Billy Conway, the drummer known for his jazzy, stripped-down style in Boston bands Treat Her Right and Morphine, died at home Sunday following a years-long bout with cancer. He was 65.
Conway’s friend and longtime touring partner Jeffrey Foucault confirmed the news of Conway’s death to Rolling Stone Monday, calling him “one of the best drummers America produced in the second half of the twentieth century.”
“With his uncanny empathy and sensitivity, his dedication to simplicity and restraint, and his impossible spiritual power, he played the song, never the instrument, and when he played he was undeniable,” Foucault said to Rolling Stone. “He incarnated a ferocious love.”
Conway burst onto the Boston music scene in the mid-1980s with the rock band Treat Her Right, alongside Mark Sandman and David Champagne on guitar and Jim Fitting on harmonica. Conway achieved a reputation for playing a cocktail drum while standing in lieu of a full drum set. The bluesy band dissolved in the early 1990s and gave way to Morphine, retaining much of the same genre-defying sound.
Sandman, saxophonist Dana Colley, and drummer Jerome Deupree formed Morphine in 1989, with Conway often filling in for Deupree. Conway played percussion on the band’s first two albums — 1992′s “Good” and 1993′s “Cure for Pain” — before taking over as drummer permanently.
Morphine effectively disbanded when Sandman died of a heart attack on stage in 1999, but Conway often played with Vapors of Morphine, a sort of reincarnation of the band with a mix of surviving and new members. Conway also became a producer at Cambridge’s Hi-n-Dry Studio, which was founded by Sandman. In the early aughts, Conway and singer Laurie Sargent, along with Colley, formed the band Twinemen.
In October 2018, Conway was diagnosed with bowel cancer, which was followed by chemotherapy and radiation. “During a winter of forced downtime, through the love and generosity of friends, [he] assembled a home studio, and over the course of months Billy finished the songs he’d been writing for years in dressing rooms, vans, and hotels around the world,” said the website of his label, Crazy View Records.
Conway’s final album and first solo venture, “Outside Inside,” was released last year. It coincided with the release of an album by Sargent, his longtime partner, in part to help defray the cost of Conway’s hospital bills, Foucault said.
“Billy was never the frontman,” said Foucault to Rolling Stone. “He was out ahead of us all his whole life I think, with his wary, instinctive joy cradled and protected like an ember, and always enough for everyone. He was the best person I ever knew. I’m going to miss him. We’re all going to miss him.”
In an April 2020 interview with the Globe from his Montana home, where he had lived for over a decade with Sargent, Conway revealed that the cancer had spread to his liver. The prognosis, the story noted, was “not good.” And yet, collaborating on “Outside Inside” seemed to buoy Conway’s spirits.
“Working together with friends to make something — that’s healing,” he said to the Globe about his newest album. “That’s fulfilling. That’s rewarding.”
Dana Gerber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org