Edward William (Billy) Downey

  • 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award, African Nova Scotian Music Association

The impact of the Halifax Arrow's Club in the 1960's and `70's was all pervasive: no aspect of the Halifax music and night club scene was left untouched. The cultural and social footprint it made, the racial and political walls it knocked down, and the dignified purpose it brought to the Halifax popular culture scene - taught a generation of Halifax musicians and music enthusiasts to believe in the power of music to transform a city and the larger social world around it.

Edward William (Billy) Downey, born on April 22nd, 1933 in Halifax Nova Scotia, to a family of 13 children was not a musician - but he was an immensely important figure in the establishment and development of the Black music and night club scene in Halifax in the 1960's and 1970's.

A born organizer, communicator, and entertainment industry pioneer, Billy attributes his trailblazing traits to his father - who at the age of 17, left his native community of North Preston to live in Halifax - where he later joined the No. 2 Construction Battalion. After serving in Germany and England during WWI, as well as serving in WWII, his father later established a trucking company.

Like his father, Billy was not known to shy away from hard work, personal challenges or business opportunities. As a young man Billy was the business manager for his Halifax-based hockey team, which played other "coloured" teams in their segregated negro hockey league during the early 1950's. Billy's team - which was called the "Arrows" - would often host dances at the local Gerrish Street Hall in Halifax. As the event planner, organizer and manager for the dances, Billy would someday take his well earned entertainment management skills and the name "Arrow's" to a whole new height.

What began as a aocial drop-in spot for card playing and pool games in a condemned house on Halifax's Creighton Street, later came to exert an unprecedented influence upon the Halifax music and popular culture scene. In 1962, with the help of friends and family and realizing there were no clubs Blacks could attend due to the widesoread practice of racial segregation in Halifax - Billy Downey renovated the Creighton Street condemned house, applied for a private club license, and thus began the journey of the legendary Halifax Arrow's Club.

Establishing the club was a milesone in itself. However, Billy's bid to convince liquor licensing authorities to grant him a special license to remain open until 3:30 AM was an even more orecedent setting event resulting in the establishment of a whole new class of night club licenses available in Halifax - which the Arrow's Club was the first to receive.

The 150 patron capacity Arrow's Club was an instant success - with some thanks to the good fortune that a U.S. military aircraft carrier coincidentally arrived in Halifax harbour the very week the club opened. Within three months, the club moved to a larger 250 person capacity venue at it's legendary Agricola Street location. Physically the Agricola Street location was a modest unimpressive edifice, but culturally and politically it was at the forefront of the Halifax live music scene and the place where young Blacks, and some Whites, came of age - socially, emotionally, and musically.

At it's Agricola location (1962 - 1970) and later at it's Brunswick Street location (1970 - 1979) the Arrow's Club gained a reputation as the apex of black entertainment. Billy attributes the success of the Arrow's Club to the fact that he hired world-class performers, had appreciative patrons and had a supportive circle of business associates which included his family and friends. "I had a lot of good help... I had the brains to do it but I had a lot of supporters and people who helped me" Billy explains.

Over the couse of it's life the Arrow's Club played host to internationally known acts such as: Teddy Pendergrass, Ben E. King, The Bluenotes, Ike and Tina Turner, Sam and Dave and Crown Heights Affair, to name but a few. The Arrow's Club was also home to numerous cover bands such as: Little Royal (James Brown); The Miller Sisters (The Supremes); and The Four Pennies (The Four Tops). Other favorites that frequented the club included: Eric Mercury, Trevor Payne, and the legendary - four hundred pounds of soul - Lots a Papa.

The Arrow's Club also nutured local bands such as: The Hands of Time, - led by Wallace Smith of North Preston. Local musicians such as: Gordon and Harold Johnston, Linda (Gordon) Carvery, Lou Gannon, Carson Jackson, Davie Wells, and numerous others, all had their day in the spotlight at the Arrow's Club.

For young Blacks in the 1960's and `70's, witnessing world class musical performances by their own, instilled in them, a sense of racial and cultural pride during a time when segregation was still rampant in Halifax. Both young whites and older influencial ones such as local politicians, could often be found at the club - and for their curiosity about "something hot happening on Agricola Street" - the Arrow's Club was as close as they could come to the reality of the black experience and the black music invasion.

For Billy Downey the Arrow's Club was the realization of a vision to provide world class entertainment modeled after what he saw in Montreal nightclubs of the same era such as the legendary Rockheads and Esquire clubs. As a porter on the Canadian National Railway - a job Billy held for 40 years - he frequented the Montreal clubs scouting out business contacts and performing acts for the Arrow's Club. Putting his event management skills learned as a young hockey team manager to good use, Billy was able to realize the vision of employing family, friends and colleagues in Halifax's emerging entertainment industry and to do something which was needed and meaningful. "There was no such thing as a black club in the city... they didn't even have the Black United Font back then. They had every other kind of club... Italian club, greek club and so on" remarks Billy.

For that vision, today Billy Downey is regarded by many as a pioneer, a trailblazer, and a man who had a special destiny. Billy remarks that when he and his brother Graham - who Billy is quick to acnowledge as his main partner in the Arrow's Club business venture - decided to close the club, they did so realizing it was timely. "I was working as a porter on the trains and trying to keep up the club. My brother Graham was working three jobs... at the CBC, as a city alderman and also at the club... he worked hard."

Having a career as a porter on the CN trains, a maturing family (Billy married Carol Gabriel of Amherst and together they had three daughters - Debra, Donna and Denise) and the fact that both he and his brother Graham found themselves having less and less time to manage the business, some might say the decision to close the Arrow's Club in 1979 was inevitable.

However, being a man who had a vision, Billy says he sometimes wonders what could have become of the Arrow's Club under different perhaps more favorable circumstances. "I started out with a small private club and made it the number one club in the city... who knows... if Graham hadn't gotten his aldermanship maybe we could have been millionaires." remarks the feisty 76 year old Billy Downey.