Billy Conway, Drummer With US Alt-Rock Pioneers Morphine, Dies At 65

The drummer passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer.

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Billy Conway (center) with Morphine - Photo: Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Drummer Billy Conway, whose work with revered Massachusetts alt-rock outfit Morphine blended jazz, blues, and rock into a critically-acclaimed amalgam, died on Sunday, December 19, at the age of 65.

Conway’s friend and bandmate Jeffrey Foucault confirmed the musician’s death to Rolling Stone, adding that the cause of death was cancer.

“We are devastated to learn that our brother, Morphine drummer Billy Conway, has passed, finally succumbing to cancer after a long fight,” the band Vapors of Morphine, whose lineup included Conway and other former members, wrote on Facebook. “Our deepest condolences go to his family and friends.”

Alongside founding drummer Jerome Deupree, Conway appeared on the group’s first two albums — 1992’s Good and 1993’s Cure for Pain — before replacing Deupree as a permanent member. (The latter album’s title track with Conway on drums remains one of the group’s most acclaimed songs.)

The two would sometimes perform live together, with Conway’s stripped-down, jazz-influenced sound becoming a subtle, yet crucial, part of the band’s sui generis sound.

Morphine’s unique setup eschewed guitars in favor of drums, Dana Colley’s saxophone and vocalist Mark Sandman’s two-string bass or tri-tar. The group released their first three, critically beloved, albums independently before signing with DreamWorks for 1997’s Like Swimming, touching the floor of mainstream success but never breaking through in the way many of their fans expected.

“DreamWorks was a blessing and a curse. It allowed us some financial freedoms, but it also put a lot of stress on our process,” Colley said in 2020. “Previous to signing with DreamWorks we were left to put out what we wanted without having to undergo any type of critique from the label.

“Mark was under a lot of stress to produce a record that was going to put us into the next league … Mark felt responsible for producing a big hit for them. It led to a lot of fractious feelings between Mark, Billy and myself … Mark succeeded in producing the basic tracks that he was ultimately pleased with. And we succeeded in having both Billy Conway and Jerome Deupree both playing drums at the same time.”

Sandman’s death in 1999 after collapsing onstage at a show outside of Rome effectively ended the Morphine, though the band released one posthumous album in 2000. Conway went on to become a producer at Sandman’s Hi-n-Dry Studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts and perform alongside various musicians.

Prior to Morphine, Conway and Sandman performed together in Boston rock group Treat Her Right, whose “less is more” philosophy informed their future band. “We adopted the less is more theory and focused on simplifying everything we were doing,” Conway said in 2006.

“If there were too many chords in the song we just removed them or skipped that part of the song. We held high regard for one-chord songs and strived to make simple and emotional music like our heroes – Muddy [Waters], [Howlin’] Wolf, and Jimi Hendrix.”

The drummer was diagnosed with bowel cancer and underwent emergency surgery in October 2018, followed by six months of chemotherapy and radiation.

“During a winter of forced downtime, through the love and generosity of friends, [he] assembled a home studio, and over the course of months Billy finished the songs he’d been writing for years in dressing rooms, vans, and hotels around the world,” a note from his label, Crazy View Records, which he founded with musician and partner Laurie Sargent, said. His first solo album, Outside Inside, was released in 2020, the same year Conway found out the cancer had spread to his liver.

Since 2013, Conway had performed with Foucault, an Americana musician who penned a tribute/plea for financial help on behalf of Conway in 2020 following the revelation of Conway’s illness.

“Every day on the road together a master class in how to move through the world with some grace, and humility, and simple kindness,” Foucault wrote. “People tend to like themselves better around Billy. No one ever said that about me, but when people are with Billy, they feel as though someone they instinctively love and respect sees only their best.”

Foucault went on to note Conway’s “generous spirit, deep knowledge, and fierce willingness to give the best parts of himself to music; his mastery of his instrument, and the simple dignity that he brings to the act of play.”

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