In the spring of 1969, saxophonist Steve Kennedy and keyboardist William “Smitty” Smith formed the London, Ontario jazz-rock band Motherlode, along with guitarist Wayne Stone and drummer Kenny Marco, partly on a dare. They had been performing covers with Grant Smith and The Power, but wanted to take a stab at performing their own material. After scoring a recording contract with Mort Ross of Revolver Records, Kennedy and Smith co-wrote the hit single When I Die while playing at the London, Ontario club The Image. The soulful, slick pop classic went to No. 1 in Canada and Top 20 on the U.S. charts.
Kenny Marco told “Blitz” magazine in 1982: “Six months after Motherlode was even thought of, we had When I Die out…. I thought that the whole concept was magic. I’d never felt that kind of camaraderie between the players before. Everything was working.”
When Motherlode played the demo for Neil Bogart of Buddah Records in the U.S., with whom Revolver had a reciprocal deal, he immediately offered to release it. The 45-rpm single (REVS-402), produced by Mort Ross and the brilliant Toronto keyboardist and arranger Doug Riley (Dr. Music), off the album of the same name (Revolver RLPS-501), was released that summer. “RPM” magazine declared Motherlode Canada’s first super-group.
As “Billboard” magazine noted, “When I Die … was one of the first Canadian-produced discs to score internationally.” In the U.S., the single (Buddah BDA-131 with Hard Life on the B side) peaked at Billboard Hot 100’s No. 18 in October. It became Billboard’s No. 71 song of 1969.
In Canada, the single went gold, occupying RPM’s No. 1 position for two weeks, ahead of the Guess Who’s Laughing, Johnny Cash, and the Rolling Stones. In fact, the top three acts on RPM’s Top 100 chart for the week of August 23 ‒ Motherlode, the Guess Who, and Andy Kim ‒ were Canadian.
Additionally, When I Die charted on CHUM Radio to No. 5 and was Cashbox’s No. 12, and earned Motherlode a BMI Certificate of Honour in 1970.
The hit song led to Motherlode touring 48 American states, opening for Chicago and Janis Joplin. Sadly, Motherlode split some months later (although the name continued under different formations.)
When I Die, despite its grim title, is about hope and self-awareness; the singer is striving to overcome his faults in order to deserve his woman’s love:
“When I die, I hope to be
A better man than you thought I’d be
It’s been hard to make you see
What kind of man I’m trying to be.”
When I Die has been covered by The Friends of Distinction and several Canadian acts including Dean McTaggart, The Sojourners, Boss Brass, and the Brian Browne Trio, and was sampled by hip-hop’s J Dilla.
The song was included on the landmark recording “Oh What A Feeling: A Vital Collection of Canadian Music,” and also appears on the “When I Die: The Best of Motherlode” album.
When I Die earned a SOCAN award for over 100,000 radio airplays.
Songwriter and saxophonist Steve Kennedy hails from Windsor, Ont. In addition to performing with various versions of Motherlode, he contributed to the big-league jazz-rock sound of Blood, Sweat and Tears and Dr. Music, and composed Dr. Music’s hit Sun Goes By.
Keyboard player William “Smitty” Smith (1944 – 1997) was originally from Belleville, Virginia. As a sought-after session musician, he played with the likes of Valdy, David Clayton-Thomas, Billy Joel, and Bonnie Raitt.