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Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011 08:43 am

Billy’s bright blues

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Angel of Mother Road Rockers Celebration for Billy Waldmire, Sun Jan. 30, 1-7:30pm at the Firefighters Club
DRAWING BY BONNIE WALDMIRE MILLER

On Dec. 31, 2010, we lost a much-appreciated and well-respected singer and musician with the passing of Billy Waldmire. I didn’t know him very well, but after spending some time last Sunday with his family at the Cardinal Hill home of Bill and Arlene Waldmire near Rochester, I walked away wishing I had known him better. The outpouring of love and affection and grief and longing was immense and heartfelt as each family member shared thoughts of Billy as a person and cherished loved one.

Talking about Billy Waldmire meant talking about music and his love of performing, from karaoke to live bands to just singing out wherever he happened to be.

“Music kept him going. Music was his first love,” said Bill Waldmire, Billy’s father. “The plumbing and electric work and carpentry and all that just got him the next job for music.”

Billy played in “lots of bands” including Flash, Driver, Nothing but Trouble and most recently the Mother Road Rockers. He was well known enough on the karaoke circuit that, according to his family, when “Billy Bear” walked in the bar door, hosts cued up his favorite songs. He also met Brenda Harness Brown, “the love of his life” at a karaoke night.

“It was at Pier 55 karaoke in 1999. I was singing Crazy by Patsy Cline and Billy got up and rocked my world singing Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” said Brenda. “We clicked right away. It was soulmate kind of stuff. Music was always a big part of what we did.”

The home Brenda and Billy shared became a beacon to musicians looking to jam and practice. They hosted Girl-a-Thon rehearsals and held regular parties with music, food and fun as the focus points, bringing together musicians and listeners for a good time and valued “safety meetings,” important things to Billy along with helping others.

“He was always one to save the day,” said Kevin, a longtime friend and co-worker. “We’d be working a job, he’d get a call, then be taking off to help somebody. I’d just say, ‘Go get ’em, Billy.’”

Billy’s daughter, Diana, got the singing gene, “I blame that on my Dad,” and they accompanied each other at karaoke nights.

“Once he started singing backups to a Shania Twain song I was singing and he’d never heard the song before, he didn’t listen to country,” she said. “He had a good ear and he was creative. He was a free spirit: that describes him.”

Cancer took his life, specifically a bone marrow variety that was in remission for more than five years. Stem cell transplants kept him going, along with a loving and caring family. Billy’s sister, Bonnie, hoped to be the donor for a bone marrow transplant (her marrow matched his) but time ran out before they were able to complete the operation. During his last music shows, Billy would lay down between sets and nap to keep his energy level up for the performance.

Last March he achieved a personal milestone, opening and introducing bluesman Tommy Castro, a musical hero. A Billy fan and friend, Audrey Horrighs, saw Tommy on a blues cruise recently and gave the guitarist a Mother Road Rocker T-shirt in remembrance of one of his biggest fans.

Billy will be missed by all he touched, but in his life, through giving to others, he received great rewards. His way of perceiving his place on earth compelled others to join him in having fun, spreading joy and being at peace with what we have and who we are.

Outside the Cardinal Hill “compound” as snowflakes fell, Dow, Billy’s younger brother, tapped his chest and said, “He’ll always be right in here. That’s where Billy got you, in the heart.”

Contact Tom Irwin at tirwin@illinoistimes.com.

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