Canadian folksinger Willie P. Bennett dies

Toronto-born folksinger Willie P. Bennett has died at his home in Peterborough, Ont.

Canadian folksinger Willie P. Bennett, a highly-respected musician who preferred being a backup player for many of the country's top singers, has died at his home in Peterborough, Ont.

Bennett's official website confirmed on Sunday that the Juno Award-winning singer passed away peacefully at age 56 on Friday.

No cause of death has been given, but Bennett suffered a heart attack last year. His agent, Robin MacIntyre, said the musician was looking forward to a busy roster of solo shows this year.

Despite having a solo career, Bennett was satisfied with the role of background player, often strumming the mandolin or playing the harmonica for roots artist Fred Eaglesmith as well as dozens of other artists.

"He was a reluctant hero ... he would step back and let other people shine," MacIntyre told the Globe and Mail newspaper.

Bennett nabbed a Juno for Best Solo Roots and Traditional Album for 1998's Heartstrings, his first solo recording in nine years.

Many well-known musicians collaborated on the album. They included Bruce Cockburn, Melanie Doane, Stephen Fearing and members of Prairie Oyster.

Supportive and encouraging

Born in Toronto on Oct. 26, 1951, Bennett began his musical career as a choir boy at his junior high, later emerging on the folk scene as a songwriter and performer in the late 1960s at Rochdale College.

He played at universities, clubs and coffee houses throughout southern Ontario in the 1970s and 1980s, first with a folk group called the Bone China Band and then later as a solo act.

Bennett's song, White Line, was recorded in 1973 by singer David Wiffen and in later years was covered by other artists, such as Jonathan Edwards and Pure Prairie League.

Musician Colin Linden recalls hearing that song as a 13-year-old watching Bennett play a coffeehouse in Don Mills in 1973.  He approached Bennett after the show and recalls the singer treating him with respect. 

"He was incredibly encouraging," said Linden, who would launch his own career nine years later.

Bennett also co-wrote the song Goodbye, So Long, Hello with Russell deCarle of Prairie Oyster. It was named the 1990 Canadian Country Music Association's Song of the Year.

His contributions to Canada's folk scene were highlighted in 1996 when Fearing, Colin Linden and Tom Wilson formed Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, a group named after Bennett's 1978 album.

They recorded a tribute album to Bennett, using 14 of his songs.

"His songs are so strong, they're going to keep on resonating," declares Linden.

Bennett leaves his partner, Linda Duemo, his mother and three siblings. 

With files from the Canadian Press