It was a great shock to hear the sad news of Richard Bell, keyboard great in The Band, passing away unexpectedly at his home here in Toronto, Ontario, Friday, June 15, 2007, at the age of 61. I heard this unhappy news from my good friend, guitarist Buzz Thompson, who performed onstage with Richard many times, in Rompin' Ronnie Hawkins' band, The Hawks .. along with Levon Helm, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jeff Healey, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, John Sebastian and Michelle Phillips.
Buzz told me he had just heard this very unhappy news himself, from a lady singer who had recorded with Richard, and whose CD he mixed and mastered.
It was always a pleasure to see Richard anywhere we happened to run into each other .. at a show he was doing, or by chance one he attended.
I will always remember how hard he tried, to get me into a B.B. King concert in Hamilton, Ontario years ago, that he was opening for with Big Daddy G (blues band), but it didn't work out.
Richard told me afterwards, that as he was leaving the Hamilton venue that night, B.B. was just arriving. He told me, he said, "Hi, B.B." as he was walking out, and B.B. said "Hi" back, as he was going in to play his show. I was thinking at the time, that Richard must have known B.B. from the days when he played piano with the iconic Janis Joplin in her Full Tilt Boogie Band. He also performed with blues harp great Paul Butterfield and guitarist Bonnie Rait.
Richard was always nice to talk to .. mostly on the phone before he got ill. One of the last times, was when he told me about Levon Helm televising live concerts on the net from his farmhouse just outside of Woodstock, NY.
The last time this writer had the pleasure of seeing Richard perform live, was at Toronto’s Legendary Horseshoe Tavern in 2005, during Grammy Award-winning Colin Linden’s CD release party for Southern Jumbo. This concert featured Bell in a rare and highly enjoyable appearance playing accordion, as well as piano. Bruce Cockburn was special guest this night, along with Blue Rodeo guitarist/vocalist Jim Cuddy, blues harp great Paul Reddick and roots blues guitarist/vocalist Doc Maclean (who also hosted his own CD release this same evening) -- among other illustrious and highly accomplished Canadian artists. It was quite a night of upbeat, charismatic entertainment and a cherished memory for this writer.
Linden shares some kind words on his website about his longtime friend and bandmate Bell, and also features a short bio/documentary showcasing Richard Bell in 2006 -- talking about his life in music (including reminiscences about Janis Joplin, etc.) -- in a You Tube broadcast at this link: http://www.colinlinden.com/
There was a ‘wake’ held in Bell’s honor a few days after his passing, and hosted by Linden at Toronto’s Steam Whistle Brewery (just south of the Skydome and CN Tower). This was a fitting location where many exemplary blues and jazz festival showcases took place in the past few years, featuring Bell and other blues and jazz luminaries. There were heartwarming eulogies given this day by Linden and Bell’s family.
Those present were treated to a slideshow commemorating Bell’s life in pictures and music. Recordings Bell was part of over the past 40-plus years were heard in the background. Many of these aforementioned artists (including Cockburn and Reddick) and others attending this ‘wake’, were featured on these recordings, and came together to remember Richard and share his memory with others of his friends and family. Some of these included: blues chanteuse Roxanne Potvin, Downchild co-founder Donnie ‘Mr. Downchild’ Walsh, blues harp/sax/guitarist Al Lerman (Fathead), bassist Prakash John (Blues Angels/ex-Alice Cooper/Lou Reed/Mandala), drummer Jordan John (Blues Angels), publicist/talent booker Richard Flohil and keyboard player/jazz editor/Beaches Jazz Fest promoter Bill King; as well as bassist Gary Kendall (Downchild/Gary Kendall Band), sax great Pat Carey (Downchild/Three Tenors saxes/Johnny Pennino), blues guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Brian Blain (editor of Maple Blues and Downtown Toronto Jazz), guitarist Mitch Lewis (Cadillac Ranch/Bradley & The Bouncers), guitarist Stan Endersby, bassist Terry Wilkins, keyboardist Martin Aucoin, singer/songwriter/DJ/music producer Bob Segarini and singer Max Brand.
There are many who miss Richard Bell, including this writer! He was a really good person and kind friend! I'm sure he is in rock 'n' roll Heaven up above .. even though I'm sure he would prefer to be 'down here' with his friends.
Maybe Richard and Janis will 'play one for us'! We could use it right now!
There's a mention of Richard Bell's passing, on The Band's website, at this link:
On a similar note, there's also a beautiful tribute page to another keyboard great, Billy Preston on Leon Russell's cyber bio page. This page was created by Jerry Sienty, long-time friend of Leon and Billy for over 30 years. The sentiment expressed in the Billy Preston song "I'm Never Gonna Say Goodbye", playing in the background on the Preston tribute page, although about Preston, also sums up the feelings of many who knew Richard Bell as a friend and artist over the years -- including this writer: