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Mark Willms is a pianist, singer, songwriter, producer, engineer, LIVE! performance specialist from Ontario, Canada. He has played professionally for 50 years, all over the world. He owns and operates a studio near Elora, Ontario, with a large collection of synthesizers and other keyboards.
Born to be a Musician
Born in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Mark was playing songs off the radio on the piano at age 4. He started piano lessons and won his first performing award at age 6 at the Toronto East Music Festival. At 11 years of age Mark moved to Waterloo, Ontario, where he attended Waterloo Collegiate Institute and began his musical journey playing at assemblies, parties and even performed the role of Hennesy in the musical "Dames At Sea". His first band was called Kashmir and even had a short tenure with the band Phase.
The Early Years
When Mark was 15 he played every Saturday night with his brother, Dave (stage name: Fox Watson), at the Kent Hotel (now called the Heuther) in uptown Waterloo. He celebrated his 17th birthday there, having to convince the staff at the Kent that he was turning 19, because he was playing for so many years there as an underaged musician (Never had a drink though the drinking age was 18 during that time).
From the ages of 17 to 20 he studied music and business at Wilfrid Laurier University eventually graduating with an Honours Music Composition degree in 1981. Over the next several years he played jazz and pop in such bands as Verticle, Room of Fools, Targit, Big Monkey Do, The Jazz Units and several others. He was free to create, learn improvisation, and generally be a freelance musician. His first solo gig was at the Valhalla Inn, now the Crowne Plaza in Kitchener, Ontario.
A Day Job?
Then, in 1985, he started working at Mutual Life Assurance Co., in Kitchener. Originally a file clerk, he learned how to be a computer programmer there for several years, learning a 4th generation language' to create insurance related programs for their in-house activities. Then, in 1988, the offer of a lifetime came and changed his life forever.
Lulu's Roadhouse - 1988 - 1999
It was Lulu's Roadhouse, in 1988, which was looking for a keyboard player for their famous 'Roadhouse Band'. This was the start of something great, and Mark continues to perform with this band over 33 years later! Lulu's Roadhouse was, at the time, the world's longest (and second longest) bar, and for a time was the worlds biggest bar. Here he opened for all the greats in the industry, a list far too long to mention here. He became friends with the band 'America', for example, who wanted to 'rent' his piano for their performances. This 'rent' was paid in the form of a free steak dinner with the band at the in-house restaurant (Lover's Lounge) every time they performed there. The stars who played there were incredible, but it was often their backing band who got the most attention - every night (almost) was fantastic entertainment and very educational.
In 1996 took time off to travel around the world, including 3 months in New Zealand, 3 months in Australia, and 3 months in Europe. This was a life affirming and life altering experience.
In 1998 he moved to Hong Kong where, for 8 months, he toured the world with Chinese mega-star Jackie Cheung. Hired as his multi-keyboardist (think of Rick Wakeman in Yes), it included 17 shows in mainland China in stadiums, each with over 60,000 screaming fans participating. Mark made it home in time for one last gig at Lulu's Roadhouse on October 31st, 1999 (Lulu's finally closed it's doors in April 2000). The Lulu's Roadhouse Band continues to perform to this day.
2000 and Beyond:
Many incredible musical experiences awaited Mark in the new millennium. Tours with country artists included George Fox, Jason McCoy, Barnard and Brohm, Diane Chase, and many more. In 2005 and 2006 he was nominated as CCMA Canadian Country Music Keyboard player of the year. From 2003 to 2006 he performed as Benny in the critically acclaimed tribute (to Abba) band Bjorn Again, which included tours all over North America with performances in Mexico and England. He also found time to work in 5 star venues as a solo performer in Switzerland, Dubai UAE, and Seoul South Korea. He also performed in jazz/pop bands in Korea, Hong Kong (China), Dubai and Japan. This work overseas was for a minimum of 4 months each time, resulting in at least a year on Hong Kong (Hyatt) and two long term engagements at the Park Hyatt in Seoul S.Korea.
Lost In Translation
While working in Tokyo, Japan in 2002 and 2003 Mark was spotted at the Park Hyatt Tokyo by Sophia Coppola and cast him as 'Carl West' in the Oscar winning movie Lost In Translation, starring Bill Murray. Working directly with Bill was a high point for Mark, as mr Murray is one of his heroes. Mark also provided a number of songs for the soundtrack including his personalized version of So Into You (originally done by Atlanta Rhythm Section). Look for him during a pivotal scene towards the end of the movie.
Currently Mark is still performing with the Lulu's Roadhouse Band, doing LIVE! streaming from his home near Elora Ontario, while performing private concerts and appearances at S B Prime in Burlington and various other bars. The Lulu's Roadhouse Band continues to work all over Southern Ontario, plus Mark is booked for many private events in 2022. Look for Mark this summer at the newly renovated Walter's Music Venue, playing a solo show June 29, 2022, and opening for all the incredible acts during the 2022 season.