Bill Usher is heeding the call of his drum.
The four-time Juno Award winner is saying goodbye to his Kicking Horse Culture executive director gig in favour of a return to the stage with his band Bill Usher and the Space Heaters.
Usher put out a call and seasoned artists were happy to join the Good Getting Older Songs and Stories Tour 2024, which launches in January.
As his biography makes clear, the singer/songwriter/musician and producer might be one of the most accomplished but not so famous people in the world of Canadian music and arts.
The self-taught drummer has played and recorded with many well-known artists, including Canadian music icon Valdy, Bruce Cockburn, Stan Rogers, Ronnie Hawkins and Willie P. Bennett. And his talent has drawn accolades from many: Among them – Juno Award winner folk singer Pharis Romero describes Usher’s Slow Dancing in the Ballroom of Life album as one that “takes you into the dark corners and sunlit porches with Bill’s growling and richly textured voice leading the trip.”
Canadian pop and jazz singer Coco Love Alcorn says that in jamming with him several times she discovered “he has those two golden elements – the groove and the spark. He listens and lays back but also has elements of surprise.”
And from an audience member at a Chicago Conference came this rave review – “These are songs that provide a make-you-move earful with words that make you moved too, touching tender places you thought were yours alone.”
Of the 60 albums he has produced, several of them attaining gold and platinum status, the most notable were the first four with well-known children’s artists Sharon, Lois and Bram, as well as Stringband, the Nexus Percussion Ensemble, and Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.
During four years with CBC, Usher researched, produced and hosted four dozen documentaries on a diverse selection of artists.
Born in London, England in 1946, Usher and his family emigrated to Toronto in 1954. He was fascinated by the radio, the medium that filled his childhood home with music. His introduction to making music was in the student band at Danforth Technical School.
“I was handed a clarinet and learned how to play it,” he says, noting teacher Casey Piekarz taught him to live by the motto ‘If you can’t hear the guy next to you, you’re playing too loud. “It’s part of a story in the show. It’s a life concept, a value I’ve held high throughout my life.”
Not only did Usher learn to play the clarinet, he became president of the 70-plus member school band and rose to a huge challenge Piekarz handed him in the form of a score for Clarinet on the Town.
“Learn this, you are going to play it next year at Massey Hall,” Piekarz told him. Usher practised diligently for the next 10 months. When the day arrived, he was extremely anxious but his teacher turned mentor told him how to handle his nerves. He played the 10-minute solo as planned and while he doesn’t remember one minute of the performance, says it was one of the seminal passages of his life.
Usher graduated in 1966 and travelled around the world the following year.
“I was a hippy playing on the streets but, by the early ’70s, I was playing in clubs. Then I moved into producing, writing, creating and producing a radio show,” he says, noting that he took his own 1986 Juno Award winning album Drums on the road. “I was pretty much like a pinball, bouncing from here to other places.”
Usher had been very busy supporting other artists but, realizing he had personal stories and a voice, began writing his own lyrics.
The artist and his family moved to Golden 2002 where he began volunteering with the then small Golden Arts Council. He then joined the board and helped grow the arts to the point where staff could be hired, thanks to funding from the Town of Golden and the Columbia Shuswap Regional District.
“There was not so much support for the arts council at first and I volunteered almost full time, 30 hours a week for the first two years,” he says, noting he had well-trained in the private sector running companies and had worked for the arts councils ofToronto and Ontario.
“We started with a budget of $50,000 in 2004 and we’re now at $600,000,” he says proudly. “We leveraged all kinds of money.”
Usher, who has used his skills to coach other organizations, says artists are happy to come to Golden to perform.
“I make a lot of effort and we welcome them with our great hospitality,” he says, also proud of the civic centre that was restored in 2011. “It’s gorgeous, well-outfitted and well taken care of.”
Usher says he had conversations with many other artists during COVID, and with the increasingly stronger call of his djembe drum, came to the realization that the time to return to the stage is now.
He will remain at his desk while an arts council committee seeks a new executive director. And wherever he is, the talented artist says he will continue to live by the simple but powerful advice given to him by Pete Seeger at the 1975 Mariposa Folk Festival: “You don’t find community. You make community.”