Bennett, Willie P.

Willie P. (William Patrick) Bennett. Singer-songwriter, guitarist, mandolin and harmonica player, b Toronto 26 Oct 1951, d Peterborough, Ont, 15 Feb 2008. Willie P. Bennett began writing songs in his teens; 'White Line,' first recorded in 1973 by David Wiffen, was an early effort. He began his performing career in 1971 at the Smale's Pace coffeehouse in London, Ont, and appeared regularly throughout the 1970s and 1980s at universities, coffeehouses and bars in southern Ontario (Campbell's in Hamilton, Ont, and the Free Times Café in Toronto) and at folk events across Canada (the Festival of Friends in Hamilton and the Summerfolk, Edmonton, Mariposa, Vancouver and Winnipeg folk festivals). He also toured as a harmonica player 1974-9 with the Dixie Flyers.

Among Willie P. Bennett's best-known songs, written in a style that blended country, blues and contemporary folk, were the title pieces from his LPs (see Discography), as well as 'White Line,' 'Music in Your Eyes,' 'Down to the Water,' 'Come on Train' and 'Lace and Pretty Flowers' (alternatively, 'Diamond Rings and Such Things'). 'Goodbye, So Long, Hello,' co-written with Russell deCarle, was a country hit in 1990 as recorded by Prairie Oyster. 'White Line' has also been recorded by Peter Pringle and the US artists Jonathan Edwards, Bill Hughes, Pure Prairie League, The Seldom Scene and John Starling. Other Bennett songs have appeared on recordings by Colleen Peterson, Garnet Rogers and Sneezy Waters. Bennett himself had a minor country hit with 'The Lucky Ones' in 1989.

1990s and Beyond

During the early 1990s, Willie P. Bennett kept a relatively low profile. He mastered the mandolin and toured regularly in singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith's back-up band 1995-2007. Eaglesmith's exhaustive tour schedule - at one point reaching 300 dates a year - precluded Bennett from doing any serious solo touring or recording. His solo career, though, got a shot in the arm with the formation of the group Blackie & the Rodeo Kings by the singer-songwriters Stephen Fearing, Colin Linden and Tom Wilson. Their 1996 album, High or Hurtin', featured 14 of Bennett's best-known songs; the ensuing warm critical reception led in 1998 to Bennett recording Heartstrings, his first solo project in more than nine years. This recording showed that Bennett's writing palette had expanded, with jazz and ethnic touches added to his basic country and folk idioms. The session musicians featured on the disc included such "roots" players as Bruce Cockburn, Melanie Doane, Stephen Fearing, Prairie Oyster and Graham Townsend. Heartstrings received the Juno Award for best solo roots and traditional album.

Blackie & the Rodeo Kings recorded another three Bennett songs for their 1999 Juno-winning double album, Kings of Love, and "Willie's Diamond Joe" for their 2003 release, Bark.

Willie P. Bennett was characterized by critic Greg Quill as 'a haunting, quite tortured performer, incapable of faking a single line. The anguish, loneliness, lovelessness, and often complex joys of which he sings are the stuff of his own life and not just facile romance.'