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I just received very sad news from my friend, Bob Romans, the leader of Cell Block Seven, a fabulous Dixieland jazz band headquartered here in Lodi. One of their members, Bill Gunter, died last night. Bill brought a kind word, smile and countless hours of entertainment to their audiences for many years. He will be sorely, deeply missed not only by the band members, but Cell Block Seven’s many, many fans, including our family.

This is the text of his obituary from the Sacramento Bee:

Bill Gunter, a retired teacher, lifelong musician and versatile entertainer who sang, told jokes and played the washboard with bands from pizza parlors to the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee, died Wednesday. He was 80.

The cause was heart failure, said his wife, Beverly Gunter.

Mr. Gunter enjoyed a steady career as a teacher, including 20 years at San Juan High School. But his calling was making music, and he spent most of his life singing, playing in bands and earning a reputation among fans as “chairman of the washboard.”

In 1959, he formed his first musical group, the Boondockers, a folk duo on guitar and gutbucket at the Boon Dox Hotel in Walnut Grove. The pair added comedy routines, expanded to a ragtime/Dixieland quartet and moved to Johnny and Red’s Pizza Pub on Florin Road and other local venues.

Mr. Gunter was a natural musician who could play any instrument he touched, his family and colleagues said, including the piano, violin, guitar and banjo. As band members came and went, he took up the washboard and rounded out the Boondockers as a skiffle band that was popular with audiences for its high-energy music, corny jokes and zany skits.

He also joined Cell Block Seven, a West Coast traditional jazz band, and performed with both groups for many years at the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee and other music festivals.

“Bill was a master at comedy timing,” Boondockers bandmate Bob Ringwald said. “When he got on stage, he had a presence that the audience just focused on. He was a born entertainer.”

Bill Gunter of Cell Block SevenMr. Gunter was active in the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society since 1982, including terms as president and publicity director. Since 1983, he organized a Jazz Jubilee washboard extravaganza that grew to more than 40 players on one stage thumping thimbled fingers on ribbed, galvanized sheet metal. The rowdy jam session became a festival highlight, said Beverly Gunter, who met her husband in the jazz society and married him in 1988.

“Bill loved to wear crazy hats and make up lyrics and do crazy stuff on stage,” his wife said. “He was always laughing and making sure everybody was feeling good and having a good time. At the end, everybody would just stand up and cheer.”

William Milo Gunter was born in San Francisco. His father played violin in the Oakland Symphony, and his mother was a pianist. He grew up in the Bay Area and played stand-up bass in the Oakland Junior Symphony. He served in the Navy and Air Force National Guard and earned a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Fresno.

He began performing music but turned down an offer to tour with the New Christy Minstrels in favor of steady work as a teacher, Ringwald said. He taught elementary school in Fresno and Sacramento before earning a high-school teaching credential from UC Berkeley. He taught English at San Juan High School until retiring in 1982.

“Bill was absolutely one of the sweetest, nicest guys you’d ever meet,” Boondockers band member Jim Maihack said. “He was somebody who would help anyone and always had a smile. He loved making music.”

I present this clip in honor and memory of Bill and as my way of saying, “Thanks for the many hours of entertainment and fun. It will never be the same without you, Bill. Rest in peace.”

[youtube width=”325″ height=”235″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMcdwIGFnIY[/youtube]


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  2. I saw Bill live with several bands at several jazz festivals. A true entertainer, with no ego to brandish about. On the internet, a man who could tame any flame war. I got to speak with him in person a few times…he was easily a foot taller than me, and had a smooth, gentle voice and manner. A true “gentle giant”.

    I’m gonna miss you Bill.

  3. Lewis Gunter

    I wonder if he could have been a long-lost relative…. too bad I never got to hear him play. Maybe jazz runs in the family.

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