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Gospel music's Po' Bill dies at 75

Rock Hill Gospel legend Bill Ratchford used to play his guitar outside the liquor store he ran on Saluda Street. Ratchford died Friday at age 75.
Rock Hill Gospel legend Bill Ratchford used to play his guitar outside the liquor store he ran on Saluda Street. Ratchford died Friday at age 75.

Gospel music, the music of hope, is a bit mournful today.

Rock Hill's Bill Ratchford, one of gospel's most well-known guitar virtuosos whose long hair was as legendary as his guitar picking, died late Friday, according to two of his daughters, Myra and Mary.

Ratchford, who had been battling cancer, was 75.

Ratchford played with gospel groups for six decades, including the Pilgrim Five, Gospel Interpreters, Spiritual Harmonizers and the Crownettes. He toured with many groups and was the inspiration to future guitar players and musicians.

"The loss of Bill Ratchford is a loss not just to Gospel, not just to guitar playing, but to music," said Johnny "Boggie" King, another Rock Hill guitar player who learned to play from Ratchford before making a career in music. "Bill Ratchford was gospel guitar. There was nobody even close."

Ratchford, who worked at the Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co. textile mill and later as a store clerk, was known for his flashy style, playing gospel guitar with a flair like Chuck Berry did with rock 'n' roll and Bo Diddley and B.B. King did with the blues. In his later years, he would draw a crowd when he would play guitar in front of a store where he worked on Saluda Street.

"I did the best with what the Lord gave me," Ratchford told The Herald in 2006.

Fans knew him as "Po' Bill" and "Scratchy," from his raspy voice.

Ratchford sprang from a tenant farm in York to Rock Hill as a teenager after beating a bout with temporary childhood blindness. His first guitar at age 14 was payment for a week's worth of making cement blocks.

"I wanted that guitar because another boy who played guitar in a quartet got the girl I was sweet on," Ratchford said in 2006. "I got that guitar and didn't even know how to hold it, let alone play it. Got to date the girl, too, if I recall."

Two years ago, a tribute concert to Ratchford attracted hundreds to Rock Hill's Freedom Center.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete Saturday. Parker Funeral Home is in charge.

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