Harry Peel was a drummer. He played what John Kilzer sometimes referred to as a ”big bongo.” I loved to listen to his playing, but I was also one of his doctors.
I have to be honest: Harry was a terrible patient. He would nod along in agreement whenever I told him he needed to improve his lifestyle to better-manage his diabetes and his heart disease, but I knew he was probably not going to do it. He marched to his own beat. After all, he was a drummer.
When John Kilzer started his music-based recovery ministry known as The Way, Harry immediately signed on as the drummer. John called the band “The Harry Peel Orchestra.” It was sort of a joke, but not really.
John and Harry played together for over 30 years. They were like brothers, which was both good and bad. One time when I knew they were not getting along very well, I was talking to Harry about a gig John had played. The people had not paid John what I thought was reasonable to pay him. Harry indignantly said, “Don’t those people know he is JOHN KILZER?” Harry was true to John even when they were going through a rocky patch.
Because of his diabetes, Harry’s foot had very poor circulation. We tried everything we could to improve the blood flow, including multiple surgeries. Those helped for a while, but then we had to amputate his foot. What could be worse for a drummer?
I would see Harry in the clinic. I could tell he was down but he kept going. The beat kept going.
Then one day he was back playing at the Way. The big bongo was back. It was exciting, and I could tell John was pleased.
Then all too soon Harry didn’t show up for a gig at the Blue Monkey. Who would now keep the rhythm?
Harry died sitting in his chair.
Harry Peel played the drums for almost every successful musician that has played in Memphis over the last 30 years. People didn’t always know his name but they could feel his beat. Harry was a drummer.
I will always remember him playing with John Kilzer. The Way’s band will always be the Harry Peel Orchestra for me. He was never the guy out front, but he proved you can make a difference in life by being the guy who keeps everyone else on track by keeping the beat.
Thank you, Harry, for teaching us that lesson.