William “Paco” Strickland Life Celebration
February 23rd, 2 p.m. • Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut Street
Sunrise Paddle Out, Shell Island Resort, Wrightsville Beach
Paddle Out details: www.wblivesurf.com
We lost one of our cultural luminaries on Monday, January 21st with the passing of local flamenco guitar legend William “Paco” Strickland. I think, sometimes, living in a community so rich in artistic treasures, we forget how lucky we are to be surrounded by genius, inspiration and enlightenment. What’s the likelihood that, for over 20 years, we would nurture a flamenco guitarist? What is the impact of one musician in a community? Well, it depends on the community and musician, obviously.
For us Paco’s arrival in 1991 didn’t include any fanfare or an announcement in the local press—but maybe it should have. After all, he had played in many bands throughout his youth, including a hair band, Spank, and even a touring band for “Hee Haw” in the ‘80s. He played in bars and clubs up and down the NC coast; Laura McLean played many of the same venues in Moorehead City during that time.
“All the musicians would hole up at a motel after gigs,” she recalls. “I knew Paco for a while and kept telling him he should come down here. Then he did, and I gave him all my contacts.”
“I was out doing alcohol research at someplace or another, and Paco was playing guitar,” Michael Titterton, former general manager of WHQR, recalls. “We got chatting and quickly discovered we had mutual affection for a lot of things: alcohol, women and music to name three.”
Fairly quickly, Titterton and Paco put together “Flamenco Café,” the long-running radio show, which began to air on WHQR in 1992 and took to the Penguin in 2006. The show covered the quintessential Spanish sound, flurried and lush in classical styles. Titterton chuckles and points out: “You don’t expect flamenco in North Carolina. You don’t expect it played by somebody from Ohio. And you don’t expect it to be that good. Yet, Paco hit the definition of ‘artist.’ He could take his extraordinary love of life, verve and people, and channel it through flamenco—and it’s not a simple musical form! He did it magnificently. The radio show was an attempt to get him to a wider audience.”
Light, percussively layered and complex, Paco maintained a sense of scholarship and respect for the music. His sense of timing and ethereal love of it showed in every long-nailed pick of his guitar, eyes often closed and smile widened, as if he were catching the Big Blue off in the distance (something else for which the man loved: surfing).
In 1993 Jemila Ericson began working for WHQR and heard her first flamenco show onair. “Paco brought a sound to our region that had not been here before,” Ericson says. Birthday buddies, she and Paco were born November 15th, 1952. “We called each other twins separated at birth,” she notes. Ericson recalls one of the flamenco parties Paco hosted at the Big Room at WHQR, complete with the infamous “Paco’s Wicked Sangria.” A flamenco dancer came from out of town to perform. During a lull, Ericson picked up Paco’s guitar and strummed a flamenco chord.
“What?” Paco almost hit the roof. “You’ve been holding out on me!”
After shaking off the hangover, he showed up at Ericson’s house and gave her his first guitar. “No sister of mine who can play flemanco is going to be without a guitar!” he insisted.
It wasn’t just radio audiences that learned about flamenco from Paco. Any regular at the Ice House during its heyday could have seen the boisterous, good-hearted guitarist play several times a week. The once historical landmark on Water Street beckoned passersby with the sound of blues, jazz, rock and Paco.
“There was never a cover charge!” Joe Carney, one of Ice House’s founding partners, reminds. Once used as an old ice storage, with incredible river views and warm sunlit breezes, Carney and Jim Bath bought the space and converted it into a bar and music venue. “We wanted a variety of music,” Carney explains. “Blues and jazz were the underpinning, [but] I love all music.”
Carney recalls Paco coming to him before he was called ‘Paco’; in fact, Carney still refers to him as “Bill.” “He said, ‘I play flamenco.’ I was like, ‘Awesome! I love that!’ Bill responded that most people looked at him and said ‘flamingo?’”
Flamenco’s broad appeal keeps people enlivened to it, even before they know what it is. Once they hear it, they fall in love with its romanticism, mystical envelopment and bewitching rhythms.
“The Fabulous Flying Flamenco Brothers were sort of born in the [Ice House] office,” Carney says with a grin. Paco arrived as a solo performer and quickly built a following. Naturally, management wanted to build on that. “Once I saw someone who was really clicking [with an audience], we tried to expand,” Carney remembers. “I’d ask the musicians, ‘Can you talk to some of the guys and try to pull together a group for a Friday or Saturday night?’”
The jam sessions at Ice House proved to be fertile ground for musicians to connect and experiment. When Paco returned one weekend to fill in a group slot, Carney pointed out they needed a name for billing. After a few duds were thrown around, Carney said, “‘How about The Fabulous Flying Flamenco Brothers?’ Bill loved it! So we put it in the lineup and it stuck.”
Carney prefers to remember Paco on the Ice House stage in a straw hat, long blonde ponytail swaying, with his Hawaiian print shirt and that quintessential smile. “Dazzling people!” Carney explains. “Flamenco is such a style: beating on the guitar, playing it all up and down [the fret]—all over! Joyful!”
Paco opened listener’s minds to world music on a local level before it was hip. He impacted anyone who heard him play. “He inspired other musicians to walk down paths they didn’t even know were there,” Carney elaborates.
The Ice House closed and was sold to Todd Toconis in the mid-2000s; Toconis demolished the building to build condos. Likely, folks still will see random bricks laying around at local lawyer, accountant, real estate agent and dentist offices—the last reminder of the historic building. “Bill called it ‘our Camelot,” Carney says. “I go by there on my bicycle and hear the ghosts of a good time coming out even today.”
Paco’s performance schedule continued to grow out of those early days at the Ice House. He personified “working musician” and perhaps stakes claim as one of the most prolific locally; he sold around 100,000 albums from his vast discography, which includes a greatest hits release in 2008. Besides his regular appearances at Deluxe and Mellow Mushroom, he played private gigs, including upward of 3,000 weddings, numerous fund-raisers, art openings and bar mitzvahs.
Recently, I tried to numerate the times I saw Paco play; I lost count in the mid-30s, which only brought me through about five years of knowing him. Some of my favorite Christmas presents have been signed copies of his albums, which he and the love of his life, Connie Nelson, have gifted me. “El Camino del Viento,” with Medafo Lloyd Wilson and Troy Pierce, remains my favorite, though, all are distinctly captivating.
He and Connie frequently made visits to Titterton once he moved to Hawaii to manage another public radio station. Like all creative people, Paco constantly sought the next stimulating and inspiring step with his art. During one of their last trips before his multiple myeloma diagnosis, Titterton arranged for Paco to play slack-key guitar with George Kuo. “It was incredible!” Connie gushed when they came home. “I am so glad he got to do that!”
Titterton had one more connection in Hawaii planned for Paco. “I wanted to get him together with Willie Nelson, who lives here,” Titterton explains. “He and Paco would have really hit it off. It’s sad he never got well enough to travel.”
It sounds cliché to say that behind every great man is a great woman, but in this case, it’s simple truth. The incredible Connie Nelson, co-author of “The Film Junkie’s Guide to North Carolina” and the communications director for the Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau, shared the joy, genius, beauty and pain with Paco for the better part of two decades. Connie’s job is multi-faceted. It would take hours to explain everything she does; I know, I used to work for her. But to hyper-simplify it: She promotes our area as a tourism destination and has worked tirelessly to bring tourism dollars into our economy since the late ‘90s. She’s an overachiever by nature, routinely working well past 8 p.m. through most of her adult life.
Since Paco became sick in 2008, Connie took on the role as primary caregiver, managing not only his doctor and hospital schedule, but his medication, diet and emotional needs. She still worked full time, too, and managed to exude more grace and class than anyone I know. She is super human.
Together, they spent Paco’s last years living by his rules, not giving up hope. She fought alongside him through his bone marrow transplant in 2010, numerous medical test trials and made many wonderful, new memories despite his terminal diagnosis. It’s fitting, if not bittersweet, they were married Saturday, January 19th in a private ceremony performed by Jemilia Ericson.
Last August, Paco’s friends and family gathered at the Cameron Art Museum to hear the beloved guitarist play one last show. Though he had been feeling bad physically, with Connie and Michael Titterton’s help, he rallied another performance. It was an emotional experience to know we were likely seeing Paco play one last time. It was something many of us—myself included—took for granted for many years.
With courage and pure love emanating the space, Connie narrated the event; it was their opportunity to thank and acknowledge the people who had helped them through their journey. Though I will remember many images from that day—the line of people stretching out the door to talk with Paco, his breathtaking music, other musicians who performed to honor his 20-year contributions, Paco grinning wildly over his guitar—for me the defining moment came unplanned:
Connie carefully read from their prepared message when Paco approached her from behind and kissed her. The audience burst into applause. She leaned her head back toward him and broke into the biggest grin I’d seen her smile in quite a while. Connie has a dazzling smile—the kind that lights up any heart when she turns it on. The two of them together and what they have meant for this community … that was the moment which captured the beauty of life and Paco. It will continue to live on forever, through his music, through his many friendships, through his love for Connie and for our community, one he so graciously called home.
A life celebration for William “Paco” Strickland will take place at Thalian Hall on February 23rd, at 2pm. Also, a sunrise Paddle Out will take place at Shell Island at Wrightsville Beach to honor the musician and avid surfer. Details of the Paddle Out will be posted on www.wblivesurf.com and Facebook.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in William “Paco” Strickland’s honor to the nonprofit organizations that came to his aid: Hope From Helen, P.O. Box 187, Wrightsville Beach, NC 28480 (www.hopefromhelen.com), as well as Lower Cape Fear Hospice and LifeCare Center (www.hospiceandlifecarecenter.org), and Leukemia Lymphoma Society (www.lls.org).
Memories and condolences can be made at www.wilmingtoncares.com , Wilmington Funeral &Cremation, 1535 S. 41st Street, Wilmington, NC 28403; 910-791-9099.
Paco’s music can be heard at www.pacostrickland.com.