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December 10, 2018

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Megan Belk remembers ‘Belky,’ her pal who turned into her life partner

The Belk Family

John Katsilometes

Megan Belk, widow of Las Vegas drummer and music director Jim Belk, shown Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, at the family’s home in Southern Highlands.

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The Belk Family — Eliza, Andress, Jim and Megan.

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Jim Belk, who died Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, of plasma cell leukemia, had a well-earned reputation as one of the city's most accomplished and versatile musicians and music directors.

Jim Belk

Jim Belk. Launch slideshow »

This is the moment when the wife talks about the husband, and for the first time in past tense.

Megan Belk uses the words, but she uses more. She employs a gesture when reflecting on her early relationship with the man who would become her husband.

“We were friends, for a long time, you know? We were like pals,” she says, and makes a short punch with her right hand. A fist-knock.

“I remember distinctly feeling that way about him,” Megan says, recalling the days when Jim was a music director and she a production manager and performer for shows on Premier Cruise Lines. “We worked very closely together for a long time. Then I remember, also very distinctly, him stopping by my room one time and sticking his head in. I was rehearsing with another singer/dancer. He said, ‘Oh, you’re rehearsing — I’ll come back later.’ And I said, out loud, ‘I’m going to marry him.’ ”

That’s some fist-knock.

“I went, ‘What did I just say?!’ ” Megan says. “I went, ‘That’s just weird. He’s like my brother. I have never felt that way about him, at all.’ I just never thought another thing about it. But it was very weird.”

Weeks later, the two were to sign off from the ship. Jim said to Megan, simply, “I’m going to miss you.”

She is saying that today, as the memorial service for her husband of 15 years approaches. One of the city’s great talents, a highly respected and well-liked music director and drummer for many familiar Vegas productions, Jim Belk died Sept. 3 at the family’s home in Las Vegas. For months he had suffered from a rare form of cancer, plasma cell leukemia. “Belky,” as he was commonly known, was 47, leaving behind Megan and the couple’s two daughters, 12-year-old Andress and 10-year-old Eliza.

Services are 1 p.m. Thursday at Christ the King Church, 4925 S. Torrey Pines Drive. In lieu of flowers, a benefit fund has been established for the couple’s children. Those donations can be made through Wells Fargo.

Jim Belk was a seemingly omnipresent figure on the Las Vegas entertainment scene, if not a universally famous individual. He was invaluable, though. Jim was music director and drummer for Michael Grimm, and it is not a stretch to say Grimm would not have been in position to win “America’s Got Talent” if it weren’t for his music director’s steady stewardship, on and off the stage. Over the years, Jim was drummer for “Mamma Mia!” at Mandalay Bay, “The Producers” at Paris Las Vegas, “Avenue Q” at Wynn Las Vegas and “We Will Rock You,” also at Paris. He played behind a diverse set of stars such as David Foster, Wayne Newton and Charo and wrote charts for seemingly any assemblage of musicians and projects.

Jim’s last performances were as the pound-it-down drummer in “Million Dollar Quartet” at Harrah’s, a role he auditioned for between chemotherapy treatments. His final appearance onstage at Harrah’s was April 4. He played a corporate show April 5 with Swing City Dolls, a vocal group for whom he served as music director, a performance so random that Megan can’t even recall the venue.

“We didn’t know that would be his last show,” she says.

Among Jim’s closest friends on the city’s entertainment scene have been “Jersey Boys” music director Keith Thompson, who worked with the blazing young drummer and MD on “We Will Rock You” and also leaned on him for percussion in the days of “The Producers.” Dave Richardson, also a highly regarded musician (a keyboardist) and music director who oversees the music in “Rock of Ages,” says Jim was his best friend, and he was devastated to learn of Jim’s condition.

And, of course, there is Megan and those two beautiful little girls. She says the outpouring of support from the entertainment community has been “tremendous,” and those who have spoken of Jim — and this has been a consistent description — talk of him being a wonderful family man.

“He wanted a family, more than anything,” says Megan, donning a purple top, a coincidental color choice as that is the signature color of leukemia and lymphoma. “He wanted for us to be married and have a family, and he could do it here.”

Jim once sought a career that would wind up in Nashville, maybe, as a touring and recording musician. Or maybe he would work and play in New York, or Los Angeles. But none of those options offered the quality of life he could attain in Vegas, where he was one of the city’s busiest musicians.

Jim was a highly educated artist, having earned his master’s degree in jazz composition and theory from UNLV. He also was a terrific “show” drummer, and certainly one reason he was chosen for the onstage band in “MDQ” is he looked like the kind of strapping, solid individual who Sam Phillips would hire to beat the skins at Sun Records.

But Jim’s strength would come to belie his condition. As her husband fell ill, beginning chemotherapy treatments last October for the rare and fast-advancing form of leukemia, she says Jim was in deceptively good physical condition.

“He looked sick, but not direly sick,” she says, her voice quivering slightly. “At the time, he was big. He was strong. He was sitting up … but his (medical charts) were awful. Finally when we did get to UCLA (Ronald Reagan Medical Center, where Jim was admitted for several months), all the nurses were looking at him like, ‘You’re the guy who is supposed to be so sick?’ ”

To get an understanding of her husband’s condition, Megan started to read the nonverbal cues from his doctors.

“You would hear these little things and see the looks on their faces, their raised eyebrows,” she says. “They’d say, ‘Wow, that deleted 13 chromosome is not good. We’ll see if we can work around it.’ Work around it? That is not how this was supposed to go down. But I learned by grabbing pieces of what they said and looked it up later, and when I did look it up, it was nnnnnnot good. ‘The prognosis is poor,’ they’d say. That’s how it is labeled.”

Asked what her husband stood for, how he is to be remembered, Megan always says it is his family.

“When we started our family, that was his primary focus. He was a natural-born leader and was laser focused on the family,” she says. “People probably wondered why he was never out and about when he wasn't working. It wasn't because he wasn't interested ... he just wanted to be home and available for his girls as much as possible. A too-late night would have cut into playtime or just Dad time with his kids. The man had his priorities straight. And I am lucky, and grateful, to say he was my husband.”

Those are the words of a loving wife and mother, and they carry the power of a thousand drums. But there is another gesture, that of a child, that speaks to Jim Belk’s character. During the conversation, the couple’s daughter Eliza strides into the room.

The smiling 10-year-old little girl thrusts out her right hand and says with impressive poise and confidence, “Hello, I’m Eliza. Pleased to meet you.”

She smiles and gives a solid handshake, and you feel that one day, she’ll learn that fist-knock, too.

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