Billy Bockhold: larger than life


Volume CX, No. 9September, 2010

Andy Schwartz

The New Found Sound, in this publicity picture from 1967, featured (from left) Jerry Hyman, Billy Bockhold, Mike Thuroff, David Spinozza, Bob Gil, Andy Newmark and Andy Deno. Photo: James J. Kriegsmann Sr., courtesy: Joseph Germani

It was very sad news indeed when I received a call this past April notifying me of the passing of my good friend and fellow guitarist, Billy Bockhold. The caller on the line was his oldest boyhood friend, David Chidekel, Esq., and both of us were shaken by the premature loss of this great musician, one who had possessed a larger-than-life personality.

Billy passed away on April 15 at age 62, having suffered a heart attack at his home in Atascadero, Calif. He had been a member of Local 802 since he joined in 1965.

We met back in 1975, subbing together in the original run of “Grease” on Broadway.

Upon first meeting Billy I didn’t know quite what to make of him; on the exterior he seemed a bit tough, and his manner was high intensity.

Yet it only took a few minutes of performing with him to feel his great groove, and by the time the show ended we had connected in an unexpected friendship.

He was born in the Bronx, and along with his musical gifts he displayed a great natural intellect. He was a graduate of Stuyvesant High School and attended Hunter College before leaving to make music his life.

Billy’s career began in the clubs of New York City, such as the Peppermint Lounge, where he was quickly to become known as a fiery and soulful rock and R&B guitarist. As a teen, he performed in “The New Found Sound,” a band that gigged throughout the tri-state area. Bandmates included singer (and later session guitarist) David Spinozza, trombonist Jerry Hyman (later of Blood Sweat & Tears) and drummer Andy Newmark.

Andy Newmark recalled to me, “I was close to Billy since I was 18, and I loved him a lot. He was a beautiful human being and a funky, soulful guitarist.”

David Spinozza adds, “I had never heard another guitarist at that time who was so able to embrace the style of Jimi Hendrix and do it so well…and who could handle a car better than anyone I’d ever seen!”

Billy toured in the 1970’s with hit pop artists The Soul Survivors, whose leader Charlie Ingui told me, “As a musician, Billy, excelled. Especially when it came to his great sense of rhythm. He had a natural R&B feel…he was also one of the funniest guys I’ve ever known and he wasn’t afraid to laugh at himself.”

His big personality was such that he could impress and win over people in potentially negative situations, as his friends saw him do on many occasions.

A wonderful air of confidence exuded from him – he had his act together.

His session work included numerous jingles and recordings for acts including The Three Degrees, and with his own group, “The Willow Band.”

His work on and off Broadway included covering for lead guitarist Elliott Randall in the original U.S. production of “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” He later took over the chair when Randall left in 1972.

Randall remembers, “Billy was one of the finest guitarists I’ve ever had the privilege of playing with: impeccable musical taste, a warm, sincere and quirky fellow, whose humanness and musicality echoed one another.”

Another “Superstar” alumni, drummer Allen Herman writes: “When Billy became a member of the “Superstar” band, we instantly became friends. Not only was he a wonderful player and performed the music with great conviction, he was a good guy to hang out with. I am proud to say that I knew him, and that I played with him. I visited his loft often to hang and play until he moved to west coast.”

Bassist Bob Cranshaw adds, “Billy Bockhold was a very daring, creative and wild musician…very supportive to the rhythm section…It was a joy working with him on ‘Superstar’…many laughs …many tears.”

Billy later performed in “Superstar” during its first national tour.

He was the musical director and guitarist for the first national tour of “Oh, Calcutta.” Joseph Miranda was the company manager with that tour, which set first amendment precedence around the country.

“The funky licks and R&B flavor he brought to the music was a real treat for the audience and all those who were fortunate to hear him,” remembers Miranda. “He was a great guy with a funny sense of humor; he will be missed.”

In a surprise move, he decided to relocate to California in the late 1970’s, where he resided in Woodland Hills for many years prior to moving to Atascadero.

Billy ultimately put aside his guitar and went into the air freight industry, but never lost his love of music.

He is recalled by David Chidekel as “a man of great generosity who helped many friends, and even strangers, in need, often without regard to the difficulty or any inconvenience to himself.”

Billy is survived – and deeply missed – by his extended family, including cousin Miriam Bockhold of Georgia and cousin George Singer of Connecticut. The man and his music will never be forgotten by his close friends and colleagues.