What song does one choose to honour a man remembered for his humour, his kindness, and a rare musical gift that he shared so freely?
The River Road Band faced this question when they were asked to perform in memory of their friend Archie (Billy) Christopher Awenhrenton Gabriel at the Hawkesbury Legion on Sunday.
The band settled on Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes by George Jones, a tune about a singer whose voice was grounded in a remarkable heart and soul.
“It reminded us of him,” said Denis Stacey, a member of The River Road Band and one of 31 musicians who performed on Sunday, most of whom had shared a stage with Gabriel over the years.
Gabriel’s life revolved around music almost as long as anyone can remember. He was born August 18, 1966, the youngest of four. He grew up in the Pines, surrounded by the horses his family rented from their ranch, where the elementary school is today.
“He was fearless. As a child, he was not afraid of the horses,” said Ellen Gabriel, one of his sisters.
Billy loved his father’s record collection, particularly the music of Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.
“My father bought him a little toy guitar,” remembers his sister Mamie Gabriel. “He used to try to play on that guitar and sing with Elvis while the record player was going. I think from that day on as a little child, he loved music, and as he got older he was able to get guitars and start teaching himself.”
Billy gravitated toward country music and became known for his brilliant memory; he knew more than 400 songs by heart. But he remembered more than just songs – to his sister Mamie, he was also a font of precious childhood memories she had forgotten.
“It was great growing up with him,” said Mamie. “He was not just my brother; he was my confidante. He was my friend. He was just everything.”
Billy was a people person. As a school bus driver, he made enough of an impact that children he used to drive to school attended his celebration of life, all grown up.
He was particularly generous with his musical talent, bringing joy to listeners and performing at benefits and fundraisers whenever possible, such as those for the Hawkesbury Legion, where he loved to perform.
“He was almost always available when I asked him, and if I had a musician cancel at the last minute, I could always count on Billy to fill in,” said Judy Chambers, who books talent at the Hawkesbury Legion.
Chambers organized the celebration of Billy’s life that took place over the weekend and filled two floors of the Legion to the brim, aiming to honour the impact he made there. Hundreds of people attended in all.
“He and I were friends for more than 30 years. He was such a kind, caring man who did everything with a smile. His love of country music seeped from his every pore,” said Chambers.
“Billy was gifted with music and we were all blessed that he chose to share that gift with us through the years,” she added. “I hope that in life he knew how much we appreciated and loved him.”
According to Chambers, musicians he hadn’t played with in years reached out to her to pay tribute to Billy, who passed away on March 3, at the age of 56.
“Whenever we asked him to play, he would play,” said Ellen. “Seeing that his kindness and his very generous heart reached past our family and beyond is really moving.”
Ellen remembers meeting one woman who would always request Buddy Holly – not exactly country music – but Billy would always honour it.
“He would make sure he learned those songs so that he could please them and expand his repertoire,” Ellen said. “He was always very giving, a very generous man.”
His good humour and music would often combine.
“Billy was very funny. Billy liked to laugh,” Ellen said. “He came one time for a birthday party and he encouraged me to sing. One of my treasures is doing a duet with him called Jackson, which is Johnny Cash and June Carter. I sang the June Carter part. He was always very encouraging.”
“He just did funny things, I don’t know how to explain it,” said Mamie. “He liked to joke. I think that comes from my father; my father was a big joker too.”
“(Billy) was an orphan before he was 18,” said Ellen. “He was very sensitive in regards to other people’s pain. And I think that’s where his laughter and finding jokes and stuff – he leaned more towards being happy.”
Frank Zacharie played with Billy for years, including in the The Billy Gabriel Band. He remembers the way Billy would joke around with him.
“He either called me Frankie or, 90 percent of the time at least, he called me Russell. I asked him why. I said to him, ‘Billy, why do you call me Russell?’ He says, ‘Because you remind me of a Russell.’
“He wasn’t a hard guy to get along with,” Zacharie said. “He wasn’t a hard guy to please.”
Zacharie treasures his memories of Billy not only as a musical collaborator, but as a friend.
“There are no words. He’s going to be missed. It’s not going to be the same,” he said.
“Everybody loved Billy.”
Billy’s sisters already knew their brother was loved, but when they attended the celebration of life, they were overwhelmed by the sheer number of people whose lives Billy enriched with his kindness and generosity.
“I was so touched by so many people who came up to me and my sisters and just told us how much Billy meant to them, how much love they had for him, how they never heard him speak a bad word about anybody,” said Mamie. “He just meant so much to them, and that meant the world to us.”
“To just hear and see, to witness how many people respected him and admired him and loved his music, I don’t think we knew the depths of how many people he touched,” said Ellen.
“They even had to turn away musicians because there were so many,” she said. “It was a very moving event.”
Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.