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Popular P.E.I. musician William 'Smiling Bill' McCormack remembered

William "Similing Bill" McCormack is shown in this screengrab of a YouTube video of one of his performances.

HAMILTON, Ont. - Elaine Hughes doesn’t have to think too hard about which William “Smiling Bill” McCormack song was her favourite.

That song – “The Lady on my Right” – was written for Hughes since she performed by his side for 30 years.

Hughes sang and played the guitar, and McCormack sang and played the guitar or the fiddle.

On Dec. 23 in Hamilton, Ont., McCormack, 86, originally from St. Charles, P.E.I., died after a lengthy illness.

“We had a wonderful thing. I had lovely years with Billy,” she said from Ontario about her long-time friend and companion on Thursday. “He was a fantastic, multi-talented man. And, he was so smart.”

Growing up in Kinkora, Hughes listened to McCormack on CJRW radio in Summerside in the 1950s. When she was 15, the opportunity came up to see McCormack perform, but her mother was reluctant to let her go. Her friends got Hughes’ mother to reconsider, but on the condition that there was no dancing – they had to sit and watch the performance.

“I didn’t meet him that night. I had strict orders to come home right after the show,” she added.

As fate would have it, years later, the two found themselves living in Hamilton. McCormack had family in Hamilton, and Hughes’ husband Bernie, also a musician, performed with McCormack’s brother.

After Bernie died, Hughes found music again and started performing with McCormack in a career that lasted three decades, including visits back to P.E.I. to perform all across the Island.

“We used to pack the places,” she said.

McCormack was predeceased by his first wife, Margaret, with whom he had six children — Ann-Marie, Darlene, Linda, Rita, Billy and Mary, who all still live on P.EI. 

"His talents run throughout his children and grandchildren. Some ... include guitar, bass, singing, acting, dancing and a true love for music," said daughter Mary White in a message to The Guardian.

"...He lives in each and every one of us!"

McCormack overcame challenges in his life, including losing his eyesight when he was a young boy. 

As a musician and songwriter, Hughes doesn’t think McCormack got the recognition he deserved. He recorded five albums, including one with Hughes. He also recorded four songs in Nashville in 1954.

“He’s a legend,” she said.

Besides “The Lady on the Right”, other well-known songs included “My Island Home” and “Girl in a Tavern”.

Hughes recalled one story McCormack told her about the time he was in Charlottetown and got a call to perform at a party in Tignish. The caller said the taxi ride would be paid for when he arrived.

But, the taxi driver had other plans. He proposed that if McCormack performed in the back seat on the drive to Tignish, the fare wouldn’t cost a cent.

“I said, ‘Is that really true?’ ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘it was true. He never charged me a penny. I gave him all I could give him – all the way in the back seat to Tignish. I sang every song in the book,’ ” she recalled McCormack saying.

“He had a sense of humour like you wouldn’t believe.”

Funeral services are scheduled for Saturday in Hamilton.

In the spring, Hughes is planning to hold a celebration of McCormack’s life, also in Hamilton.

“Everybody loved Billy,” she said.

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