Bill Ballard, Legendary Canadian Live Producer and Promoter, Dies at 67

A backstage pass for Concert Productions International

Concert business pioneer Bill Ballard, who partnered with Michael Cohl 40 years ago in Toronto to create Concert Productions International (CPI) eventually presenting tours by the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, U2 and Pink Floyd, died Friday after battling cancer. He was 67.

“I loved Bill,” Cohl told Billboard in an email. “He was a great partner for decades and an even better friend. Together we built the ultimate Canadian promotion and production company, which became the pre-eminent company of its kind in the world. It never would have happened without his support, friendship, and OMG the meals!!!!”

After attending Osgoode Law School, the son of Harold Ballard -- majority owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the arena Maple Leaf Gardens -- joined forces with Cohl and David Wolinsky in 1973 to form CPI. The company brought the top rock and pop acts to the venue, including Bob Dylan’s The Rolling Thunder Revue, ABBA, The Who, and Rush, but also expanded to other major establishments from SkyDome stadium to smaller clubs.

They eventually expanded to national tours, partnering in the east with Donald K. Donald in Montreal and west with Perryscope Concert Productions in Vancouver, and successfully pursued a vision of crossing into the U.S. and mounting global tours, first for the Rolling Stones, then David Bowie, Pink Floyd, U2 and more.

“Bill Ballard was a true pioneer of the Canadian music industry and his untimely passing is a shock to all of his friends and associates,” Donald K. Donald’s Donald Tarlton told Billboard. “He was a great promoter-producer and, working alongside of his dear friend and business associate Michael Cohl, they first invented and then later perfected the arena rock concert concept and touring circuits. He was a truly unique, kind, sincere and flamboyant character who was a strong believer and supporter of Canadian talent and had enormous impact on many careers including my own.”

Ballard and Cohl bought out Wolinsky, with new parent company John Labatt Ltd, and CPI became BCL Entertainment Corp, which also created The Brockum Group, merchandizing rock t-shirts and other licensed items. In 1995, BCL Entertainment sold its concert division and Brockham to Universal Concerts and launched The Next Adventure Inc., which presented worldwide tours such as U2's PopMart and the Rolling Stones’ Bridges to Babylon, Steel Wheels and Voodoo Lounge. Cohl — who launched SB2N Entertainment without Ballard, says they remained close to this day, friends for more than 40 years.

In 1998, Ballard, Gary Slaight and the Late Dusty Cohl helped Peter Soumalias establish Canada’s Walk of Fame, which has since inducted over 150 names, including musicians Bryan Adams, Paul Anka, Rush and Celine Dion, and more, along with other great Canadians from comedians to athletes and actors.

"Bill is a legend in the live music business,” Universal Music Canada president Randy Lennox told Billboard.  “He and his partner Michael Cohl invented many of the platforms by which today's business is based. He also founded Canada's Walk of Fame and gave back immeasurably. Bill will long be remembered as a man full of life and spirit."

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Friends and former colleagues posted stories on their Facebook pages, many mentioning Ballard’s love of food, his outgoing personality and holding court at his cottage.

“Billy and Michael were my managers for 3 years in a band called Zero One,” wrote Frank Zirone. “Never a dull moment with Billy around. He was animated and witty at parties and generous to a fault to me in business. I will miss him,” while CBC radio host and former PolyGram executive Karen Gordon remembered Ballard letting her crash at his home.

“He let me stay at his place, nicknamed Hotel 6, when I first came to Toronto years and years ago [around 1981-ish] and didn't know a soul, other than my CPI contacts, and had no place to stay temporarily,” Gordon wrote. “Never made a big thing about it. I was free to come and go and treated as just another pal in the house.”

No funeral arrangements have been announced yet. Ballard is survived by his wife, Renee, daughter Maryke, brother Harold Jr. and sister Mary Elizabeth Flynn.