Obituary: Bill Sowden kept song in his heart to the end

  • Article by: TONY KENNEDY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 29, 2012 - 11:07 PM

Bill Sowden, a much-loved musical theater performer and choral director.

Bill Sowden

Bill Sowden knew that his life would end in days -- if not hours -- but his mind was still on show business. From his hospital bed at University of Minnesota Medical Center-Fairview, he called several members of a men's chorus he directed to reaffirm what songs they would play at their next concert.

"That was Bill," said his wife, Diane. "'The show must go on' was deeply rooted in every fiber of his body."

Sowden, who died on Aug. 23 at age 81, will be remembered as a tireless and passionate singer, actor, pianist and choral director who excelled in rapid-fire "patter songs" from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

He loved stage roles in musical comedies, and he appeared with the National Savoy Opera Company from England at Northrop Auditorium, in "Anna and the King of Siam" at the St. Paul Civic Opera and in "The Threepenny Opera" at the Guthrie Theater.

Until two weeks before his death, the Minnetonka resident was heading three Twin Cities choral groups, leading a singing group known as The Happy Notes and directing the Zuhrah Shrine Chanters, winners of many awards in competition with other Shrine Temples around the country. He also ran his own business selling commercial gloves and was a soloist in Alive and Kickin', a rock 'n' roll chorus for seniors.

Diane Sowden, also a soloist in Alive and Kickin', said her husband of 47 years battled polio, cancer, ulcers and other serious medical challenges for much of his life. But nothing stopped him from performing, she said. He mastered a left-handed piano concerto to get through MacPhail College of Music when polio restricted the use of his right arm. And in 2006, when his oncologist told him he would die within a month due to heart damage, he rejected the diagnosis and became one of the first recipients of a battery-operated heart pump that made him a star patient for device maker Thoratec Corp. of Pleasanton, Calif.

"Surgeons from around the world gathered at the company to hear Bill's story and meet him," Diane said. "When he died, the heart pump was still working 100 percent. Melanoma was the killer."

Born in Minneapolis on Dec. 16, 1930, Sowden made his first musical appearance as a boy soprano singing solo at Edina Morningside Church. He later became choral director of the church and proposed to his wife after the midnight Christmas service there in 1966. He was a graduate of St. Louis Park High School and worked a "day job'' at his father's successful glove business, selling to large companies such as Honeywell and Ford Motor Co.

Charles Stennes, a member of the Zurah Shrine Chanters, said Sowden's love of the performing arts dovetailed with his need to connect with people and keep them as lifelong friends. "He was always willing to listen to whatever problems we would have as individuals," Stennes said. "His compassion for people just came through so strong."

The Sowdens paired for more than 30 years performing their own condensed version of "Fiddler on the Roof,'' with Bill as Tevye and Diane as Golde. Their venues ranged from Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis to weddings and bar mitzvahs.

In addition to Diane, Sowden is survived by a son, Anthony Sowden of Wichita, Kan.; and a daughter, Hilary Sowden of Minnetonka. Memorial services are scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday at Robbinsdale United Church of Christ. Five choirs are scheduled to perform.

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