Western Canada has produced many legendary rock songwriters; you know their names: Randy Bachman, Neil Young, and others. Another name that belongs on this eminent list is that of Bill Henderson, songwriter and leader of the classic rock band Chilliwack, with a stellar career spanning over 50 years.
Born in Vancouver in 1944, William Henderson became a working musician while in high school, then studied music at the University of British Columbia. In 1966 he became lead guitarist for The Collectors, previously known as The Classics, an established Vancouver band which played regularly on local TV’s “Let’s Go” and at local clubs including the strip club Torch Cabaret.
From these humble beginnings, the band played up and down the west coast, working for a time in California, among the early Canadian acts to find success in the U.S. Henderson, however, discovered that American music didn’t feel right for him, saying “It’s about who we are as Canadians; we have a certain kind of style and culture, whatever that is. You can’t help it as a Canadian writer.” Later, Henderson wrote the 1976 hit song California Girl about his experiences working with California record companies.
Henderson and the band returned to Canada to establish their rightful place among the nation’s favourite sons. The Collectors’ first charting single was 1967’s psychedelic, philosophical Looking at a Baby (written by Henderson with Howie Vickers), which reached No. 4 on the CHUM radio chart and No. 23 on the national RPM chart. By 1969-1970, they evolved into the legendary Chilliwack, with early members Ross Turney, Glenn Miller, and Claire Lawrence. Henderson became their principal songwriter, taking their writing from on-stage jams to thoughtfully structured songs that brought critical and fan success.
Chilliwack appeared on popular television shows like “The Merv Griffin Show,” “American Bandstand,” and “Solid Gold,” and had represented Canada at the 1970 World Expo in Osaka, Japan, where the band created the music for each of the Canadian Pavilions.
In the following years members came and went, with notable additions being guitarist Howard Froese, multi-instrumentalist and co-writer Brian “Too Loud” MacLeod and bassist Ab Bryant, with Henderson as the band’s musical life force and leader.
In 1972 his southern-tinged Lonesome Mary became Chilliwack’s first Billboard and Cashbox charting single. This Henderson wrote in his kitchen, where he confides he wrote many of his songs, like Crazy Talk (a 1974 foray into blues, produced by Terry Jacks of Poppy Family fame). He told radio station The Raven that “Songs like Crazy Talk and Lonesome Mary, they just came out…that’s how easy it was.”
Henderson’s first JUNO nomination as a producer came in 1978 for Chilliwack’s “Dreams, Dreams, Dreams” album, their first — but not last — platinum album.
1981-1982 was memorable for the top ten hit My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone), which he wrote with MacLeod on the latter’s boat somewhere along the B.C. coast. Henderson remembered loving MacLeod’s initial insistent guitar riff: “It was a really cool rhythm.” Henderson added lyrics, their collaboration resulting in a JUNO nomination for composers of the year.
The same year, Henderson’s optimistic ballad I Believe was a Top 30 hit in the U.S. and top ten at home. The Henderson-MacLeod rocker Whatcha Gonna Do (When I’m Gone) yielded the best producer JUNO.
Chilliwack called it quits after their last single (1983’s Don’t Stop) with 14 albums under their belts. In 1997 Henderson began leading a renewed Chilliwack, which as of 2023 continues to tour.
Along the way Henderson produced The Nylons’ platinum JUNO-nominated “Happy Together” album, plus recordings for Long John Baldry, The Irish Rovers, The Good Brothers, and the band Toronto. He embraced his acoustic side with the trio UHF, with fellow British Columbians Shari Ulrich and Roy Forbes. For a time, he was a music director for Sesame Street Canada, and president of the Songwriters Association of Canada and SOCAN. And in 1990 he picked up a best original song Genie award for When I Sing.
Henderson spoke to SAC about the element that makes a hit song: “Call it the muse, call it inspiration, or maybe just call it magic. This magic is the difference between a good song and a great one.”
Henderson is a member of the Order of Canada as well as an inductee to the British Columbia Entertainment Hall of Fame, and with Chilliwack, to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. He has amassed an impressive ten SOCAN awards, culminating in the Special Achievement award.
Henderson continues to write. “Styles come and go through the years but songwriting will never die. The urge to sing is deeper and more lasting than any style. So if you’re a songwriter, don’t worry, as long as you write songs that people like to sing, you’ll never be laid off.”