By Kathryn G. Menu
After 40 years of bringing island music to East End audiences, Vivian Walsh, the frontman and founder of Vivian and The Merry Makers Steel Drum Band, died last Thursday morning at Southampton Hospital. The 76 year-old Sag Harbor resident had been battling pancreatic cancer.
As news of Mr. Walsh’s death spread through the community, a Facebook page dedicated to the band and created by Mr. Walsh’s friend Willow Keller became a virtual memorial to the singer and steel drum player. Scores of people, from the East End and beyond, logged on to share memories, and offer their condolences to a man known for his music, his straw hat, Hawaiian shirt, and stage presence.
“We will miss this gentle soul with a big heart, who made this world a happier place,” wrote Sag Harbor resident and friend Chris Tice last Thursday, after announcing the news of Mr. Walsh’s death.
“I will always love and miss you Vivian Walsh,” wrote longtime friend Mariah Kelly. “You’ve been a big part of my life for 47 years. I will miss our Sunday chats. Rest in Paradise, you sweet, kind soul.”
“You will surely be missed, your booming voice, boisterous laugh and twinkling eyes,” wrote Sag Harbor resident Melissa Ann Mitchell.
Mr. Walsh was born on December 3, 1937, on the Caribbean island of Dominica. According to his goddaughter, Debra George, already an accomplished steel drum player, Mr. Walsh moved to the East End in the mid-1960s, and quickly began booking gigs for his steel drum band. Over the next 40 years, Vivian and the Merry Makers became synonymous with outdoor summer traditions, whether it be Montauk’s Blessing of the Fleet, or outdoor concerts at Southampton’s Agwam Park and Sag Harbor’s Marine Park.
Merry Maker drummer Jerome Liggon has played with the band for 21 years. He met Mr. Walsh when his band played the Westhampton Beach Village Green. Mr. Liggon, a drummer with the band Déjà Vu at the time, reached out to Mr. Walsh and the next week the gregarious bandleader called him and asked him to join the Merry Makers.
“What impressed me so much about Vivian is how everyone gravitated toward him,” said Mr. Liggon. “I learned stage presence from him. You don’t realize the impact someone has had sometimes until that person is gone when it is someone that great.”
Ms. George said the family had originally planned for a small gathering of friends and family at Yardley and Pino Funeral Home in Sag Harbor last Sunday, but after posting an announcement on Facebook, over 100 people turned out for the event, which morphed into an impromptu concert.
“I could not believe the turnout,” said Ms. George. “We had more than 100 people come and the band rocked it out. It was exactly what he would have wanted.”
Mr. Walsh is survived by twin daughters, Valencia and Valantine Walsh, as well as four grandchildren. In planning a final farewell for Mr. Walsh, Ms. George said the family will likely hold an event this May or June, ideally in Sag Harbor. Mr. Walsh’s cremated remains, she said, would be floated out to sea at the memorial, which she hopes will feature several bands.
And that will include he Merry Makers, according to Mr. Liggon.
“The last time I was with Vivian when he was coherent he communicated to me that he wanted the Merry Makers to continue on,” he said. “We have to find a new steel drummer, but I think we can come up with something. I believe we already have someone who can sing. Scott Hopson is a second generation Merry Maker and is up for it.”
“I know I wouldn’t want to be the steel drummer who has to follow Vivian’s act,” Mr. Liggon laughed. “No, no, no, thank you.”
“To me, the perfect way to celebrate Vivian would be to do something in Sag Harbor,” he added. “Sag Harbor was his home and he loved that village.”