Manitoba Music Museum

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BILL "RED RIVER " MERRITT

Bill Merritt, known and loved as one of the founders of the Winnipeg International Children's Festival, has died.

He was also known for his involvement with the Winnipeg Folk Festival.


Merritt, 66, died Tuesday at Riverview Health Centre after a long battle with cancer.

Merritt, husband of Luci and father to son Bill Jr. and daughter Lisa, had survived a first bout of cancer 21 years ago but was diagnosed with a brain tumour four years ago.

He was best known in the 1960s and 1970s as the bass player for several popular bands such as Mood Jga Jga, Fabulous George and the Zodiacs, Be Bop Beluga, Rocky Rolletti and Prairie Dog, among others.

"Bill was an extraordinary human being, a man without guile, without greed, who could make beautiful things happen," said Mitch Podolak, one of the founders of the Winnipeg Folk Festival and artistic director from 1974 to 1986. Merritt served as general manager of the festival from 1977 to 1994.

"I've known a lot of people in my life, very few like Bill Merritt," Podolak said. "We went to dinner three weeks ago and I said, 'What's up?' He said, 'The doctor said a very short time.' I said, 'How do you feel about it?' and he said, 'I've had a wonderful life.' That's how he felt about it."

Drummer Gord Osland said the pair started playing together in 1972 with the band Mood Jga Jga, which was formed when Greg Leskiw came off the road with the Guess Who and invited Merritt, Osland and Hermann Fruehm to play with him.

"Bill was a remarkable musician, he had great ideas," Osland said.

"He played like Paul McCartney. He played with a pick, he had great tone and great time," Osland said, noting Mood Jga Jga went to New York City and recorded its 1975 debut album with Phil Ramone and Warner Brothers. The band stayed together for four years and briefly reunited in the 1990s.

"We got lucky. Here's four little punks from Winnipeg at A&R Studios in New York City -- we had the world by the ass! It was just incredible. That's where we started to play."

Osland, also a member of Be Bop Beluga ("a whale of a band," he said), lives in B.C. now but visited Merritt in Winnipeg earlier this month when Be Bop Beluga reunited March 15 at Riverview to play some music for Merritt. Merritt's wife, Luci, sang.

Marv Terhoch had known Merritt since the early 1970s and the two were part of the founding board of the International Children's Festival in 1983. Terhoch said Merritt was "the consummate humanitarian."

"He cared about people and everyone around him," Terhoch said, noting he, Merritt, Podolak, Drew Cringan, Osland and Claudette Leclerc helped start the children's festival.

"He was thoughtful, but at the same time, he was mischievous and had an incredible wit about him. He'd say things and you weren't sure until hours later if he was serious or kidding."

Terhoch took Merritt to see the Winnipeg Jets play on Feb. 27 in Cringan's private box and earlier this month, Terhoch was among the friends and family present for the Belugas' performance.

Among Merritt's many musical credits were playing for well-known children's entertainers Fred Penner and Al Simmons.

"Bill was the perfect backup musician. He played a solid bass and sang perfect harmony. When called upon, he would sing a hilarious send-up of any current pop song," Simmons said in an email. "We all loved him because he was so supportive of all of our careers."

"Amazing how he managed to make and enjoy music up to the end of his beautiful life. I will miss that guy very much."

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 26, 2014 A1

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WILLIAM MERRITT

WILLIAM (BILL) MERRITT 1947 - 2014 Our Bill passed away from brain cancer on Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 12:15 a.m. at Riverview Health Centre. He was predeceased by his parents Myrtle and Henry Merritt, father-in-law Noel Emond, brother-in-law Robert Emond (Bonnie), and granddaughter Vivian Bell. He leaves behind the love of his life Luci, children Lisa Merritt-Bell (Scott) and Billy Merritt Jr., two granddaughters, Grace and Violet Bell, sisters Sue Bernard (Jean), and Janice Graham (Chris), mother-in-law Leonie Emond-Damphousse, sister-in-law Colette Boily (Rolly), brothers-in-law Leo Emond (Anne), Denis Emond (Michelle), Joseph Emond, and many nieces and nephews. Bill worked as Business Manager of the Winnipeg Folk Festival for 17 years and was a co-founder of the Winnipeg International Children's Festival. He was a gifted musician and singer, and also a clever and wickedly funny songwriter who performed on live television and radio programs. Bill recorded or played with: The Shags, Rick and Easy Company, Mood Jga Jga, Rick Neufeld and Prairie Dog, Ian Tyson, Dr. Maurice Shnider Musical Productions, Shirley Eckhardt, Dick Danron, Colleen Petersen, Len Udow, Danny Donahue, Pat Riordan, Ray St. Germaine, Tom Jackson, Shingoose, Jerry & Ziz, Fabulous George and the Zodiacs, Fellowship, Chocolate John, Merritt and Co., Rocki Rolletti, Be Bop Belugas, Al Simmons, Fred Penner, and Graham Shaw (just to name a few). In 1993 Bill developed a brain tumor, which changed his life forever. He fought the good fight for 20 years and was known around the Brain Tumor Clinic at CancerCare as "The Rock Star"! Bill and Luci spent many Manitoba winters in Ajijic, Mexico, their home away from home, where they played, laughed, sang together, and performed all their favourite tunes until Bill's relapse in 2010. Bill was one of those rare human beings who really led by example. He never talked about what he would do or should do; he just went about living his life in accordance with his values - in particular being guided by his love for his family. It was that quiet strength which could always pour oil on troubled waters - he just had a calming effect on every situation and a unique ability to relieve everyone's stresses with his wit. While he was part of the "cultural life" of Winnipeg in so many respects, those of us closest to him never even stopped to think of that. We just loved him and attempting to explain why with words is not only impossible; it runs the risk of diminishing the affection. He was just Our Friend Bill. In no way will Bill be forgotten, for his impact upon those he loved will live on forever and he will be missed every day. The family would like to thank the paramedics who responded to our call, St. Boniface ER and Palliative Unit, Riverview Health Centre, 3 East Palliative Care Unit (special thanks to Kate), and the CancerCare Brain Tumor Clinic - with special thanks to Dr. Jones, Kim Paradowski and Oritt Reuter who helped us through our 20 year battle. And finally, thank you to Dr. Michael West, who gave us one last Christmas with Bill through his amazing work with Gamma Knife Surgery. A CELEBRATION OF BILL'S LIFE will be held on Thursday, April 24 at the Norwood Hotel from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Thank you Bob Sparrow! All are welcome. Donations on Bill's behalf may be made to the Winnipeg Folk Festival, Riverview Health Palliative Care Units, and CancerCare, Brain Tumor Clinic Winnipeg, MB. The Coutu Family in care of arrangements: E.J. COUTU & CO. FUNERAL DIRECTORS 680 Archibald Street 204-253-5086 ejcoutu.com

As published in the Winnipeg Free Press on April 12, 2014