‘He made the world a better place.’ Grand Rapids drummer Bill Vits had a huge impact on musicians, fans and students. His death has sparked loving memorials to this local icon.
Grand Rapids drummer and percussionist Bill Vits’ last communication with me said so much about the man, the musician and the mentor.
Support our coverage of
West Michigan's music scene
“I suppose you’ve heard some of the details of my cancer journey,” he related. “So much love and appreciation as I’m treading water trying to play another world premiere (with the Grand Rapids Symphony in mid-September) to open my 44th season. I’m terminal but still mobile, and have weeks or hopefully months before the cancer in my liver, spine, brain and lungs closes the curtain.”
Sadly, as it turns out, it was little more than a month.
Vits passed away Monday at age 65 after a valiant battle with cancer, leaving behind an impressive legacy as the symphony’s principal percussionist, drummer for surf-rock’s The Concussions, a purveyor of rhythm bones and a much-respected educator of music students. (In tribute to Vits, The Concussions are releasing a 20th anniversary compilation album, “eXXorcising our demons,” that includes two new tracks.)
Even as the sunlight was waning, Vits was ever gracious in his final words to me.
“Thanks for all you’ve done for me and The Concussions, all the way back to ‘Vote for Pedro’ (a reference from the band’s early years). Our final project … will feature our favorite tunes and a couple new ones. I have so many ideas and projects swimming in my head as the morphine, tramadol and steroids give me creative surges.”
At that time, friends and fans were sending him poems and he was meeting with small groups in his backyard, along with selling and distributing his “vast collection” to students who would “carry on the mission of love and music. Lucky to have the time to plan my own inevitable death.”
I was so honored that Local Spins could host one of The Concussions’ final performances with Vits back in May for the website’s 10th anniversary celebration. It was another elbow-to-elbow, jam-packed affair that has marked so many of the surf-rock band’s crowd-pleasing shows.
Local Spins also was honored to publish Vits’ life story, in his own words, in mid-September. Read it here.
Vits’ bandmate Tommy Schichtel told me that the Vits family plans an outdoor party/wake
with music sometime next year.
Not surprisingly, his death this week sparked a flood of tributes, testimonials and salutes to the esteemed musician. Here are just a few of them, sent to me via text or posted on Facebook.
Tommy Schichtel, guitarist for The Concussions: “He got it – plain and simple, he just got it. Not too many persons do, but when you are friends with people that get it, it makes the world such a better place. He understood the importance of dynamics with us, bringing the important moments up for the climax. He had a wonderful sense of humor and an infectious laugh that would usually spark fits of laughter where we would have to pull over on our way to a gig so we wouldn’t crash. He always made the people he played with sound better because he was a pro and understood the importance of a song, not the importance of an individual.”
Randy Marsh, drummer: For 42 years, Bill Vits was my friend, drum brother, mentor, biking and hiking mate, and music colleague. He was an extraordinary percussionist and musician and brought great joy and inspiration to so many people with his music magic and his wonderful and often irreverent sense of humor, a deep and caring man with a beautiful soul. RIP Maestro. Your great legacy will live on for many many years to come.”
Dan Terpstra: “Bill told me (earlier this year), ‘If I die, I would rather die playing drums than laying in a hospital.” Later he said “the woods” and revised to “drums in the woods.” When I last saw him a few weeks ago, he had fallen asleep after a massage and I sat on the patio talking with (his wife) Stacey. She’s been working so hard with that amazing, and totally stubborn, husband. He was a great guy and good to so many of us. He was also lucky how much she tried to take care of him without giving up. I can only imagine how tough it is for her and Tabor and hope they’re feeling some sort of relief despite the horrid sorrow these times bring. Peace to Stacey and Tabor Vits and all his other loved ones. The whole community is feeling your loss.” (Scroll down to listen to the Terpstra-produced song featuring Vits.)
Brian Oberlin, mandolinist for Full Cord: “We lost a gem of a human and a musician’s musician. Bill Vits was a friend and I was lucky enough to play some gigs with him and record. An incredible musician and inspiring to be around.”
Lee Chase: “A really nice guy, always supportive and complimentary. Like so many of us, I’m proud to have shared a stage with him on a couple occasions.”
The Grand Rapids Symphony: “While Bill’s courageous two-year battle with cancer has come to an end, his spirit, verve and passion will live on in everyone who knew him.”
Kerri VanderHoff: “What an extraordinary presence in our community. He will be greatly missed.”
Mark Huizenga: “An amazing talent and wit, and a true professional right up until the end.”
Clyde Maxwell: “So sad to hear. Bill was such a big positive force in our community.”
Mark Lago: “As a kid, he was always ‘that cool dude in the percussion section’ and after meeting him early in my teaching days when he gave a percussion sectional for my students, he became “that cool dude in the percussion section who also made my students’ day when he visited. He will be sorely missed.”
Rhonda Richards Vanderwest – “My elementary music students loved watching Bill! He had such charisma and talent. He drew them in like no other. Bill playing the bones was my favorite. Thank you for the memories, Bill. You are irreplaceable.”
Becca Ling: “He leaves a hole in our musical community that cannot be filled.”
Leslie Sommers – “Billy made the world a better place.”
VIDEO: “Ain’t Gonna Pay the Rent” (feat. Bill Vits)
VIDEO: “Think Pink,” The Concussions
Copyright 2022, Spins on Music LLC