RIP - Funeral Thursday for ubiquitous, genial pianoman Michael Keys

Michael keys performing not long before his passing -COURTESTY

Michael keys performing not long before his passing -COURTESTY

Michael Keys, who says he "plays a little piano" -PROMO

Michael Keys, who used to say he “plays a little piano” -PROMO

He didn’t just play music —Michael “Keys” Dowson lived and breathed music and apparently dreamed about it too.  And so not surprisingly his last words, shortly before he passed away at 69 years of age from cancer the morning of Sunday, May 13, were about music too, we’re told by family.

A funeral mass will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday, May 17 at St. Raphael’s Roman Catholic Church, 4072 New Street, Burlington, with visitation from 10 a.m. until the time of the service.  Interment of an urn containing his ashes at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery and a reception are to follow.

A Lifetime Member of the Hamilton Musicians Guild of Ontario Local 293 —which, as I reported at the time, conferred the honour on the super-versatile Blues/Jazz piano player just about a year ago in thanks for his long service to the area’s music community—  Michael organized and anchored countless shows in the GTA over a 50-plus year career that saw him play with many Canadian greats.

A barrelhouse and boogie-woogie player with few peers, wearing his signature fedora hat he backed up Blues tyros like two-time Juno-winner Jack de Keyzer, legendary vintage R&B band Robbie Lane & The Disciples, seminal veteran Blues slide master Mike McKenna and iconic singer/entertainer Danny B on many, many occasions over the past twenty years since I first met him, as well as organizing hundreds of shows for them and other talents of the same calibre.

Michael Keys Blues Hall of Fame certificate

Michael Keys Blues Hall of Fame certificate

Along with Danny B and the other veteran members of his band at the time, Michael was also in 2014 inducted into the American Heritage Blues Hall of Fame, joining fellow luminaries like Morgan Davis, Ken Whiteley and Colin Linden.

Surprisingly, for someone so accomplished and versatile, he was a self-taught player, according to his daughter Kimberley Dowson, who used to regularly accompany him to shows growing up and whom I met while she still doing that as a young woman around the turn of the century.

Although she and her father had been estranged for the past few years, Kim shared some of her reminiscences with me about her dad.

“He was originally from Willowdale and was introduced to music by his older brothers John and Bill (Bill also passed of cancer).  John played guitar and bass and Bill apparently was one hell of a piano player.  At the age of 17 his father bought him his first keyboard, an electric organ.

Willy Jon & The Wildcats poser -note who's named as contact man!

Willy Jon & The Wildcats poser -note who’s named as contact man!

“He used to tell me he listened to the music his brothers introduced him to.  He loved old 50’s Rock and Roll.  His favourite artist of all time and biggest influence was Jerry Lee Lewis.  He idolized him and studied every bit of his music which eventually helped him to develop his own style.  In later years he would finally come to master the ‘Great Balls of Fire’ piano solo which to him was a big accomplishment.  It’s not an easy thing to play, but he learned it note for note and then added his own spin to it,” she told me.

Within just a few months Keys had his first band, Willy Jon and The Wildcats.  [Regular readers will recall that another member of that band was the late Bill Dalrymple, whose passing we reported on last September and whose death and significance we were first alerted to by Michael.]  Shortly thereafter he joined The Marchelle with childhood friend and fellow Wildcat Cliff Fielding and began playing bigger venues in the Yorkville area.  After a couple of years with them and a few other acts, he joined R&B band The Spasstiks.

The Marchelle Band

The Marchelle Band

“The Spasstiks were a big deal for him,” Kim said.  “They were edgy and new and soon developed a following on the Yorkville circuit in the late 60’s.  They eventually changed the name to The Cat, put out a few singles that made the top ten on the local radio charts and before long they were playing with bigger acts.

“I remember he would always talk about the time they opened up for The Guess Who in the late 60’s just before I was born.  It was his first time playing on a big stage at the CNE and you could always see his face light up when he talked about the screaming girls ripping their clothes and grabbing at their hair.

“That was the Rainbow Express Tour and they ended up touring the East Coast.  That’s where he was when I came along. He stayed with The Cat as long as he could, I remember going to some of the recording sessions as a young child, but eventually he left the band to pursue other interests.  My childhood was spent watching him play every weekend with artists he put together himself, playing large wedding halls and party venues.

“It was then he started honing his entertaining skills.  He taught himself how to use the bass pedals on his Hammond organ and found he didn’t need a bass player most of the time.  He always said there was more money to be made with three members than four or five.  In later years he even managed to get it just down to one!

“Most people don’t know this, but my father could not read music.  He never took a lesson and taught himself everything he knew.  He had a finely tuned ear and could figure out songs within a few seconds.  It was only about 15 years ago he decided to try and learn how to read music and even took vocal lessons to develop his voice.  He wanted to be able to perform completely on his own, his own show and on his own terms.

Michael Keys smooth Jazz poster

Michael Keys smooth Jazz poster

“He was constantly re-branding himself.  He used to study the audience and watch the club owners.  He knew what people wanted to hear and he knew how to work the establishments.  He could walk into a retirement home, play the songs he knew they wanted to hear and light up the entire room, then walk out after an hour with a check in hand.

“After a lifetime of playing live music, he had come to learn the best way to make money was to market yourself as an entertainer.  He used to say, ‘it’s a whole show, it’s not just about the music.  You have to be able to get the crowd off their bums and on to the dance floor, you have to turn it into a party, that’s what they want.’

“And he was right.  He did have a knack for getting the crowd going.  Music was my father’s life. He enjoyed entertaining people and he enjoyed what he called ‘schmoozing’ with the crowd after the show.  Even after his diagnosis he said he was going to keep playing until he couldn’t anymore, and he did.  It was what he wanted to do with his life, he did it all on his own terms.  He wanted to play with Jeff Healey and he did.  He wanted to play with Jack DeKeyzer and he did.  He wanted to play with the Powder Blues Band and he did.  He did everything he wanted to do,” Kim related.

His rakish hat, a boyish grin and youthful enthusiasm, a wry wit that accompanied twinkling eyes when sharing a bon mot or candid observation about human foibles and an habitually cheerful disposition were also part of the Michael Keys brand, along with a delight in playing that was obvious and infectious both to fellow performers and those in the audience.

Michael Keys in 2007 -Kimberly Mallett

Michael Keys in 2007 -Kimberly Mallett

Equally at home in Jazz as the Blues (as I reported previously, he used to regularly put on Smooth Jazz shows at restaurants in Oakville and Burlington) and always willing to adapt to audiences and rooms, he became knowledgeable about and concerned for the future of the live music scene, regularly engaging many of his friends and associates in thoroughgoing conversations about how to make shows work for the venues, audiences and the performers.

That he did, in spades.  As I wrote this past December in describing one of the last of a countless string of shows he organized over the past decades —a Christmas singalong concert for the Juravinski Cancer Centre in Hamilton— Michael “not only is musically proficient and diligent, but can assemble an all-star unit at the drop of a stylish hat.”

Although he was actually diagnosed with the lung cancer that eventually claimed him back in December of 2014, he pretty much kept his condition private, telling me in a conversation a few years ago that he didn’t want people to know “because they start treating you differently, like they don’t know what to say and maybe because of that they stop calling you for gigs.”  That, of course, he could never countenance, no matter how ailing he might be.

As he passed his final hours at the Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington, I’m told, the nurses and staff eased his way into the great beyond by playing YouTube videos of him performing with the Danny B Band and kept them running while he slept since he’d told them he could hear it while asleep.  They apparently mentioned that they were enjoying the music themselves as well, prompting him to tell his brother that “The hospital staff have discovered Michael Keys” shortly before he closed his eyes for the last time.

In addition to Kimberley, Michael is also survived by his youngest daughter Karen, his brother John, stepchildren Julia and Michael and their mother Genevieve Dowson and by six grandchildren.

An online condolences page has been established by the Smith Funeral Home in Burlington, and the family asks that those wishing to make donations in Michael’s memory consider the Juravinski Cancer Centre, or Hamilton Musician’s Guild or another cause of their choice.

Michael, who was a longtime subscriber to, will of course be included in our forthcoming Musical Legacies Online Museum project once sufficient support has been received from the music community to enable its launch.

-Gary 17,
[email protected] * [email protected]

Click to donate at or email

Click to donate at or email [email protected]

When Death Comes 17071501 Lifeprints FB pr new alt