He’s played with three bands of brothers and many legends in the business, but these days, Willie MacCalder is content to sit at his piano bench as a one-man act.
A founding member of The Powder Blues Band, the Edmonton-raised pianist, organist, songwriter, and vocalist has a history that reads as a who’s who in the music business.
He’ll share some of those stories, along with some rockin’ blues and boogie when he joins the Les Copeland Band in concert Friday at the Prestige Hotel banquet room.
Now 68, MacCalder has spent the last 50 years in the music business.
“Sometimes the piano plays me, and it keeps me young,” he said.
Although his father made him listen to classical music growing up, as a young boy MacCalder’s ear was more attuned to the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll scene
“I had been a radio rat since I was young fellow, listening to the Hit Parade with my mom every evening religiously. We would get half an hour of pop music on CFRN in Edmonton. We would listen to Jim Reeves and Hank Williams, and Fats Domino. This was before Elvis Presley. I was really into popular music, which was not that available at that time in the market,” said MacCalader, recalling some of his favourite tunes back then.
“I was into Tutti Frutti and that wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom made famous by Little Richard, Rock around the Clock and also Jack Scott’s What in the World’s Come Over You. Jack Scott was from Windsor, Ont. and a little known hero of the folk-rock-rockabilly scene around the time of Ronnie Hawkins in the ‘50s.”
It was just after that time that MacCalder developed his own craft by playing in a number of teen bands in Edmonton.
In the mid-’60s, he found success with Willie and the Walkers, which featured two sets of brothers Dennis and Nick Petruck and Bill and Roland Hardie.
“We had a wonderful manager named Wes Dakus, who put us on stage with so many acts, everyone from Paul Revere and the Raiders to The Guess Who. In a very short period of time, 1966-67, we were on Capitol Records and travelling to New Mexico to record with Buddy Holly’s record producer.”
The band also had a number one selling single in 1967 with (Alone) in My Room, which spent six weeks on the RPM charts, the Canadian equivalent to Billboard.
The following year found the band in New York City under new management, touring nightclubs.
“This was after the big emergence of artists owning their own material. That’s when we started to listen to acts like The Band and Bob Dylan,” said MacCalder.
“This was also the time of the British invasion. We were basically a cover band, and had written some original material.”
This, MacCalder says, was one of the reasons the band decided to split up and served as a segue to him discovering the blues.
“Holger Peterson at Stoney Plains (Records) used to hire my group with classic blues acts. There was a fellow named Bob Godwin, who played guitar and a Harley Davidson, from Edmonton. He worked with Greg Kennedy, a bassist that everyone thought was Humphrey Bogart. The two of them for some unknown reason had access to vaults on how to play blues music. They basically worked me into a style of piano playing,which I can’t begin to say what a quantum leap it was. Now I could be a band all to myself.”
It was a mutual love of the blues that led MacCalder, who by this time had moved to Vancouver, to meet another set of brothers, Chicago-born siblings Tom and Jack Lavin.
In the mid-’70s the men started playing as a house band in Gastown and The Powder Blues was born.
MacCalder’s keyboard and vocals can be heard on The Powder Blues’ early albums, Uncut and Thirsty Ears. However, despite their success, MacCalder decided to go at it alone.
“This was 10 years after being in bands. I came to Vancouver through the band Seeds of Time in 1973 and worked with the Black Snake Blues Band and Teen Angel and the Rockin’ Rebels,” he said. “I worked with three brother teams, which all ended in sibling rivalry and I got stuck in the middle. I was the odd man out, so I ended up going to the next thing, which equated to progress musically and self-protection mostly.”
As a soloist, MacCalder developed a style of accompanying himself, with his left hand playing the rhythm and his right acting as the voice.
“Now I could sit down and play all by myself and sing this blues music,” said MacCalder, adding he listened to Otis Spann playing Good Morning Blues for inspiration. “He played so slowly and soulfully, I could hear every bit in between the notes, which is more important than the notes themselves.
“It sounded like three voices, and is what attracted me to the blues.”
MacCalder also continued to collaborate, and was one of the last Canadian pianists to perform with the legendary Long John Baldry before he died in 2005.
It was through a Vernon musician, David Carr, that MacCalder met a number of Interior players, including local guitarist Les Copeland, who played alongside Delta bluesman David “Honeyboy” Edwards before he died in 2011.
“I thought he was a way smart musician. He can play anything. Les is fearless,” said MacCalder.
Accompanied by Cameron Ward on bass and Scott Grant on drums, MacCalder and Copeland are looking forward to collaborating once again when they perform in Vernon.
“Music comes from your heart to your head to your hands especially if the muse is in the room. With Les, the music is definitely in the room,” said MacCalder.
Tickets for Friday’s concert at the Prestige Hotel are $20, and feature appetizers prepared by Bourbon Street Bar and Grill and a cash bar. Doors open at 7 p.m. with the show at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at Bourbon Street in the Prestige, East Side Liquor Company, 30th Ave Pawn, and at the door, if available.