Billy Conway, 65, former drummer for jazz-rock band Morphine and beloved Boston rockers Treat Her Right, died on Sunday (Dec. 19) after a long battle with cancer. Conway’s bandmates in the group Vapors of Morphine confirmed the news in an Instagram post on Sunday night, writing, “We are devastated to learn that our brother, Morphine drummer Billy Conway has passed, finally succumbing to cancer after a long fight. Our deepest condolences go to his family and friends.”
No additional details about Conway’s death were available at press time; Conway’s friend and longtime bandmate Jeffrey Foucault also confirmed the drummer’s death to Rolling Stone.
Conway, born in Owatonna, Minnesota in the mid-1950s, occasionally sat in with Vapors of Morphine, which was formed in 2009 by baritone saxophonist Dana Colley and guitarist/bassist/singer Jeremy Lyons out of the ashes of “low-rock” pioneers Morphine. The acclaimed original group split up after singer/slide bassist Mark Sandman suffered a fatal heart attack on stage in 1999 during a concert in Rome.
Conway’s career launched in 1985 when he joined bluesy alt-rock Boston band Treat Her Right, which was fronted by future Morphine leader Sandman. Conway, whose spare, cocktail drum set-up was one of the signature features of Morphine’s guitar-free, stripped-down noir jazz sound, appeared on the band’s first two albums, 1992’s Good and their 1993 breakthrough, Cure For Pain, often playing alongside fellow drummer Jerome Deupree.
The band’s third album, Like Swimming, was released by DreamWorks Records in 1997 — peaking at No. 67 on the Billboard 200 album chart — followed by their posthumous final collection, 2000’s The Night. Colley and Conway paid homage to their late singer in 1999 with the all-star Orchestra Morphine band and later formed the group Twinemen with Conway’s longtime partner, musician Laurie Sargent.
Conway’s label, Crazy View Records, said that the drummer was diagnosed with bowel cancer for which he had emergency surgery in Oct. 2018, followed by six months of chemotherapy and radiation.
“Billy Conway is one of the great drummers in American music: a relentlessly inventive, eerily intuitive player whose particular combination of spiritual authority and delicate restraint make him at once versatile and easily recognizable,” the label wrote during his illness. “He’s appeared on scores of albums across genres in the last four decades and influenced generations of players, becoming one of the most widely respected and beloved musicians in the country.”
During his recovery, Conway and Sargent (Face to Face) worked to finish songs he’d written over his many years on the road, releasing them on his debut solo album, 2020’s Outside Inside. The album came out the same year that doctors told Conway that his cancer spread to his liver.
Check out the Conway tribute and some Morphine videos below.