You may know him as the artistic director of the currently paused Beaches International Jazz Festival or hear him on one of the three radio programs he either hosts or co-hosts in the city.
But did you know that Toronto’s Bill King, a three-time Juno Award nominee, also served as music director for blues-rock singer Janis Joplin, the stylistically versatile Linda Ronstadt, the Pointer Sisters, Martha Reeves and Craig Russell?
Or that, at age 16, he first ventured to Toronto from his hometown of Jefferson, Indiana, on a half-scholarship to study piano and jazz with the immortal Oscar Peterson and his trio?
It’s no wonder that King is considered among his peers as something of a renaissance man, as the number of careers he’s embarked on over the years — and still largely retains — at the age of 74, is impressive.
His exhaustive you-name-it, he’s-done-it list includes: pianist (recording credentials include Stan Rogers, Ronnie Hawkins and John Allan Cameron), recording artist (pop, rock, jazz, soul, funk, Afrobeat), composer, arranger, producer (Liberty Silver, Sophie Milman, to name a few), festival artistic director, instructor, photographer, magazine publisher (The Jazz Report), radio host (“Saturday With Ted Woloshyn” on 1010 Newstalk, “Soul Nation” with son Jesse King Tuesday nights on JAZZ.FM 91 and “The Bill King Show” on CIUT-FM on Thursday mornings) and columnist.
As of 2020, you can now add “author” to his accomplishments, as his just-published “Coming Through the ’60s: An American Rock ’n’ Road Story” is his second book release of 2020, following the spring debut of “Talk! Conversations in All Keys,” a collection of interviews that King has compiled over the years with myriad talents ranging from Peterson, Jeff Healey, Bruce Cockburn and Buffy Sainte-Marie to rising stars Jessica Mitchell and Larnell Lewis.
“Talk 2!” — a sequel that focuses on numerous music-industry folk interviewed by King for his FYIMusicNews and Cashbox columns — is set for spring 2021.
And as if that weren’t enough, “Coming Through the ’60s” also has an accompanying soundtrack called “Mondo Jumbo.”
Looks like someone has been busy during the pandemic.
“I thought about writing ‘Coming Through the ’60s’ during lockdown,” says King. “I had just finished ‘Talk’ and thought, ‘Well, now’s the right time to do it, because we can’t leave the house.’”
The reason he was able to assemble it so quickly is because King has painstakingly noted everything in his life and career as it happened.
“Over the last 20-something years, I’d written some of the stories down so that I wouldn’t forget them and collected them in a short-story folder,” King explains.
Although he ultimately decided to self-publish the autobiography with his own 7Arts.press, King says he had some nibbles from publishers when a now-deceased agent represented him.
“Everybody wanted a celebrity book, but that’s not what I wanted to write,” says King. “There’s enough of that out there.”
Ironically, there are a ton of celebrities mentioned in “Coming Through the ’60s,” as it’s a vivid firsthand account of the times by a young American musician growing up in the decade of the civil rights movement, the “Summer of Love” and the Vietnam War.
“This is a teenage kid growing into his 20s, and it was all about who I saw and ran into and was a part of, but yet a spectator.”
It’s also the story of a son’s often-acrimonious relationship with his father, a Second World War veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and often took it out on his family.
“The reason I wrote it in the way I did is because it’s also a common story of boys with fathers who went to war” during that time, King says. “I thought, ‘How do I relate this to people?’ There are thousands of people who went through the same situation where they had a parent who suffered from PTSD, and how do I explain how we dealt with it and came through it? Because it was really tough at first, living under those conditions and in a house that could explode at any time.”
However, the balm that relieved the friction was the love of music that William King Sr. passed down to Bill and his brother Wayne.
“Dad was the one who had a mad passion for jazz,” King says. “There’s no reason a father should bring this to his kids, especially when they’re not jazz musicians. Why would he insist his kids have music as part of their lives? I had to weigh that and then weigh his illness.”
His father took the kids to see Modern Jazz Quartet, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Miles Davis, while a piano teacher introduced young Bill to the music of Oscar Peterson. At 16, Bill found an ad in Downbeat Magazine offering scholarships to Peterson’s Toronto school of music.
He recorded a song for audition and received word that he’d received a half-scholarship for the six-week program.
“I still have my Western Union telegram telling me,” King recalls. “I was a 16-year-old kid living the dream, because I’d seen Oscar on TV on ‘The Vic Damone Show.’ He played ‘Tonight’ with the trio and I lost it. I couldn’t believe anybody could play like that. When I got the opportunity to come to Toronto, it was just overwhelming.
“Then to meet the guy and him just being such a great guy — like (Peterson trio members) Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen — they treated me like gold. It’s being next to a giant of jazz and all I’m trying to figure out is what the giant is doing, even if I have to trace his fingers on the keyboard.”
After returning to Jefferson — just across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky — King let his hair grow, left home and eventually made his way to California and then New York through a combination of gigs and hitchhiking, relying on strangers along the way who would offer him food and shelter, but also occasionally sleeping in a telephone booth or on a bench for the night. Usually a music club was nearby with melodies spilling out the doors.
“I remember how hard it was on the street, but I remember how happy I was,” King recalls. “I’m in the heart of all of these different scenes and it’s fantastic.”
It was certainly a different time then: an era when trust was more readily offered to strangers, when hitchhiking was an acceptable form of transport.
“From Haight-Ashbury to Greenwich Village, you could always find people who were like-minded,” King explains. “You could always stop at their place, sleep on a floor and move on. You had relationships. You had all this stuff going on.
“Not so much now — I think we’re much more closed off. Then, it was all new. It was all generational and it was young people.
“Everybody was on the same wavelength, trying to make themselves more liberated than they were. Kids still had boundaries, but they wanted to in some way interact and be part of something. They enjoyed the freedom to move around.”
While out on the West Coast, he briefly served as Linda Ronstadt’s music director after her stint in the Stone Poneys.
“I could hardly talk to her because she was so damn beautiful,” King recalls. “She sits down at the piano and starts talking to me and I’m so overtaken by her. I’m hoping I do a great job and I don’t blow this thing and something good will come of this.”
He also served as Janis Joplin’s music director for the time between her stints with Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Kozmic Blues Band.
“I had a lot of fun with her,” King remembers. “I don’t even get into it in the book, but we’d go out at night and we’d play pool. We’d socialize. We’d go to places and we’d just laugh our guts out. I tagged along with her to places. I do mention that we go to see the Faces with Rod Stewart. We went to see Johnny Winter when he first played at Winterland (a San Francisco skating rink and significant music venue).
“Then driving with her in her psychedelic Porsche, when she couldn’t drive in San Francisco on those hills, and the clutch popping and going backwards down the hills. I got along so good with her because she looked at me as not a threat or anything else. She called me ‘Jesus’ all the time. She’d say, ‘Jesus is on the organ!’
“I didn’t need drugs or anything. She’d definitely offer them to me, but I’d turn it down, but we’d look at each other and smile and laugh.”
King also introduced her to the Eddie Floyd classic “Raise Your Hand,” which she ended up performing at Woodstock.
“My first session with her was R&B. She just started looking at tunes she wanted to do and that’s when I said, ‘I know a song for you: Eddie Floyd’s “Raise Your Hand.”’ She had never heard of it, so we got the single and I played it for her and she said, ‘That’s going into my repertoire!’
“That became one of her main songs.”
The book ends just after King and Kristine, his wife of a few days — and today, 52 years — cross the border into Canada after King has been informed he’s being shipped out to Vietnam.
He and Kris settled in Toronto and, starting anew, he tried to use his past qualifications to obtain work in the new city.
“When we first got here, I put my name on a card at Long & McQuade’s with my number and I wrote, ‘worked with Janis Joplin, Linda Ronstadt and Chuck Berry,’” King recalls. “I never got one phone call.
“Then a year or two passes, I’m playing and people tell me, ‘Yeah, we saw your card at Long & McQuade and thought you were a bullsh—er.’
“And I thought, ‘Damn, welcome to Canada!’”