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Last of the Melodiers is silenced

By Sean Chase, The Daily Observer

An Ottawa Valley music legend has been silenced.

Accomplished pianist and organist Jimmy Mayhew, the last surviving member of the famous Mac Beattie and the Ottawa Valley Melodiers who grew to become a popular entertainer on Pembroke's restaurant scene, died Tuesday. He was 74.

"He was an accompanist extraordinaire," said Kevin Nieman, former director of the Pembroke Community Choir, for which Mr. Mayhew performed for several years.

Born in Renfrew, he was raised on the family farm in Horton Township. The youngest of four children, Mr. Mayhew was influenced early in life by his late mother, Alice Leckie, whose singing and step dancing made an impression on her son. He was first introduced to the piano, his instrument of choice, at the age of nine.

"I had a real urge to play piano," Mr. Mayhew told an interviewer in 2008. "You could get nice sounds from the notes. To me, at nine years old, it was magic."

After high school, he attended the University of Toronto Faculty of Music but couldn't finish because of finances and took a job in Owen Sound as a church organist. He returned to Renfrew around 1964 and rejoined Mac Beattie and the Ottawa Valley Melodiers, the group that first gave him a start at the age of 17. Mr. Beattie once wrote that: "Jimmy could make a piano sound like a million dollars."

For 15 years, Mr. Mayhew backed up the band, which included Donnie Gilchrist, Lennox Gavan, Garney Scheel, Helen Meilleur, Donnie Poirier and Gaetan Fairfield, playing gigs across the Ottawa Valley. They performed at spots like the Hotel Renfrew, Keon’s Hotel in Waltham, the Madawaska Hotel in Arnprior, Renfrew's Bonnechere Manor, the Miramichi Lodge and St. Joseph’s Manor in Campbell’s Bay.

After Mr. Beattie's death and the Melodiers' break-up in 1981, Mr. Mayhew brought his talents to Pembroke. He secured a spot entertaining dinner crowds at Treadles' Cafe. In the past 12 years, he performed regularly on weekends at Westwinds Restaurant in the Best Western Hotel.

"He was a great musician," said Westwinds manager Lianne Woods recalling his amazing ability to recall songs and notes completely from memory. "He was fabulous. He could play anything from the top of his head. He is going to be missed."

Mr. Mayhew's repertoire ranged from country and folk to the classics. Ms. Woods said newly-married couples often requested that he play at their wedding receptions when they were hosted at the restaurant. Since his final performance at Westwinds last year, no one has played on his piano. Others said Thursday the prolific music generated by Mr. Mayhew will be greatly missed.

"Jimmy Mayhew was a kind and gentle man who never had a harsh word to say about anyone," said Daily Observer managing editor Peter Lapinskie. "Along with the qualities of humility and perseverance, he was one of the most talented pianists I ever had the pleasure of listening to. I still have fond memories of dinners at Treadle's Café with Jimmy playing everything from Beethoven to Andrew Lloyd Webber in the loft. He was one of many talented musicians in the Ottawa Valley who possessed a gift that can't be taught, a gift that could only come from above. He will be missed."

Every Sunday he played organ at Holy Trinity Anglican Church. He had also released two CDs and was inducted into the Ottawa Valley Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008. For decades, Mr. Mayhew accompanied the music for performers at the Pembroke Kiwanis Music Festival spending extra time practicing with the students before they went onto the stage. His down-to-earth personality endeared him to many.

"He was phenomenal, that rare talent that may never come around again," explained Mr. Nieman.

A faithful member of the Pembroke Community Choir and the Pembroke Musical Society, Mr. Mayhew was widely respected for talent as an accompanist. Mr. Nieman recalled that he chose Mr. Mayhew to back him up during a performance at the University of Ottawa. During the recital, Mr. Nieman heard a bang, however, his accompanied music never stopped. Later he learned that Mr. Mayhew's music book fell off the stand. The pianist continued playing without missing a beat, something that amazed the judges.

"They were so impressed that he could continue playing while the book had fallen on his hands," recounted Mr. Nieman. "It was one of those phenomenal moments."

Jimmy Mayhew is survived by sister-in-law Irene Mayhew, six nephews and four nieces. Funeral services will be held on Saturday at Holy Trinity Anglican beginning at 11 p.m. Visitation is today at the Malcolm, Deavitt and Binhammer Funeral Home from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Sean Chase is a Daily Observer multimedia journalist

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