The family of Pete Otis, who passed away on Saturday January 5 after being hospitalized following his collapse at his New Year’s Eve show at Black Swan Tavern, decided against having public visitations and held a private funeral for the 69-year-old songwriter and impresario on Thursday, January 10.
A death notice (under his legal name of Panagiotis Panayotou) containing that information was finally published on Jan. 11 for the ebullient, much loved sparkplug who, over the past ten years of his life, changed the landscape of live music in Toronto for many veteran and young indie artists alike.
Friends and fans will have to settle for signing the online book of condolences [see below] and coming out to one of the several shows being planned for over the next month and beyond to remember Pete (details below).
The visionary “CEO/Head Dreamer” of his own SongTown enterprise staged somewhere in the order of 80 multi-act concerts and special live music events (including two weekend music festivals) with many iconic talents; released four compilation albums featuring local songwriters; two discs of his own original material, with a third in the works; and organized several excursions to Nashville with fellow songwriters to promote Toronto music and set up links south of the border. And he was an encouraging, knowledgeable and supportive friend to a veritable galaxy of bright talents of varying genres and ages.
When he wasn’t organizing concerts Pete was supporting artists by attending their shows. He was a fixture at Black Swan Tavern on Mondays for the open mic hosted by fellow veteran Sebastian Agnello and often on Tuesdays for Peter Verity’s show and was always at the album releases, birthday parties, special events or open mics hosted by many of the artists he worked with on his projects.
It was Pete who convinced me to give open stage hosting another try in 2008 after I had basically retired following three unsatisfactory short-lived stints with intransigent owners. He was instrumental in getting me settled in a suitable venue at California Pub near his home in the East York area where, with Pete in attendance every single week and plumping it on the days in between, the event would thrive for a year-and-a-half afterwards and propel me back into that role for another six years to follow.
In fact it was the debut of that California open mic series, ten years ago this past December 23, that was the first show Pete had a hand in prior to launching his decade-long career as a promoter and avuncular nurturer of the TO music scene and creating the legacy that is SongTown.
But all of that wasn’t actually his first involvement with the live music scene. In fact, as a young man working as a dishwasher at the old Purple Onion bar in the 1960s he was exposed to the live music scene by some of the best in the biz at the height of their powers, including now-legends such as George Olliver and Mike McKenna, leading him to stage a few concerts even then, before starting a family with his wife Theresa and taking what would become a career position as a field representative of the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN).
During his days with SOCAN, while visiting music venues far and wide, he once told me, he became even more aware of how much original songwriting and performing talent there really was out there and after retiring in ’08 made it his mission in life to help unknown or lesser appreciated artists to gain more recognition and income from their creations.
To that end he began by creating the Pete Otis Music Publishing (POMP) company and endeavouring to help songwriters not aware of how to manage their rights to get their tunes published. As part of that initiative in 2009 he released the first SongTown compilation album, The Pape Sound, which contained tracks by various artists with a connection to the East York area and on which, I’m still so proud today to be able to boast, one of my original tunes appeared. Other artists on the disc, in addition to Pete himself, included Rob Minderman, Jamie Watt, John Romas, Fernando “The Riverdale Kid” Curcione, Shawn Sage, Delluka, Herb Dale, Karen Lee Wilde, Stuart Wilson and Pat Little —none of them names you ever would have seen before on a major marquee and all them hugely talented composers.
(Little, for example, well known as a drummer with several Yorkville-era Rock bands in the 60s, basically made his public debut as a songwriter on this disc —he’s since released two albums of originals— and Pete continued to promote his career up till the very end; he has been a featured special guest at almost all of the concerts and events Pete staged and in fact Pat was the act that followed his own —and what turned out to be his final ever set, as he collapsed right after it— at the New Year’s Eve show.)
Little was by no means the only veteran player whose career Otis helped to either revive or reinvigorate through his shows and promotion.
Blues-Rock slide guitar legend Mike McKenna, whom he featured in nearly all of the major concerts he put on, including the most recent Blues & Boogie Party series of which the NYE show was the 23rd installment, was pretty much languishing before Otis staged a series of “Mainline revival” shows at which McKenna and a new band reprised hits from his seminal Stink album when he was with McKenna-Mendolson Mainline.
Similarly, George Olliver, for whom he staged a 50-years anniversary of entering showbiz concert as one of his “Honouring Our Own” series of shows in 2013, has expressed profound gratitude for Pete’s promotion and career guidance since then.
Pete’s concept for the Honouring Our Own series that debuted in late 2010 grew out of seeing a number of posthumous tribute shows put on to honour recently departed musicians, inspiring him to develop the idea of “doing something to help musicians who maybe haven’t won big awards but who deserve more recognition while they’re still alive to benefit from it,” as he explained it to me in our first meeting to create the promo for the show.
HOOs for performers who were never household names, such as Jaimie Vernon, Steve Sherman and Gary Latimer, gave them a piece of the limelight they had been helping create for others over decades.
Other HOO concerts for better known veterans Jay Douglas, Michael Fonfara, Steven Ambrose and John Finley were a filip helping those artists reconnect with fans who hadn’t seen them in decades. Yorkville doyenne Juno winner Cathy Young had pretty much left off performing until Pete’s two 2012 HOO shows feting her helped to gain her renewed recognition and motivation to begin appearing at shows again.
Likewise the compilation albums Pete produced and had mastered by Sebastian Agnello’s Turtleshell Music, helped encourage new songwriters and veterans alike.
Three more discs followed The Pape Sound, including one 2012’s The Nashville Sound, that was a mix of tunes by Toronto and a few Nashville songwriters whom Pete had met during one of the several junkets to the Music City that he led between 2010 and 2016 with an amorphous “songwriters gang” of fellow talents that included Glen Hornblast, Paul Cross, Brian Gladstone, and Harpin’ Norm Lucien.
For all of the compilation discs, which also included The Danforth Sound in 2010 and a second 2012 release, The Toronto Sound, Otis staged dynamic and well-run multi-act release party concerts to which he brought as much love and attention to detail as he did for the “name” acts at the HOO events. In fact he staged the release for the final disc in the series in 2012 as part of the first three-day-and-two-nights “SongTown Festival” that involved over 60 musicians and included a jam and an open stage, workshops on slide guitar, radio air play, and promotion, the release concert (featuring legends like Bob Segarini, then up-and-comer Julian Taylor, audience favourites like Steven Ambrose, Robbie Rox, the late Joe Mavety, the late Lee Van Leer and many more) plus a HOO concert.
Pete also put on special event shows to help a variety of artistic friends and causes, including two Purple Onion reunion shows in 2012 and 2013 that helped revive the career of Luke Gibson and The Apostles; shows for a young Irish alt-Rock band, Nightbox, that he had taken a shine to; teaming up with poet Sheila Horne and visual artists to put on “Words and Music” and “Holiday Arts Festival” shows in a couple of different rooms that included live musical performances as well as readings and displays; and playing a pivotal role with a Spirit of Yorkville group trying to revive the Village vibe by ensuring that a two-date “Night and Day” concert put on by the group in the old hippie enclave not only actually happened but was done well and successfully.
Then there were the seven years of Winterfolk Blues & Roots Festival showcases betweem 2011-17, done solely out of the goodness of his heart, to help promote not only his own brand but also to raise the profiles of his barn of astonishingly talented composers.
In 2014 he also staged a benefit for the Canadian Stuttering Association to help them create a “Laughter’s Voice” camp in Ontario for children who stutter. Unknown to many, Pete suffered from a severe stuttering condition as a child, to the point, he once told me, where he was afraid to have a girlfriend because “in those days you always talked on the phone when you were dating and I was scared I’d start stuttering and turn her off so I never called her or came to the phone when she called.”
However, he went on to relate, “as I was in university and I got into music and playing publicly I realized one day that I never stuttered when I was singing” and that insight was a key point in overcoming the problem, as it demonstrated to him that the phenomenon was not beyond his control and helped inspire him to believe that he could overcome it once and for all. Which, as was obvious to anyone who’s heard him speak publicly at his many concerts, he so triumphantly did.
It was that experience with the girl as a kid, in fact, that motivated him to write one of his most acclaimed and popular songs, “Nervous,” and debut it at that very concert. The song, which always generated a powerful singalong and dance reaction from his audience, will endure for many years I predict, and fortunately he did record a fine version of it on his last album.
Indeed, as much as Pete may have excelled as an organizer and promoter and enabler of concerts and recordings for others, that should never be allowed to eclipse the subtle power of his songwriting.
He not only had a knack for fresh melodies that sounded like you’d been singing them all your life, but a gift for lyrics that touched deep and left you feeling wiser, yet never came across as preachy, didactic or arrogant. Even on somewhat political songs like his early “Crazy World” he comes across more lamenting than lambasting. And lamentation —pushing those lachrymal levers that make any heart twinge— were a specialty with Pete. Bawling ballads like “Love Is The Victim,” “Still Love You,” “Chance On Love” and “Last Teardrop” (all of which appear on his wonderful 2016 album Mountains TO Climb) helped to earn him the sobriquet “Cry Baby,” which for a couple of years he encouraged and embraced before becoming “Buck Otis” last year —after the more crowd-rousing, energetic foot-stomping numbers “Holy Moly” and “Nervous” (also both on MTC) began to get noticed by audiences at the Blues and Boogie series at the Swan.
He was working a new album over the past year as well and hopefully some of the finished or nearly completed tracks can be assembled into another volume at some point.
In the meantime, I’m told that several artists who were part of his projects and who will be participating in a February 2 concert he would surely have been at, are planning to do Pete Otis songs as part of the night. B’Arlopalooza 5 will be put on by songwriter Michael Bär, whom Pete had encouraged to record his debut album, and poet/egg-shaking percussionist Arlo Burgon at Black Swan Tavern and we’ll have more details as we get closer to the date.
As prodigious and acclaimed as were Pete’s output and accomplishments in the past decade, however, to be sure there were setbacks and disappointments along the way too.
One HOO had to be cancelled because the nominee was too ill to participate. Another planned for Hamilton for Folk singer Brent Titcomb, which he was anticipating could be the first step in producing similar shows as often as one a week in communities around the province, had to be cancelled when advance ticket sales and promotion promised by the venue didn’t materialize.
Another big setback was medical, when, in April of 2013, he was hospitalized due to his heart condition for a week just before and during the second Purple Onion Reunion concert he staged at El Mocambo. The arrhythmia that had occasioned the crisis led to him having a pacemaker or ICU installed and also meant he couldn’t drive for five years, pretty much ending his burgeoning dream of a province-wide network of HOO concerts and hometown compilation cd productions.
We often also chatted about our mutual frustrations with the musical community’s lack of support of its own infrastructure at our monthly meetings over the last decade, at which he’d tell me what was coming up so that I could begin work on posters and ads as needed for each and every event he did. He was frequently somewhat disheartened when, at some of his multi-act shows for lesser known performers, many participants would show up alone to do their early set and be gone within an hour or wouldn’t arrive until an hour before their later set, rather than spending time helping to grow the sense of musical community he so ardently longed and assiduously laboured to nurture. In the end, of course, that’s exactly what he did end up doing, even if it wasn’t always obvious to him.
But I do want to think it was becoming clear to him. The picture of Pete taken by George Willis just after he finished his final set, mere moments before collapsing into the photographer’s arms, evokes to me a man who is surveying the landscape around him and finding it good. Like a rancher admiring his herd lowing contentedly, “Buck” Otis looks in this photo like someone at a point where he can see his work coming to fruition and imagining the possibilities for its continued growth.
He certainly sounded buoyant in my last communication with him. On Christmas Day he promptly replied to my “Merry Christmas” message and best wishes with one saying “Merry Christmas Gary and all the best. I have a feeling that this will be a great year for both of us. Love ya buddy.”
That last phrase, “love ya buddy,” is what broke the dam for me when I re-read it a couple of days ago, allowing me to finally just have a real cry about losing someone who was dear to me, an ebullient, uplifting person to be around and who was, in a word, sweet. I’m not much on expressing affection to my male friends but it never bothered Pete to tell me that he loved me (and I know he did the same with many others) because he wore that rickety heart on his sleeve and, like his childhood stuttering problem, wasn’t afraid to let it be seen. My one regret about our friendship now is that I so seldom said the words back to him because I know when he said it he truly meant it and forsooth, I loved him too, but now will never get the chance to hear him say it again and reply with a hearty “Ah, I love you too man.” There’s a lesson to be learned there, a final gift from a giver who left so many.
How or whether his heart condition figured in his demise, as seems widely assumed, has still not been revealed and may never be known, although the family is suggesting that memorial donations can be made to The Heart and Stroke Foundation in his name.
But no one can doubt that this was a man with a lot of heart to share, who gave it all to his music and the community that surrounds him.
Other friends have detailed a few examples of how that was manifest in various online posts.
Michael Bär posted: “He basically took me under his wing, encouraged me to make a CD, invited me to play on many of his Songtown shows, and always participated in our Barlopalooza Celebrations. He gave me advice in songwriting, promotions and stagecraft, (whether he knew it or not), I watched him have fun performing on his own or with a huge band. He was a very cool guy! A good friend… when he met you, you could tell, he was genuinely happy to see you.” Bar has also announced that the February 2 edition of his B’Arlopalooza series will be dedicated to Pete, with participants performing some of his tunes.
Winterfolk executive director Brian Gladstone, who accompanied Pete to Nashville and for whom Pete did the seven annual showcases as well as collaborating on HOO concerts and staging one for Brian himself, posted: “No words can adequately describe the sense of loss felt by me, by his beloved friends and family, and of course to the Toronto music community to which he gave so much. Pete has been a great friend of mine for over a decade. I’ve had the pleasure of working with him on a number of projects … I’ve had incredible adventures with Pete over the years. Whenever we bumped into each other a club, he always bought me a shot, then we’d talk about the good-times. Pete, your legacy will live on far beyond your mortality.”
Fellow lifelong East York songwriter Julian Taylor captured some of Pete’s personal qualities that made him so special as a friend in his post: “Pete Otis loved music and loved people so much that when he spoke about them he glowed. He had this exuberant childlike quality about him and was one of the Toronto Music Scenes biggest advocates and supporters. One of the unsung heroes to be honest. Not one of those self important people who want to be seen but one who actually cared. He wasn’t worried about what people thought and always made an effort to encourage and let you know he was in your corner. To all that loved him like I did I’m sorry for your loss. He was a beautiful soul,” he wrote.
Paul Cross, who had songs on two of Pete’s compilations albums and also went on a Nashville junket and songwriters’ “retreat” weekend, noted that “Pete started the Honoring Our Own concert series because he thought we should celebrate performers and do something good for them while they were still with us,” but concluded saying “I will miss Pete’s humour, his humility, his creative generosity and his friendship.”
(Paul btw, has also taken the lead in organizing an Honouring Our Own-style concert also focused on Pete’s songs on what would have been his 70th birthday on April 24 and about which we will ensure subscribers have full details as plans develop.)
Many more tributes to Pete can be found on his Facebook timeline and those of many artists, as well as on the Honouring Our Own group page. and, of course, on the condolence book page of the death notice site.
As noted in the death notice itself and should not be overlooked, Pete, who was born in Greece but grew up in Toronto’s East York area, was also devoted to his family, including the love of his life and wife of 40 years, Theresa, his adult children Paul, Samantha (Abdul) and Vanessa and of course to their children, to whim he was proud “Dedo”: Aya, Ibrahim and Rumaysa.
What all the accomplishments, memories of friends and hundreds who loved him add up to, in my book, is a portrait of a man who was as close to being a saint as anyone I’ve ever met.
Indeed, if there is actually an afterlife and any truth in Judaeo-Christian folklore, then the white-bearded greeter at the Pearly Gates isn’t the only St. Peter in Heaven now.
Naturally once TorontoMoon has secured enough support from the musical community to allow us to launch our long-planned Musical Legacies Online Museum website project, Pete will have a prominent place as both a songwriter and industry builder.