New Yes bassist Billy Sherwood fulfilling his friend's dying request

UNDER normal circumstances, Billy Sherwood would be deliriously happy to be back on tour with Yes this summer. But the veteran musician's current gig is one he likely would have given anything not to have.

Sherwood, 50, occupies a role that is unprecedented in rock music annals: He is playing bass for the progressive-rock titans who on Sunday co-headline with Toto at Borgata Hotel, Casino & Spa.

Although the 47-year-old British band claims an astounding 20 current or former members, it had never recorded an album, or performed live, without famed bassist Chris Squire. That streak ended in late June, when Squire died of a rare form of leukemia at age 67.

But Sherwood isn't just filling in for an iconic musician. He is also taking the place of a beloved friend. Which is why several times during a recent phone call, he had to (sometimes unsuccessfully) fight back tears as he described the events that led to him replacing his pal and collaborator of more than 25 years.

As recently as three months ago, Sherwood's musical expectations for 2015 were a lot different from what has so far transpired. Sherwood, who has toured and recorded sporadically with Yes as a guitarist since 1997, explained that he and Squire, whom he met in the late-1980s, were discussing two musical projects: Squire asked him to take an active role in a planned Yes studio album, and Sherwood invited Squire to play on a track for a forthcoming CD featuring such prog-rock stalwarts as Alan Parsons and longtime Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman.

The Yes project was still in the talking stages, but Sherwood drove from his Los Angeles residence to Squire's adopted hometown of Phoenix to record Squire's bass part (on a portable recording unit) in Sherwood's Holiday Inn room.

"We hung out and had a great dinner and talked about Yes' future," recalled Sherwood. "I'm a big believer in Yes. I'm the kind of guy who always believes there's another burst of energy and renaissance around the corner. These were the things we were speaking about - making a great new album and trying to revive Yes on a level that would mean something to the world in a big, big way."

Sherwood returned to L.A. filled with optimism. Then came a couple of phone calls that turned his world inside-out.

"So I went home . . . and got a call [from Squire] about a week later," he explained. "He said, 'I know we had a plan to get together in two weeks in L.A., but I'm dealing with some medical stuff that's just come up.'

"At the time, all he said was, 'I got some platelet issues I'm dealing with.' My heart sank; anytime someone says 'platelets,' it's a serious situation. I knew that much.

"I got off the phone and about 10 minutes later, his wife [Scotland] called me and said, 'Listen, he didn't want to blow your mind, but he's got leukemia.' It wiped me out. It just leveled me."

In a follow-up call, Squire laid out the awful details for his friend. "The whole time, he was optimistic about it all," said Sherwood. But things subsequently took a turn for the worse.

"Another week or so goes by and he called me and he said, 'It's getting kind of serious; I'm gonna have to go into the hospital and deal with chemo treatment. The summer tour with Toto is coming up and it's becoming a problem.'

"I said, 'Well, your health is first and foremost, and if the tour has to be postponed, whatever the case may be, you gotta do what you gotta do.' And he said, 'I hear ya, I hear ya.'

"He called me about a week later, and said he didn't want to stop the tour, which is a testament to Chris and his passion for people."

Squire's concerns, Sherwood continued, were for the many people - in both the Yes and Toto organizations, as well as the promoters in various cities - who would be negatively impacted financially should the tour be canceled.

"I want this tour to continue," Squire told Sherwood. When Sherwood responded he wasn't sure what Squire was trying to say, "it was at that point he asked me [to replace him].

"I instantly said 'Yes,'" continued Sherwood as the catch in his throat became more prominent. "He's my brother. I loved the man."


Borgata, 1 Borgata Way, Atlantic City, 7 p.m. Sunday, $49-$69, 866-900-4849, theborgata.com.

 


On Twitter: @chuckdarrow

Blog: philly.com/Casinotes