Bill Owens took up the guitar at age 10, and it became a lifelong part of him.
Self-taught, he started a band that played at sock hops at Dykes High School in Buckhead. As a Yale University graduate, he performed at nightspots in New Haven, Conn. Returning to Atlanta, he tried an advertising job but gave it up to work at clubs and hone his skill as a performer.
His wife, Elizabeth Owens, said friends and family would ask him, “When are you going to get a real job?” Eventually, entertaining audiences became not only his real job but a career of more than 30 years.
David William Graham Owens, 66, died Friday at his St. Simons Island home of esophageal cancer. His family plans a celebration of his life at his home at 2 p.m. Sunday. Low Country Cremation Society is in charge of arrangements.
Owens had a solo act for a time and performed at several Atlanta nightclubs — Penrod’s, the Lark and the Dove, the Great Southeast Music Hall — and in 1982 he joined with singer Keenan Carter in forming a duo they named Ziggy Mahoney.
“We picked that name for our act and for the club we established on St. Simons Island because it was more intriguing than any combination of our own names,” Carter said.
The pair first played at clubs along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts, but occasionally in New York City and Bermuda. They also performed in Atlanta at Banks & Shane’s and the Peachtree Plaza’s sports bar.
In 1994 they opened Ziggy Mahoney’s on St. Simons Island, and they built a following there, performing together more than 3,000 times.
“Our act was about 50 percent what we call Carolina beach music, the kind that people can shag to,” Carter said. “We’d mix in some folk, bluegrass and popular favorites, and Bill was equally adept at classical guitar.”
As part of the act, they did skits. “Bill’s impression of Willie Nelson was so spot-on you could close your eyes and be convinced (Nelson) was in the same room,” Carter said.
Another St. Simons entertainer, Tony Baker, said Owens was a masterful guitar player who had a feel for the appropriate ambience for each song. Owens also was an excellent backup singer who harmonized well with singers carrying the melody, Baker said.
Owens earned a degree in English and was well-versed in Shakespeare, often reciting lines from the bard’s plays.
One of Owens’ fraternity friends was George W. Bush, Carter said, but Bush’s politics later rubbed Owens the wrong way. A firm Democrat, Owens worked in Jimmy Carter’s 1980 re-election campaign and even wrote a song for it, “Give Me Carter One More Time.” His wife said Owens accepted an invitation to a White House barbecue during Carter’s time there.
During their time in Atlanta, the Owenses became part of the urban pioneer movement in Inman Park in the mid-1970s, and went on to live there nearly 20 years.
“Bill got to be good at several rehab tasks and pitched in to help his neighbors fix their homes,” said a longtime friend, Tom Spurlin of Atlanta. “He also started the Waddell Street Film Society, showing classic old movies in the Owens backyard for evenings of inexpensive entertainment for his family and neighbors.”
Also surviving are a daughter, Sarah Jarvis of Berkeley, Calif.; a son, Graham Owens of St. Simons Island; a sister, Judy Earl of Alpharetta; and four grandchildren.
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