By James Reaney, The London Free Press
With the death of Ken Palmer, the London music scene is mourning one of its icons.
The London Music Hall of Famer with the Dixie Flyers and former artistic director of the Home County Music & Art festival died Wednesday of pneumonia following a heart transplant at University Hospital last week, friends said. He was 65.
In a career spanning more than 40 years on the London scene, Palmer was the mandolin ace and vocalist with long-running bluegrass icons the Dixie Flyers. He was a former CBC Radio host and ran a record retail outlet in London. He helped shape Fanshawe College’s radio station. In the 1970s, he was the talent coordinator for the old Smales Pace and Change of Pace folk clubs.
He was born in Montreal and grew up in Port Stanley and faced heart-related illness throughout his life.
Friends turned to social media on Wednesday sharing emotions and memories about “Big Kenny” – a master of the mandolin who always ready with a witty comment or a heartfelt observation as the occasion required.
Palmer always marveled at how the Dixie Flyers went from being a part-time band, playing the old York Hotel in 1974, to finding admirers in bluegrass royalty.
When he teamed with guitarist and singer Bert Baumbach as the Dixie Flyers took flight, the two became lifelong friends on and off the stage.
“We had a goal of being a good bluegrass band,” Palmer once said, looking back. “We thought nothing will ever happen with this thing,” Palmer said then with a characteristic smile. “All of a sudden, Bert got us on the Carlisle Bluegrass Canada (festival). That was by 1975. We had a year to practise for that. We met Bill Monroe.”
When they performed at Carlisle, near Burlington, in 1975, U.S. bluegrass icon Monroe encouraged the young Canadians to be themselves. “I’ll never forget this as long as I live,” said. “We came off the stage, and Bill Monroe was standing there, and he said, ‘You boys are pretty good.’ Here’s the guy that invented the music, and he’s there waiting for us when we come off the stage.”
Later, Monroe would welcome the London band at top U.S. festivals.
Palmer retired from the Dixie Flyers about three years ago and the band eventually went on hiatus after decades of recordings, radio and TV appearances and countless gigs.
The Dixie Flyers were inducted into the London Music Hall of Fame this spring. Palmer and Baumbach watched from the stage of the London Music Hall as a star-studded group of alumni and friends played a bluegrass medley in a salute.
Palmer was at Home County’s helm for 15 years, starting in 1990 when it was known as the Home County Folk Festival. He led its 20th and 30th anniversary celebrations.
Like many of his other positions, it was a volunteer job and not salaried. “I think I’m like a lot of people who have taken stuff from the community, but they’ve also given it back,” Palmer said when he was being honoured with an award in 2006. “You want to give back to the community . . . quite frankly, the more your help the music community, the more you help yourself.”
Visitation is Sunday at the Williams Funeral Home, 45 Elgin St., St. Thomas, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
The funeral service is at the Williams Funeral Home on Monday at 1 p.m.
I am sad, but I’m smiling too as I think of Ken … a true original & like many, I feel luck to have known him.