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Children's festival founder 'had a wonderful life'

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Mood Jga Jga band members (from left) Hermann Freuhm, Gord Osland, Bill Merritt and Greg Leskiw.

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Mood Jga Jga band members (from left) Hermann Freuhm, Gord Osland, Bill Merritt and Greg Leskiw. Photo Store

Bill Merritt, known and loved as one of the founders of the Winnipeg International Children's Festival, has died.

He was also known for his involvement with the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

Merritt, 66, died Tuesday at Riverview Health Centre after a long battle with cancer.

Merritt, husband of Luci and father to son Bill Jr. and daughter Lisa, had survived a first bout of cancer 21 years ago but was diagnosed with a brain tumour four years ago.

He was best known in the 1960s and 1970s as the bass player for several popular bands such as Mood Jga Jga, Fabulous George and the Zodiacs, Be Bop Beluga, Rocky Rolletti and Prairie Dog, among others.

"Bill was an extraordinary human being, a man without guile, without greed, who could make beautiful things happen," said Mitch Podolak, one of the founders of the Winnipeg Folk Festival and artistic director from 1974 to 1986. Merritt served as general manager of the festival from 1977 to 1994.

"I've known a lot of people in my life, very few like Bill Merritt," Podolak said. "We went to dinner three weeks ago and I said, 'What's up?' He said, 'The doctor said a very short time.' I said, 'How do you feel about it?' and he said, 'I've had a wonderful life.' That's how he felt about it."

Drummer Gord Osland said the pair started playing together in 1972 with the band Mood Jga Jga, which was formed when Greg Leskiw came off the road with the Guess Who and invited Merritt, Osland and Hermann Fruehm to play with him.

"Bill was a remarkable musician, he had great ideas," Osland said.

"He played like Paul McCartney. He played with a pick, he had great tone and great time," Osland said, noting Mood Jga Jga went to New York City and recorded its 1975 debut album with Phil Ramone and Warner Brothers. The band stayed together for four years and briefly reunited in the 1990s.

"We got lucky. Here's four little punks from Winnipeg at A&R Studios in New York City -- we had the world by the ass! It was just incredible. That's where we started to play."

Osland, also a member of Be Bop Beluga ("a whale of a band," he said), lives in B.C. now but visited Merritt in Winnipeg earlier this month when Be Bop Beluga reunited March 15 at Riverview to play some music for Merritt. Merritt's wife, Luci, sang.

Marv Terhoch had known Merritt since the early 1970s and the two were part of the founding board of the International Children's Festival in 1983. Terhoch said Merritt was "the consummate humanitarian."

"He cared about people and everyone around him," Terhoch said, noting he, Merritt, Podolak, Drew Cringan, Osland and Claudette Leclerc helped start the children's festival.

"He was thoughtful, but at the same time, he was mischievous and had an incredible wit about him. He'd say things and you weren't sure until hours later if he was serious or kidding."

Terhoch took Merritt to see the Winnipeg Jets play on Feb. 27 in Cringan's private box and earlier this month, Terhoch was among the friends and family present for the Belugas' performance.

Among Merritt's many musical credits were playing for well-known children's entertainers Fred Penner and Al Simmons.

"Bill was the perfect backup musician. He played a solid bass and sang perfect harmony. When called upon, he would sing a hilarious send-up of any current pop song," Simmons said in an email. "We all loved him because he was so supportive of all of our careers."

"Amazing how he managed to make and enjoy music up to the end of his beautiful life. I will miss that guy very much."

ashley.prest@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 26, 2014 A1

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