where there was an upright piano and she would play spiritual music. At thirteen years old his father decided it was time for Bill to take some piano lessons.  At 17 years old he sent a tape of the trio he had with his brother to The Advanced School of Contemporary Music,  Oscar Peterson’s school in Toronto Canada,  and was awarded a scholarship. He  returned to Indiana and discovered rock  ‘n’  roll music.  “I got interested in rock and roll cause I was interested in the production of the music and also the rhythm that was going on. There was something changing rhythmically that I was interested in.”

When single acts would come to town Bill would be hired to “lift” the songs and arrangements from the records and teach the songs to the band so they could back up the stars. The Dick Clark Caravan of Stars proved a great training ground for the young and eager to learn musician.  Living close to the Kentucky border enabled Bill to listen to a radio station out of Louisville at night and this was his introduction to the black music of the day.

Al Green & Bill KingAl Green & Bill KingThe music was really an extension of their church experience. “When they sang they were testifying.”  Kentucky was just across the state line from where Bill lived so he found himself working at a place called Club Cherry, a predominately black club in Lebanon, Kentucky . This was a little town in the middle of a mostly “dry” state where as Bill says “ a four year old could get a drink.”  Like most working musicians of the day these were the kind of clubs where musicians really  got their chops together.

One day Bill happened upon some friends in his hometown who were going to California, would Bill like to come along? Without hesitation Bill said “sure” and packed up to head out west. He ran into his Dad just before he left who said. “I hear you’re moving out west?” Bill said “Yes I am. “  Dad:  “I don’t think you should “ Bill : “ Bye.”  And so began a crazy chapter of the piano man. He of course ran into a slew of musicians in California and eventually formed a band. One of the members came from a wealthy family and convinced his Dad to give him a bunch of money to go on a tour. No bookings, no route, no plan. They bought a vehicle, packed up their gear and headed to parts unknown. Their ‘tour’ lasted three months. They somehow found work most of the time, some good gigs and some that will be featured in Bill King’s autobiography at a later date I’m sure.

Bill King and Wynton MarsalisBill King and Wynton MarsalisBill eventually wound up in Greenwich Village in New York City, playing piano at Louis Jordan’s place. As he explains, “I’m working at Jordan’s place and across the street is the Café Au Go Go where all the rock stars are going. I’m seeing Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Jose Feliciano, George Carlin and all the big stars of the day. And they  all came downstairs where I was playing.”  In that locale and environment there was all the inside talk of of the industry, who’s working with whom and who’s looking for sidemen. One night Bill hears that Janis Joplin is looking for a keyboard player and he does what any industrious sideman would do! “ I heard she was looking for a keyboard player so I went up the street to the record store, grabbed a copy of Cheap Thrills, looked up the management and made an appointment to go see them. I met with them got an audition and got the gig. “As a piano player Bill King has worked with some of the best, including Linda Ronstadt. When she sat down next to me on the piano stool and sang, what an incredible voice.”

Bill King's 1st Rock Band The ChateausBill King's 1st Rock Band The ChateausThese days  Bill is heavily involved in the world famous Beaches International Jazz Festival , in Toronto. When asked the genesis of the street festival portion of the event King says  “We wanted to involve the merchants on the street and get them interacting with the talent. It’s worked out really well.” He went on to say, “ It’s really a MUSIC festival now , with all different types of music available to listen to. The musical family gets together every year and catch up and say hey to each other “Haven’t seen you since last year, it’s great how they all get along.”

China - Bill King Kris Kearney & Danny McBrideChina - Bill King Kris Kearney & Danny McBrideProducing up and coming new acts, his regular gig as Music Director and sidekick on the Ted Woloshyn Show on Newstalk 1010 every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. keeps him busy. Add photography to his arsenal and you have Bill King 21st Century Renaissance Man. As long as he has his piano and camera Bill King is a happy man. Being married to the love of his life Kris Sandals King is right up there with his piano and camera.  He has years of concert photos that he plans one day, to share with the world in book form. As for his piano. “ I love it more now than I did then and I’m a much better musician now than I was then.” He goes on to say   “ When I play solo  piano I can set the mood wherever I am.  The notes are all the same but it’s the order you put them in that makes the difference.  I can go anywhere in the world  with myself and my piano. Take some pictures while you’re there?

Editor's Note: Please check back next week for the review of Bill King's new CD CinemaScope. 

Kris Kearney, Bill King Bob Johnson in LAKris Kearney, Bill King Bob Johnson in LAThe Hawks with Steve Thompson 1983The Hawks with Steve Thompson 1983