One of them was Bernie Finkelstein, who with partner Bernie Fiedler was a major booker in Toronto in the early 1970s. He had worked early on with Neil Young and Joni Mitchell in smaller venues, but by the time CPI came into being he saw the writing on the wall. Mr. Finkelstein’s True North record label and artist management company was taking off, and so he withdrew from the concert promotion game.
“He was a lovely person, and I enjoyed his company,” says Mr. Finkelstein, a recipient of Mr. Ballard’s largesse. At the time, Mr. Finkelstein lived in apartment building directly behind Maple Leaf Gardens, as did musicians Murray McLauchlan and Gordon Lightfoot. Often he was the guest of Mr. Ballard at the arena’s private Hot Stove Lounge, where Mr. Ballard awed all with his epic bouts of dining.
“He had an amazing ability to put away bowls and bowls of food,” Mr. Finkelstein recounts. “He would eat enough fried calamari for four people, and then order something else.”
Indeed, the one story about Mr. Ballard’s excitable metabolism that has been recycled more than the others over the years involves a visit to New York, where a stunned maître d’ witnessed the man’s gustatory feats. “Is that an act?” he asked.
On the personal side, Mr. Ballard was known as a lover of good friends and high times. He would entertain at his Thunder Beach cottage on Georgian Bay, where annually he would lead a trail of boats to Killarney, Ont. “His own boat was called Midnight Mischief, and it was aptly named,” says John McDermott, the successful Scottish-Canadian tenor.
Mr. McDermott was a pet project of Mr. Ballard’s. The singer was nearing 40 years old and working at The Toronto Sun when he embarked on a performing career.
“He fought for the underdog,” Mr. McDermott says. “There’s not a remote chance I would have a career if not for Bill Ballard.”
It’s true that few men other than Mr. Ballard could have placed a relative novice such as Mr. McDermott on a national tour with the world’s premier Celtic group, the Chieftains. It’s probably also true that few managers would have gone to the lengths that Mr. Ballard did to serve a client.
On the night of the singer’s first major concert at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, the plan was to put the spotlight on Mr. McDermott’s father in the audience during the show. But unbeknownst to the crooner, the elder McDermott had slipped and fallen right before the show and was taken to the hospital for stitches. Not wanting to unnerve Mr. McDermott with the sight of an empty seat where his dad was supposed to be, Mr. Ballard spent the first half of the concert trying in vain to find a lookalike to pass for the senior McDermott. Luckily, the singer’s slightly wounded father made to his seat in time for his spotlight moment.
In regard to spotlights, Mr. Ballard didn’t seek them himself. “He was a bit of a silent runner,” Mr. Cohl says. “He was in the shadow of his father and maybe I got more attention, but he was awfully sharp. Some people took him for a boob, but they didn’t realize how bright he was. I mean, he didn’t get his law degree from a Cheerios box.”Silent runner or not, an incident in 1989 put Mr. Ballard in the public arena, where the light was not always flattering. His disregard for his father’s companion, the convicted fraud artist Yolanda MacMillan, made headlines when he was found guilty of assaulting her during an incident at Maple Leaf Gardens and fined $500. Mr. Ballard disputed the accusation, telling her at one point that if he ever did assault her, “there won’t be enough left to put in a hot dog.”
After losing the battle to gain control of Maple Leaf Gardens, Mr. Ballard got out of the concert promotion business. More recently, as president of Orion Capital, he ventured into mining interests. He will be remembered by many because of his father, and for his partnership in CPI’s revolutionary development of the live music industry and associations with legendary acts such as the Who, Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones. Mr. McDermott, for one, remembers him differently.
“When you get into the business at age 38, like I did, you’re either crazy or you’ve got a great champion on your side. And I had Billy on my side.”
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