When you think of music that means a lot to you–regardless of genre–there’s a visceral impact. Music may take you back to when you first heard it, perhaps as a young adult. You may feel a special connection with the musicians who made the music, and, when someone dies whose music touched you, it can poke a hole in your sense of the immutable: if the music endures, shouldn’t the musician? Other than the biggest names, musicians who add so much to the texture of our lives, often die without much notice.
This post is a tip of the hat to music-makers who died during 2012, many of whom are pretty high up on my favorites list. (If you’re into literary necrology during 2012, you can check out my recent book club post on that.)
Like other DJs, I have come to trust certain musicians as artists who always deliver the highest quality work. Before digital distribution of music by individual songs, back when DJs used LPs and, a bit later, CDs, Doc Watson was one of those musicians whose latest releases didn’t have to be previewed before airing: I knew every track would be the best. I had the honor, back in the ’80s, of emceeing a music festival at Paul Smith’s College with Doc as one of the headliners. This means I had an opportunity to introduce him and to tell him directly how much I loved his music.
Others in the country and bluegrass world passed last year, including one of my all-time favorites Kitty Wells. Earl Scruggs, known for his three-finger banjo-picking, started with Bill Monroe but is best known for his long musical partnership with guitarist Lester Flatt in the Foggy Mountain Boys.
Other losses in the country and bluegrass scene include dobro player Mike Auldridge of the great bluegrass ensemble, The Seldom Scene; mandolinist Everett Lilly of the Lilly Brothers; country singer and yodeler Kenny Roberts; and, banjoist Doug Dillard of The Dillards, a group Everett Smith turned me onto sometime back in the ’80s.
In the blues, jazz and R&B world, we lost some giants. In January 2012, one of my all-time heroes, Etta James. If you click on the link, it will take you to a brief tribute I wrote a year ago, along with links to a few of the best pieces about her. Another giant, Johnny Otis, who some consider the “father of R&B,” in part because of his 1951 release “Mambo Boogie,” was a vibraphonist, guitarist, composer and producer. He grew up in a black section of LA, but was a first generation Greek-American.
We lost blues guitarist and singer Louisiana Red, who was born Iverson Minter in Bessemer, Alabama and whose work I’ve followed for years. Until I checked out his biography after his death, I did not know that his father had been lynched by the Ku Klux Klan when Iverson was five years old.
We lost another native Alabaman, the great Jerry McCain, a blues singer and one of the top blues harp players of the last three or four decades.
Jazz took a big hit last year with the passing of Dave Brubeck, whose “NY Times” obituary you’ll find here. I went to a midnight concert in Carnegie Hall sometime in the mid-’60s and heard Brubeck and saxophonist Paul Desmond play “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk”, which led me to buy their album “Time Out,” and opened my ears and spirit to jazz. I think of Brubeck, back in those days, as the “gateway drug” to jazz. From Brubeck, I went on to sneaking into the Five Spot to hear Thelonius Monk, other Village clubs to hear the likes of Charles Mingus and other giants of the time, and became a lifelong lover of jazz. Brubeck started it, he opened the gate.
Additional losses from the jazz landscape included singer Carrie Smith; guitarist Billy Bean; bop saxophonist Von Freeman; multi-instrumentalist (mostly sax and flute) Byard Lancaster; bassist and composer Don Bagley; sax giant Red Holloway; the widely influential New Orleans jazzman Lionel Batiste; and Jackie Kelso, an all-around reed player.
From a mixed bag of genres, 2012 saw the passing of rock and folk great singer and drummer Levon Helm, one of the founding members of The Band. There was some ground-shifting music made by Helm and The Band, beginning with “Music From Big Pink.”
Fontella Bass, who started her career in R&B (“Rescue Me”), moved into gospel later in life. She could sing!
Donna Summer, another gal with a serious set of pipes, was the undisputed queen of disco a few decades ago. I’m not much of a disco fan, but I sure loved Donna.
While I’ve never been much of a pop music fan, Andy Williams was firmly on the landscape of American life–and my life–during the ’60s and ’70s, most notably because of a little tune called “Moon River.” Another iconic pop song of that era, “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” was a collaboration between lyricist Hal David (who died in September) and composer Burt Bacharach; the team had a string of other hits, many featuring vocalist Dionne Warwick, including “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” and “I’ll Say a Little Prayer.” From one generation earlier, we lost Dorothy McGuire, one of the McGuire Sisters, a vocal trio that reached peak popularity during the ’50s as a regular act on The Arthur Godfrey TV Show. Richard Adler, a composer and lyricist, had a deep connection to the Adirondacks and I was honored to meet and talk with him several times.
One of my mother’s clients in the 1960s was opera singer Marguerite Piazza. When she died last year, having been a bit too young to really know her as a performer, what came to mind was a story. My mother told me she was able to save Piazza a lot of money on her tax return by claiming the cost of some of the gowns she purchased to wear on stage–that this was entirely legal as long as the gowns were so tight–or special in some other way–that they could not be worn for off-stage occasions. (Who decides what trivia stays with us through life?)
And, a huge loss to the classical world last year: composer Elliott Carter, two-time winner of the Pulitzer.
Finally, two one-of-a-kind stars of the music world.
Ravi Shankar, though not American, had such a powerful influence on western music of the late 20th century, it makes sense to include him here. Revered in the US, England and across Europe, he was also a musical force in his own country, India. As most know, he had long musical relationships with a variety of renowned artists, from Beatle George Harrison to violinist Yehudi Menuhin. He was a teacher as much as a sitar performer.
Finally, a mention of another death, though not that of a musician. If you grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, particularly anywhere on the east coast, odds are you tuned in–or at least knew about–American Bandstand, one of the first music programs to target teenage viewers by showcasing pop and rock stars on the Top 40 charts. I saw the Rolling Stones for the first time on AB. Well, the show ended in the late ’80s, perhaps long after it should have ended. But from its beginning in the late ’50s, it was hosted by–and synonymous with–Dick Clark, who died last April. While Clark kept a career going after AB ended–including years of emceeing the Miss America Pageant–it was as American Bandstand host that he left a permanent mark on the music scene of the boomer generation.
Now, if you’ve plowed through this post, I hope it’s because someone mentioned touched a chord in you. Let me know. And, let me know if I missed someone whose music meant something to you. What was amazing to me about putting this list together was the realization that artists from so many genres had a place in the life of NCPR and its listeners. Totally cool.