Rock ‘n’ roll helps retired steelworker kick drugs

Story and photos by Casey Lessard

Originally from Wales, Bill Osmond is a retired steel refinery instrument technician and Elvis tribute artist. He lives with his wife in Grand Cove Estates.

I was watching an Elvis concert – one of the last ones before he died. He walked on stage and he was just a balloon. He was so swollen and white and sweating. His words were garbled. He looked like he was dying, he was so far up on drugs. I thought to myself, if I don’t get off narcotics, that’s going to be me.

I discovered Elvis when I was 10 years old. We had a sleepover at a friend’s house and we slept in his sister’s room. She was a teenager, and she had a picture of this strange looking guy leaning against a gate. He was wearing a red shirt and sneakers. It’s kind of a famous picture.
When I started to hear his music, I thought he was fantastic. I was an Elvis fan until he came out of the army. Then, of course, we had the Beatles, the Stones, the Yardbirds and the Beach Boys, so I kind of went off Elvis. I still liked him, but it wasn’t the music of the day.
Then in 1970, I saw an album of his called Moody Blue at the supermarket, so I bought it. His voice was much deeper and it had a new excitement. I got right back into it. I was working the steelworks at night, walking on the catwalks and I’d be singing my brains out. I’d go into the workshop and I’d always be singing there.
Six months after I came to Canada, I was picked to go and commission a new strip mill. The second day on the job I had this terrific pain in my back. It just brought me to my knees. The engineer saw me and called the ambulance. I thought I was having a heart attack, the pain was so real. That was my first kidney stone. They shot me full of demerol to get the pain down. They operated on the stone to get the stone back in the kidney.
There was nothing for about five years, and then they came quicker and quicker. I got kidney stone disease, and it got to be impossible for me to go to work. Every time I’d go to work, they’d be shipping me out in the ambulance to operate on me. I had every operation going for kidney stones, including a kidney transplant. In the end, the company said, “If you want to retire early, we’ll give you a part pension and carry your benefits on for life.”
We moved to Grand Bend in 2000. I was on a lot of pain pills. I was kind of out of it and very dependent on the drugs. I hurt my back and went to the health centre here, and there was a Chinese doctor who gave me acupuncture for pain. I never thought acupuncture really worked, but it did. It took me about six months to get off all the narcotics I was on. I did it gradually myself.
One day I thought, maybe I’ll go down and sing some karaoke at the Riverbend, so I did. I was singing different songs, and one of them was an Elvis song. Women would come up to me with their husbands, and ask me to sing another Elvis song. After doing that three or four times, I thought this might be something to do in my retirement.
I went to an Elvis competition in Brantford. All I had was a black shirt with a large collar on it. There I met a guy named Marcus Wells who is one of the top Elvis guys in Ontario, and he gave me my first jumpsuit. He said, “You should have a jumpsuit because you’ll get more points from the judges. I’ve got one for you; I’ll send it to you when I get home.”
I do parties and stagettes, and whatever. When my dad’s partner died suddenly, we had to go down to Port Dover and rescue him; we put him in the Bluewater rest home. I found out that they had volunteers going in to sing to these people. I volunteered my time one day, and I thought, this isn’t going to really go with these old ladies. But into the third song, I’m singing Teddy Bear, and they’re all tapping their hands and their feet, and they’re all listening intently. I thought they’d all be fast asleep. I’ve done that place about four times now. They just love it down there.
I get more out of doing stuff for people like that than getting paid for jobs. You’re rewarding people that need to be rewarded, who are forgotten about.
Being in pain, I can understand other people’s pain. Being locked up in a ward, I can understand the people in Bluewater or Forest, or the other places I sing. It gives me more compassion to people who are worse off than I am myself.
The pain clinic had told me I’d have to be on narcotics the rest of my life. But the more you’re on narcotics, the more they become no use to you. It doesn’t free you from the pain for long. Maybe three or four months. You’re in a dream world all the time. It made me aggressive sometimes, it made me cry sometimes. I was living in a plastic world, and nothing was real.
Now when I have a stone, I go the hospital and have a shot to get me over the worst part, then live it out at home. I’m a lot happier now than I’ve ever been and people don’t shy away from me. I enjoy the good times and lay down when I’m not feeling well.
Bill Osmond is available to perform as Elvis; you can contact him at 519-238-2005. He performs free for local non-profits.