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Epilogue | William Howard Witherspoon

Sax player Bill Witherspoon found peace in his final years

HOLIDAY — Bill Witherspoon could blow the roof off the joint. A versatile musician with a reputation as one of the best saxophone players in the area, he performed with several popular groups, such as Taxi, over the last several decades. One group, the Melting Pot, toured nationwide, opening for the Allman Brothers.

He could also dazzle with his singing. A disciple of Ray Charles, his voice growled and soared to cathedral heights, former colleagues say.

Sometimes he hammed it up onstage, playing two saxophones at the same time and harmonizing. But fellow musicians knew Mr. Witherspoon for his punctuality and businesslike demeanor.

Away from the stage, he endured his share of suffering. Two marriages ended. A warehouse job ruined his back. Though physically imposing — 6 feet 5, 380 pounds — his body did not rebound well from injury.

His melancholy lifted the last dozen years of his life. That's the same period of time he married for the third time and converted to Christianity.

Mr. Witherspoon died July 6, at Orchard Ridge Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in New Port Richey. He was 61.

"When he performed, it came from his bone marrow," said Bobby Barnes, leader of the Impacs and Bobby's Big Band, who also relied on Mr. Witherspoon for attitude adjustment.

"Every time some of my singers would get all about themselves," he said, "I would have Billy the Sax Player sing. And he would politely outsing everybody on the stage."

He grew up in Dayton, Ohio, the son of a drummer. He and a brother, Ron, formed a sax-trumpet duo that lasted for decades.

"We were known as the instant horn section," said Ron Witherspoon, 69. "We did all of the '60s and '70s rhythm and blues. Sam and Dave, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Wilson Pickett, all of that."

"They were tighter than a tick when they played," said drummer Jerry Thompson, 65.

He lived a Clearwater suburb, with a swimming pool, for much of his adult life. Then a 17-year marriage broke up. He moved to an apartment and blotted his senses with drugs, both prescribed and recreational, said his wife, Penelope.

He was in a beach bar the first time she laid eyes on him, belting out Mustang Sally.

"He said, 'Gee, I've been looking for someone like you,' " Witherspoon recalled. "And I said, 'The women and the coke have to go.' "

They married in 1997. Mr. Witherspoon played and composed Christian music, and performed regularly at Countryside Christian Center. In one of his last jobs, he played with Grammy Award-winning Christian musician Phil Driscoll.

He had just played at River of Praise Church on June 14 when he fell and broke his leg. He died of complications three weeks later.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

.Biography

William Howard Witherspoon

Born: Feb. 24, 1948.

Died: July 6, 2009.

Survivors: wife, Penelope; son,

William; brothers Ronald and Michael; sister, Carol; and numerous grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

Service: 11 a.m. Saturday, Living Word Church, 5151 Rowan Road, New Port Richey. Celebration of life 7 to 10 p.m. July 24, Countryside Christian Center, 1850 N McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater.

Sax player Bill Witherspoon found peace in his final years 07/10/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 11, 2009 9:34am]
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