Archive for Monday, July 8, 2013

Legendary Lawrence fiddler Billy Spears dies

July 8, 2013


Billy Spears, the Lawrence fiddler who influenced numerous local musicians and toured the country playing Western swing and country, died Saturday. He was 82.

"He had a really full life, with lots of music," said his daughter, Carol Latham, noting that she's received an outpouring of support on Facebook from musicians who were impacted by her father. "It's really comforting to know how many people's lives he touched."

Spears died peacefully at his Lawrence home in the arms of his wife, Doris, just five days after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

Billy Earl Spears was born in Hartsthorne, Okla., on Oct. 26, 1930. His family could be described in one word: musical. His uncle Earl taught him to play the fiddle; his first gig was on a radio show with his brothers Ronnie and Dale.

Billy Spears in 2008

Billy Spears in 2008

Spears started playing professionally in the early 1950s, traveling with such acts as Ferlin Husky, Jean Shepard and T. Texas Tyler. He met his wife when she asked him for an autograph at a show in Great Falls, Mont. They moved to Lawrence in the late 1950s, when Spears took a job at Kansas University in the food department at the student union. He played in local bands during his free time.

After one of his four daughters, Sally, was murdered by her boyfriend in 1975, Spears decided to dedicate his life to music full time. He retired from his job, formed the Billy Spears Band and hit the road, reaching some of his greatest heights as a musician.

His road manager at the time, Dwight Haldeman, remembers how Spears, who also played the electric mandolin, excelled at breakdowns — "he could play faster than people could hear" — and how he could "milk the emotion out of a ballad."

"He was brilliant. He was a genius. He attracted the best-of-the-best young players," Haldeman said. "He was as fine a human being as you'll ever find and as fine of a fiddle player as you'll find — in that order."

The band toured the states in an old school bus playing a mix of Western swing, country, bluegrass, blues, folk, jazz and rock. They filled dance halls in the South and Midwest, played at bluegrass festivals and in ski-resort towns, and performed in the famous Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa, Okla., which often played host to Bob Wills, aka the King of Western Swing, one of Spears' greatest musical influences.

Unfortunately, that part of Spears' career was cut short when, in 1978, he dove into a swimming hole in his native Oklahoma, breaking his neck. Doctors predicted he would never again walk, let alone play the fiddle. He eventually taught himself how to do both, though he later admitted that he never played quite the same after the accident.

“I think, pound for pound, when Billy had that band that included (guitarist) Junior Brown (in the 1970s), I think that was the best band that ever called Lawrence home. Those guys were jaw-droppingly good,” Lawrence harmonica player Lee McBee told the Journal-World in 2009. “If Billy hadn’t gotten hurt, he would have gone on to do far greater things.”

The Billy Spears Band in 1978: Bob Case, Andy Curry, Billy Spears, Bud Pettit, Jim Law and Junior Brown

The Billy Spears Band in 1978: Bob Case, Andy Curry, Billy Spears, Bud Pettit, Jim Law and Junior Brown

Still, Spears kept at it, performing mostly locally in the years that followed.

"I played with him all over Kansas and Missouri — every place we went somebody knew him," said Steve Montgomery, a Lawrence bass guitarist who performed alongside Spears for nearly two decades. "He was one of the best guys I knew. He was an excellent friend and a great musician."

Spears mentored numerous performers in Lawrence, many of whom went onto have successful careers of their own.

Chuck Mead, of the Grammy-nominated country group BR549, used to hang around Richardson's Music (now Richard's Music) in Lawrence when the Billy Spears Band was at its apex.

"He was a legend around town," Mead once said of Spears. "He's easily one of the greatest, most original talents to ever come out of Kansas really."

Around the turn of the millennium, Spears formed Billy Spears and the Beer Bellies, and played Johnny's Tavern twice a month for more than a decade. He never lost his passion for music or his adopted hometown. “Lawrence is full of different music. All styles. It is a good town for musicians,” Spears said in 2009.

He was also proud that he was able to pass his love for music onto his daughters. Carol sang with her father for many years, while Lisa was a pedal-steel guitarist who lived in Nashville and played with famous country singer Porter Wagoner; she later returned home and performed with her dad.

Spears was inducted into the Kansas Music Hall of Fame in 2009 at a ceremony at Lawrence's Liberty Hall. He continued performing until a few months before his death, telling the Journal-World in 2008: "If you want to play, you'll play. If I don't play, Doris thinks there's something wrong with me."

Spears is survived by his wife, Doris; daughters Carol Latham and Lisa Spears-Tenpenny; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by daughters Sally and Lawna and grandson Christopher Latham. A celebration of his life is scheduled for Aug. 10 at Eagles Lodge, 1803 W. Sixth St. More information will be forthcoming. Check the Facebook pages of Spears and daughter Carol Latham for details.


irvan moore 4 years, 8 months ago

rip Billy, you were one of the good guys

Deb Stavin 4 years, 8 months ago

Please note: It's Porter Wagoner, not Wagner.

Phil Minkin 4 years, 8 months ago

He was a part, not just of the Lawrence music scene, but a real part of Lawrence.

Robert Wells 4 years, 8 months ago

How SAD I have to answer some STUPID survey to read about Billy. The last two post were never put on here. Heres your chance to ignore me again LJW>>>> Any chance someone there will responed????

Leslie Swearingen 4 years, 8 months ago

I know it is very hot, but whining is not the way to go. Someone might think you are a mosquito and swat you. Wouldn't want that to happen. It just takes a second to click and there are two questions, two seconds.

I think we should start complimenting the LJW on how good the online paper is. They have some excellent writers on staff, and an outstanding photographer. I wonder what happened to the guy who wrote the bicycle blog. I always enjoyed reading him.

I saw Billy Spears and his band a time or two at the brown bag concerts. If I am not mistaken they had a song about growing old that told of a grandpa who had to ask his grandson to tie his shoes. Great song, I loved the lyrics. It is always wonderful when someone finds something they love and are great at, and others enjoy it as much as they do. The musicians are the blessed among us.

Barb Murdoch 4 years, 8 months ago

The new Google surveys are already getting old. Guess I'll add this feature to the already LONG list of things that are annoying about LJ World's website.

he_who_knows_all 4 years, 8 months ago

And yet you continue to keep coming back and taking the time to comment....

Barb Murdoch 4 years, 8 months ago

Yeah, I guess making 2 or 3 comments in the last 20 years really does take up a lot of time.

Orwell 4 years, 8 months ago

Sympathy and condolences to Doris and the family. Billy has meant a lot to so may of us.

tomatogrower 4 years, 8 months ago

Sorry to hear this news. He was a such a good musician.

915_Stroker 4 years, 8 months ago

Billy Speers Country Playhouse, anyone remeber Billys Place, Me , My Brother and sister, We Knew Billy, spent many nights playin, singing, Good times, , Damn I miss those Days.

Abdu Omar 4 years, 8 months ago

Usually at the venues he liked, I would hear him play. He was unusual to say the least. He was a good man and a great fiddler. My heart goes out to the family and hope to see you at the memorial. May he rest in peace. A man of music has died.

Dennis MacMillan 4 years, 8 months ago

I was proud to have played Pedal steel for him 80's. He'll be missed for sure by many. Rest in Peace Billy Spears.

usesomesense 4 years, 8 months ago

My condolences to the Spears family, his friends and co-musicians and to the world of music.

Sue McDaniel 4 years, 8 months ago

My deepest sympathy, I knew the family and also lost my dad to lung cancer. So very difficult, hugs and prayers...

vuduchyld 4 years, 8 months ago

May the family find peace. His was a life well-lived!!!

he_who_knows_all 4 years, 8 months ago

Enjoyed his music as well. He will be misssed.

Tom_Coleman 4 years, 8 months ago

I met Billy in the Spring of 1970. I decided to learn the fiddle and was practising on my porch at 123 E. 19th because my roommates refused to let me practice in the house - for good reason. When I would practice, a little girl would come and stand by the porch and watch. After about three or so sessions, she said, "My daddy plays the fiddle." I asked her name and she said,"Sally, I live across the street." She introduced me to her daddy and he changed my musical life. Billy taught me a number of basic fiddle tunes and was always kind enough to let me play with him around town. I would play the basic part and he would put an everchanging harmony over it. Words can't describe how much his friendship and teaching meant to me. I can still recall his "twinnin" on Maiden's Prayer. Rest easy my friend.

Clickker 4 years, 8 months ago

I saw him play with the Ebling brothers a while back...he could sure draw a crowd

sanerw 4 years, 8 months ago

Rest in Peace Billy as your music will live on forever. You will be truly missed.

Velma Holladay Flory 4 years, 8 months ago

Billy was my boss at the KU student union many years ago. He was a great man to work for always kind to everyone. Did some great ice sculptures! You will be missed! My thought and prays go out to the family.

LawrenceMagazine 4 years, 8 months ago

Good advice from Billy Spears ... here's ten points of wisdom Billy Spears put together (along with help from his family) for an interview that appeared in the winter 2010 edition of Lawrence Magazine. Thanks for all the great music, Billy. And thanks to everyone who shared their memories of him.

"Billy Spears’ Beer-Belly Guide to the Good Life in Lawrence"

  1. Don’t give up your day job. Musicians, like people in other competitive careers, want to be successful. But sometimes stable work is necessary to support your family. Billy interrupted his musical tours to work in food service at the University of Kansas union until his four daughters had grown a bit.

  2. Enjoy playing your music, wherever and for whomever. Billy’s daughter Carol Spears-Latham says her dad is just as thrilled playing in downtown Lawrence at a Brown Bag Lunch concert as he is playing in a filled auditorium or stadium.

  3. Have music wherever you go. At Thanksgiving, Billy would travel with his family back to his hometown of Hartshorne, Oklahoma. Children from the various related families would sing at Spears gatherings, so Billy would have his daughters practicing songs in the car all the way to Oklahoma. Carol remembers going to the river with her sisters and dad to fish. When Billy wasn’t fishing, he was playing his fiddle while the girls built sand castles.

  4. Include your family in your activities. All of Billy’s daughters sang or played instruments in bands. All his grandchildren have performed on stage with him or danced for him at one point during his concerts. Billy also has been known to babysit his two great-grandchildren.

  5. Go to the park. Billy says Lawrence parks have changed, but he has enjoyed them in several ways. When a baseball diamond was in South Park, he often went to watch his wife Doris play with her team. He also liked to fly a kite with his kids at a park near Hillcrest.

  6. Keep your fiddle handy; you might want to play it. Billy keeps his fiddle by his bed. If music is being played on the television, he sometimes plays along with it.

  7. Take advantage of hearing Lawrence musicians. Billy says a lot of good musicians are in Lawrence, and that he was lucky to be able to play with a few.

  8. Appreciate your spouse. Billy says his wife Doris put up with a lot over the years. Often musicians traveling with him would stay in their home.

  9. Do what feels good. “Everybody says I don’t do enough exercise. I don’t like doing it unless it feels good. I feel real comfortable sitting here or lying there. When I get up I realize how stoved up I am,” Billy says.

  10. Keep playing like Uncle Earl. Billy’s Uncle Earl Spears was a big influence on him and his fiddle playing. “He’s 94, and he’s still playing pretty good,” Billy says.

Dave Gurss 4 years, 8 months ago

I've seen Billy and the band at Johnny's at least once a month for the last 5 years. I always tried to find a spot where I could see Billy. I'll miss him.

raeandrosie 4 years, 8 months ago

Just curious....did Billy own Earl's Pizza Palace way back when. I remember Doris as a waitress there and if my memory is correct Billy was there also. They cut the pizza in squares. Great pizza.

LadyJ 4 years, 8 months ago

No, his wife Doris worked there as a waitress. Billy and the kids hung out there a lot since their family and the manager's family became close friends.

4getabouit 4 years, 8 months ago

I spent many great evening in Billy's basement....just playing the tunes. He was an inspiration to me and we are diminished by his absence. Rest Billy.

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