CHAMPAIGN — After years of drumming with rock and jazz bands, J. Michael Powers became a familiar figure making rhythms at Urbana’s Market at the Square and in Champaign's West Side Park, near his apartment.
He died Sept. 13 at age 69.
“Whenever kids saw him near the park, they’d say, ‘Hey, music man!’” said Garrett Oostdyk, a bandmate from the Finchley Boys in the 1960s and ’70s.
Mr. Powers also was known for his very long hair and beard.
He moved to Boston for a brief time and lived a few years in Houston working as a drummer for Bo Diddley, he said in an oral history.
But he returned to C-U and for years worked as a drummer with the University of Illinois dance department.
He was also a regular churchgoer.
Mr. Powers attended both New Covenant Fellowship and Mattis Avenue Free Methodist Church.
“He was a marvelous human being, talented musician and heroically supported himself as a street musician. He was a first-rate human being. Among other things, he was a very, very vociferous member of Alcoholics Anonymous. He made a point of being there for other alcoholics,” said UI Professor Emeritus Milo Kaufman, a member of Free Methodist.
Finchley Boys member George Faber said Mr. Powers was “like a brother to me, and I’ve known him most of my life. He was a musical mentor and a free spirit.”
Until he was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Mr. Powers was rarely without a cigarette. In a Sousa Archives oral history, he said he was once able to quit for three days.
When he eventually was diagnosed with colon cancer, he was surprised it wasn’t lung cancer.
Oostdyk said Mr. Powers played in several versions of the Finchley Boys, from its first inception in the mid-1960s to a later lineup with Faber, Oostdyk and Larry Tabeling.
“He was very talented,” Oostdyk said. “He was really a drummer suited to jazz, very subtle.”
When the Finchley Boys recently got back together to record a few songs, Oostdyk said, “he could only play for 90 seconds at a time” because of his illness.
Mr. Powers’ friends were patient; it took four days to record two-and-a-half songs, Oostdyk said.
Mr. Powers used to note that he could only walk 21 steps at a time in the final recurrence of his illness.
But Oostdyk said he was surprised at Mr. Powers’ death, because his friend recently had seemed to be improving.
“He had gone out and gotten healthier,” he said.
Drummer Lawrence A. Fredrickson said he “admired Michael Powers since the late ’60s when he was ‘The Man’ on drums in Champaign-Urbana, playing with the Finchley Boys.”
“Michael was amazing ... and mesmerizing. He clearly had the chops and played with such musicality," Fredrickson said. "I looked up to him as someone to emulate.”
Services for Mr. Powers will be at 2 p.m. Saturday at New Covenant Fellowship, 124 W. White St., C. A reception will follow.