Bill O’Donnell – Musician/Mathematician Extraordinaire!
I had the pleasure of meeting up with Bill O’Donnell, a member of the Denver-based Irish musical group “Juice O’ The Barley”.
Bill and I have been in touch through my site off and on during the past couple of years and so we finally decided that a get together was in store.
Bill was born in 1946 in the State of Maine with his family eventually making their way to Denver where they resided first in northeast Denver along what would later become the I-70 corridor. Their next move was a little further south where the O’Donnell’s resided just on the dividing line between two Denver high school neighborhood districts – South and George Washington. Bill related how his dad was an alumnus of South High but their home was situated just inside the George Washington attendance district – and so when it was time to head off to high school Bill would become a “Patriot”.
Bill was encouraged to take up the French horn – being advised that there were not nearly the number of French horns in school orchestra vs. trumpets. But Bill had designs on the guitar which would soon become his favored instrument and would be employed when he and a classmate would team up as a essentially a folk duo called dubbed “The Tallymen” but Bill’s father who drew the name from the lyric line in Harry Belafonte’s major hit record “The Banana Boat Song”.
“We drew very heavily from the repertoire of the Kingston Trio” Bill recalled. The Tallymen soon decided to test their musical talent by entering into the Rocky Mountain News’ annual summer talent competition via “The Show Wagon”. The format for the summer rite was for local amateur performers of all disciplines to attend an ‘open mic’ session in one of Denver’s designated neighborhood parks. Judges at each park would determine the winners who would advance onto the final grand performance which would take place at Cheesman Park in central Denver.
The performances were free-of-charge to the public. Thousands would attend bringing blankets and picnic baskets to be entertained by dancers, comedians, and all varieties of musical acts from accordion solos to garage group rock and roll and everything in between. The Tallymen did advance to the Cheesman event and were even approached by a talent scout who talked the boys into cutting a few demo tracks for submission to and Illinois-based publisher for consideration. The demo’s failed to garner any attention – but the Tallymen weren’t overly disappointed being content with the direction they were heading.
Bill attended school with two future Moonrakers, Veeder Van Dorn and Joel Brandeis. O’Donnell and Brandeis were both members of the George Washing High School band.
Bill journeyed to the Colorado western slope community of Gunnison where he attended college. With the Vietnam war escalating, he could see that the Vietnam conflict wasn’t going to fade anytime soon and so he elected to go ahead and fulfill his military obligation entering into the U.S. Army as an enlisted soldier. Officer school soon came knocking and so Bill entered into the 10-month training program finishing second in his class – a ranking that awarded him with his choice of his military path.
This fortunately led to an assignment ‘Stateside’ in the South U.S. After a three-year stint in the Army, Bill would obtain his master’s degree in teaching and would first return to George Washington to teach math and then Cherry Creek High School.
Throughout his journey Bill always kept in touch with his musical yearnings and eventually came into contact with local folk singer Walt Conley. An opening in Walt’s backing group provided Bill with an opportunity which he eagerly accepted. Conley was a versatile and seasoned folk singer having befriended and performed with the Smother’s Brothers after meeting them in Aspen, Colorado (bringing them to Colorado to perform at the Satire Lounge), Glenn Yarbrough, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Bob Gibson and others. Bill sent me this image below of a great early concert poster.
(NOTE: Bob Dylan came to Denver as a teenage Robert Zimmerman and resided for a time with Walt Conley – Bob performed at the Satire briefly before heading up in 1966 to the gold camp town Central City where he played for about two weeks at the Gilded Garter a venue where a very young Judy Collins made her Colorado debut more or less.)
(Visit my 2013 Post “Bobby’s Forgettable Visit to Denver” click image below)
Bill performed as a member of “Conley and Company” for eight years prior to Walt’s death in 2004 at age 74.
Bill continues on today performing as a the bass player for “Juice O’ The Barley” (click the image below to visit their web site). Co-members are Kelly O’Dea (fiddle and vocals) and Nate Hixon (guitar, mandolin and vocals).
Bill and I spent nearly a three hour breakfast session talking Denver memories and music – and exchanging memorabilia – which I will feature here in short order. My next Post will be a fond look back at Denver radio station KIMN through the eyes of Bill’s younger brother – the late George O’Donnell! Also, in the spirit of a local movement to promote Walt Conley to induction into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, I will be posting more stories and information on Bill’s dear friend Walt Conley.