By any standard a review of the life and career of Bill Powell Jr., who died last month reveals a man driven to make his mark on Hamilton’s cultural scene. Until his retirement in 2000, Bill Powell was a one –man arts dervish. At one point in the 1990s, Powell was simultaneously running the two large summer arts events, another arts festival in Waterloo region, an indoor winter Festival of Friends, Buskersfest and a travelling festival that toured the southern United States and Mexico. In the 1960’s the son of former Mayor Bill Powell Sr. left behind a teaching career and the possibility of the priesthood to strike out on a career in the shaky business of running coffeehouses and art galleries. He and his wife Lynne, purchased property on Augusta Street establishing the Ebony Knight coffeehouse—a venture that did not survive. More successful was the Knight II coffeehouse that introduced Hamiltonians to the likes of Joanie Mitchell, Murray Mclauchlan, Bruce Cockburn, Brent Titcomb and other Canadian folkies. One aspiring musician was current CHCH weatherman Matt Hayes who offered a fond recollection.
“I was in a band called Southern Wood. We played at the Knight 2 Coffee House on Augusta which was a successor to the original Ebony Knight club. In some ways that is where I developed my personality—I had to talk between songs while my bandmates were tuning their guitars. Bill was so encouraging, so nurturing and even many years later when I would run into Bill he would talk about our band. I thought that it was neat that he remembered our name. He booked us as opening acts for Canadian legends like Stan Rogers and David Essig. He may have been the first person to record Jackie Washington—he certainly did a lot to promote Jackie’s career. When I see events like Supercrawl, I think they owe their beginnings to the Festival of Friends.”
As the coffeehouse fad started to abate in the 1970’s Bill and Lynne embarked on what would become a quarter-century chapter in their lives—the creation of the Festival of Friends. After forming a not-for-profit corporation and scrounging some grant money from the City of Hamilton, the first Festival of Friends made its debut in Gage Park in 1976. The headliners in that show reflected the Powell philosophy of showcasing Canadian talent—John Allan Cameron, Shirley Eikhard and Ray Materick. The event was an immediate success, attracting 100,000 visitors. Subsequent years would see crowds that would double and triple the initial turnout. The roster of talent who performed in subsequent Festivals was a who’s who of Canadian and Hamilton musicians—in addition to Mclauchlan, Cockburn and Titcomb, performers like Valdy, newcomer Tom Wilson, Sneezy Waters, Long John Baldry (then living in Dundas), Stan Rogers; and local talent like Rita Chiarelli, Mark McNeil and Jim Witter. In its 12th year the Festival began to attract serious corporate sponsorship and the roster of performers was expanded to include the Nylons, Dan Hill, Jeff Healey and Burton Cummings. Few who were there will forget Cumming’s solo performance in 1996 in front of over 50,000 rapt fans. It was a two-hour show with two encores.
In 1989 the Powells developed an ambitious second summer festival, Earthsong. It was intended to showcase international talent and culture. It started in Dundurn Park, but was forced to move to Princess Point after some members of Hamilton City Council objected to holding festivals on a historic site. Earthsong soon ran into controversy at Princess Point as Westdale residents complained about noise and traffic.
Despite the success of the festivals, the public acclaim, the hordes of out-of-town visitors they attracted and the spin-off economic benefits that accrued to Hamilton; financing the festivals was a never-ending grind. Almost from the beginning Bill Powell had found himself continuously at odds with Hamilton City Council over grants, which started out at $40,000 but were repeatedly trimmed back. Almost annually
the media would carry stories of threats by the city to cut grants countered by Powell’s threats to kill the festivals. Finally in 1999 Earthsong folded. And year later, after staging the 25th annual Festival of Friends, Bill Powell announced he was retiring to devote his time to his passion for painting. Bill Powell’s health began to deteriorate about five years ago, but in recent months he had improved somewhat. His death, the result of an infection, was unexpected.
Bill Powell was by his own admission a hustler, of a very specific sort—an arts impresario—a renaissance man. His intensity sometimes rubbed people the wrong way, and he collected his share of detractors. In his heyday, investigative journalists took a couple of runs at him looking for any evidence of malfeasance, but came up short. In his field of nurturing indigenous music and art, Bill Powell’s impact on the Hamilton creative scene in the heady years of the 1980’s and 1990’s, was arguably equal to that of his more mainstream counterparts, Boris Brott, Daniel Lipton, Peter Mandia and Tom Burrows. It was a cultural golden era in Hamilton and Bill Powell was rightfully in the middle of it.
Written by: John Best