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06 May, 2016

JIM ARMSTRONG: WAS A RESPECTED MUSICIAN, SONGWRITER, DEFENDER OF THE UNDERDOG AND ALL-'ROUND GOOD GUY FROM SOUTHAMPTON

On Monday (May 2nd.) at 1:31 p.m. hikers walking along the Lake Huron shoreline at MacGregor Point Provincial Park, came across a body floating just off shore.  The body was transported to London where an autopsy was performed and later identified as that of missing person Peter James Armstrong. No foul play was suspected and the cause of death will not be determined until the results of toxicology are completed and reviewed by the coroner's office.

Armstrong was last seen at 9 00 p.m., March 9, at a relative's home along the Saugeen River in Southampton. An extensive search was conducted by the OPP Emergency Response Team, the Saugeen Shores Police Service and the Saugeen Shores Fire Service over the weeks that followed.

You may, or may not, have picked up on such sparse information from a press release circulated in recent days.  Fifty-three-year-old "Jim" Armstrong was a quiet, unassuming guy who flew under the radar most of his life but trust me there was much, much more to him than that.  To his friends and associates in the music world in and around Toronto he was well-thought-of and deeply respected.  Only in Canada, you say!

The body those hikers found along the shoreline earlier this week belonged to a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer with decades of performing and recording to his credit.

Jim Armstrong, in concert
Jim's Armstrong's story deserves to be told.  His work was recently compared to the master singer-songwriters of Americana roots-rock — Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Tom Petty and Canada’s own Fred Eaglesmith — in that their music shares a working-class sensibility and honesty.

He was a self-taught multi-instrumentalist with drums being his first instrument. His mother Marie's short-lived attempt at sending him off to a piano teacher as a young boy did not last too long. The teacher soon twigged to the fact that he was just playing back the songs he picked up by ear and not bothering to learn to read the actual sheet music. He was always creating music and was a touring drummer from the age of 10. He was a lifeguard; he played sports and earned two college degrees.

Jim never let epilepsy and encephalitis stop him from accomplishing things even when he was first diagnosed with his condition and spent many weeks and months in and out of hospitals as a youngster growing up in Southampton. However, by his late 20s, his seizure activity began to increase and the medications were not working as well anymore. He sometimes considered it a blessing in disguise that he was forced to stay home and concentrate solely on music. In his early 20s he was also playing guitar, bass, keys, harmonica, sax, and writing and recording solo pursuits. 

Jim underwent surgery in 1992 to minimize the effects his seizures.  It was an unnerving prospect because the risks were great -- death obviously, but also paralysis and a possible loss of musical abilities, brain damage, you name it. Faced with these risks Jim began writing a lot of new material as the surgery date approached. He felt he needed to stockpile as many songs as he could in case he could never create music again.

Fortunately, the surgery was fairly successful. He still needed medication and he continued to have some seizures "but I can cope," he said at the time. It wasn’t the easiest recovery though; he was temporarily paralyzed and had to force his body to pick up the guitar and drum sticks again. Three months after surgery he recovered sufficiently to begin recording and producing his first Sonic Deli Records release, a compilation CD entitled "Brown Bag Lunch" and forming his own band.

Four of the songs on Jim's "Mudtown" album were first included on Brown Bag Lunch; "Angel In Our Corner", "Hole In His Heart", "Tomorrow's Gonna Be Grand" and "Oxygen Kiss". They were from the pre-surgery time when he was madly stockpiling material. "Imagine my surprise though, when people kept telling me that they loved these songs and why wasn’t I out there performing them? Well, my performing days had always been spent behind a drum kit, not singing and playing a guitar or as a front man," he wrote on his web site a few years ago.

"Mostly, I’m just happy to still be alive; able to do the music I love to do and hope that people will get to hear that music, like my songs and even come out to hear my band perform them on occasion," he added.

In the early 1990's, Jim was fortunate enough to meet songwriting and business manager, Andrea Poulis, and began to collaborate with other artists.   Today Andrea is Director of Music and Canadian Programming, Radio 11.3X in Toronto and President, Artist Management, Sonic Deli Records. Together, Andrea and Jim worked with various singers and musicians in many different genres, developing their craft. It was also during the early nineties that they hooked up with bass player, Wes Miller. who had played just about everywhere in North America over the years and became an integral part of the writing process, co-engineering and co-producing Mudtown in conjunction with Sonic Deli Records.

Almost unbelievably, with the exception of the bass guitar and some of the lead guitar tracks, Jim played all the instruments on the Mudtown album.  The official bio for the album declared:

"Mudtown is a straight ahead alt-roots-rock album that shoots from the hip and aims at the heart. With his first solo CD, Mudtown, Toronto-based musician Jim Armstrong has crafted a collection of 13 songs with musical and emotional hooks that stick unshakably with the listener. He has also scored films such as Canton Film Studios' The Adulterer's Guide to Toronto (2007). Now, he’s stepping authoritatively in front of the curtain to unveil "Mudtown", his solo debut.  The title and driving spirit of Mudtown were born during Armstrong's wanderings through downtown Toronto, where he lives, works and walks his dogs. Armstrong explains, "Life can be dirty, rough and mean, but there's a breed of people who struggle against the grind and somehow keep their humanity. They don't get hard, like the city, and that's what makes Mudtown livable."

"They made me sound like a pro," the laid-back and almost embarrassed Jim was known to say about the glowing words on the album cover..

Jim Armstrong was a genuine hero and an inspiration to all who are faithful to their art. True enough, he defended the underdog through his music by dispelling the modern myth of perfection. He wrote songs about real characters from everyday life, singing their stories with the passion of the human justice activist that he was.  

Often labelled a "troubadour", Jim and his The Sonic Deli Band were annual regulars at the International Buskerfest run by the charity Epilepsy Toronto for which he was an official spokesman.

Not long ago, Jim had this to say about where he found himself in life: "If, four years ago, someone had told me that I would be back on a stage performing songs from my own album, I would never have dared to believe them. Oh, I knew that I wrote some great music and I loved creating new songs all the time, but I had reached the point where I was beginning to despair of living any sort of normal life – let alone be out singing my songs somewhere."  One has to wonder what was on his mind when he disappeared, lightly clad and supposedly without his medications, into the sub-zero dark of that Southampton night two months ago...Maybe it is better that we will never know.

He was reported to have been experiencing some mental health and emotional issues in recent months.

The 2 Kens (comedy team Ken Main & Ken Devoe) recorded a wonderful and revealing radio show tribute to Jim and his music today (Friday). Please scroll down and click on the mp3 link to have a listen...I leave it to those two good friends to have the last words on this post.  It is an extremely moving tribute.

"This week we lost our dear friend, Jimmy Armstrong, an extraordinary man who touched so many lives with his music and countless more with his great big heart. We put together a short tribute to our friend. You can immediately listen to the mp3 here. http://traffic.libsyn.com/…/2Kens_Remember_Peter_James_Jim_… Please share this freely with everyone who appreciates knowing that there are still good people out there who champion the underdog -- and never make a peep about it. Jim Armstrong certainly was that.

"While there seems no bottom to our sorrow, it is uplifting to learn from Andrea Poulis, Jim’s music partner, co-songwriter and BFF these past 25 years, of the massive outpouring of love, compassion, kindness and appreciation for Jim’s life, his loving way and, of course, his wonderful music. Jim believed in paying it forward. It goes on and will go on.

"We love you, Jimmy! Thank you for sharing your special gifts. Rest in peace, great friend. We’ll be okay, don’t you worry. We know because you promised, “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Grand.”  -- Ken Main & Ken Devoe, 2Kens Comedy

Now you know the story that was not included in that earlier matter-of-fact "missing person found" news release.  Jim is no longer missing but he will be missed!


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