John Prine: Bob Dylan said of Prine that his “stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs.” Prine died due to complications from COVID-19, and that should be remembered and logged in our country’s history of failures, but he also lived a full life with an enormous impact on American music and songwriting.
Barbara Ess: A product of the Manhattan art scene of the 1970s and 1980s, Ess was an avant-garde musician and visual artist who employed the archaic pinhole camera, something one could create at home, in her works.
Mark Whitecage: Whitecage was a trooper in the world of jazz, a saxophonist and clarinetist who found work touring all of Europe.
Lee Scratch Perry: Perry was called Bob Marley’s mentor, having produced and moved the genre of Reggae forward, through experiments into pioneering Dub music, and a four-track recorder. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones said of Perry, “You could never put your finger on Lee Perry – he’s the Salvador Dali of music. He’s a mystery. The world is his instrument. You just have to listen. More than a producer, he knows how to inspire the artist’s soul. Like Phil Spector, he has a gift of not only hearing sounds that come from nowhere else, but also translating those sounds to the musicians. Scratch is a shaman.”
Duffy Jackson: He drummed for Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Ella Fitzgerald, and Lena Horne. According to WBGO, when Jackson was 5 years old he said his dream was “to run away with Count Basie’s band.” He got to do that.
Bunny Wailer: A reggae legend and founding member of The Wailers, Bunny Wailer played and wrote music with and for Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. The Wailers hit in Jamaica when they were teens, and not unlike The Beatles, their legend grew, as did the maturity and intensity of the messages in their songs.
Richard Faith: Faith started as a concert pianist in the Chicago Symphony and became a composer and professor of music and piano. In his 94-plus years, he composed so very many songs it is hard to fathom.
Ian North: The lead guitarist and songwriter of power pop glam band Milk ‘N’ Cookies. The band had one “cult classic” album, and North subsequently released solo music and produced other bands’ albums.
Angel Moraes: Moraes was an OG of the 1980s house music scene in New York City. He also had a career remixing songs for pop acts like the Pet Shop Boys, ran a popular house club, and was generally considered a legend in the dance community.
Curtis Fuller: The Detroit native brought a Detroit sound to the jazz scene in 1950s. He played trombone with and for jazz greats like John Coltrane and Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie.
Bob James: He was the lead singer for Montrose after Sammy Hagar left in 1975 and played on and wrote songs for various rock groups like Swan and Shatterminx for the next couple of decades.
Graeme Edge: Edge was the drummer of the Moody Blues. The Moody Blues invaded the U.S. on a British wave.
Gerry Marsden: He was the “Gerry” in Gerry and the Pacemakers. A local Liverpool contemporary of the Beatles, Marsden’s Pacemakers were signed along side the Beatles and had number one hits before the Beatles. Paul McCartney wrote: “Gerry was a mate from our early days in Liverpool. He and his group were our biggest rivals on the local scene. His unforgettable performances of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’ remain in many people’s hearts as reminders of a joyful time in British music.”
Gene Taylor: A blues and boogie-woogie pianist who played with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Taylor began his career playing blues with the likes of T-Bone Walker and Big Joe Turner.
James Burke: Burke sang with the classic soul group the Five Stairsteps. You might remember their song “Ooh Child.”
Prince Markie Dee: A founding member of the 1980s hip-hop group The Fat Boys, Markie Dee was one of the first stars with semi-crossover success in the early days of rap.
Kangol Kid: A member of the seminal hip-hop group UTFO, Kangol Kid passed away in late December. The legendary song “Roxanne, Roxanne,” led to one of the earliest hits for the young musical art form, and depicted the story of a young man getting stood up by a young lady. Excitement over the story grew as another rapper, and then two, and then a third, wrote response songs, claiming to be the Roxanne in the song.
Gene Summers: Was a rockabilly legend, touring with the likes of Chuck Berry, The Drifters, Bobby Hendricks, Fabian, and Bobby Darin. He was inducted into the rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2005.
Florence Birdwell: Birdwell was a singing teacher to many of Broadway’s stars. The singers who worked with her include Tony Award winners Kristen Chenoweth and Kelli O’Hara.
Louis Clark: He was a keyboard player in the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO). He was the arranger and orchestrator of many of the group’s choral and orchestral parts. Subsequently Clark created the “Hooked on Classics series, in partnership with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.”
Milford Graves: Graves was an experimental drummer. The New York Times writes that “Milford Graves was Professor Emeritus of Music at Bennington College in Vermont, where he taught the power and aesthetic of Black Music as a faculty member from 1973-2012. He used his platform there to express his many ideas, most well beyond the confines of the performance stage, operating instead as a kind of shamanic artist and teacher, whose emotional and intellectual connection to traditional music he fused with scientific inquiry and study.” He lived in Queens, New York.
Mary Wilson: She co-founded the Supremes when she was 15 years old. Along with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard, The Supremes released hit after hit after hit on the Motown label.
Richie Albright: He was Waylon Jennings’ drummer for decades. He is credited with helping push Jennings towards a country sound that was rock n’ roll influenced.
Bernard Haitink: A Dutch orchestra conductor, Haitink’s decades long career included a stint as principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. By all accounts, Haitink was beloved by orchestral musicians—a musicians musician if you will—as he shied away from the more self-promotional attributes of similarly talented and accomplished conductors.
Chick Corea: An accomplished pianist, Correa was one of the more revered contemporary jazz artists, known for his wide range of musical interests and genres and prolific output and work with just about everybody under the musical sun.
Christopher Plummer: Sound of Music baby! Plummer is best known as an accomplished actor, both on the stage and on the big screen, but the success of Sound of Music is important enough in the popular imagination, and likely was the spark for many young folks’ musical appreciation journeys.
Matt Harris: Harris was the bassist for the Posies for over a decade. The band wrote on their Facebook page: “It is with a very heavy heart we acknowledge that the news circulating today is true. Matt Harris, bassist for the Posies from 2001 til 2014, has passed away. Matt lent his incredible skills, mischievous humor and abject sweetness to many Posies tours and his brilliant bass lines are captured on our albums ‘Every Kind of Light’ (2005) and ‘Blood Candy’ (2010). Rest well, Matt. You will be missed.”
Gil Saunders: Saunders was the lead singer of Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes. He stepped into the role after previous lead singer Teddy Pendergrass left to pursue a solo career.
Anne Feeney: She was a protest singer who didn’t stop fighting the good fight until the very end. Very much in the model of the late Pete Seeger, Feeney had real leftie politics and protest songs to match. She fundraised for progressive causes and entertained people on picket lines.
Jim Weatherly: A singer-songwriter, Weatherly is probably best known for writing “Midnight Train to Georgia” made famous by Gladys Knight & The Pips. Gladys Knight said Weatherly was a “sweetheart and so gentle. We were just made for each other. At that time African Americans weren’t into country music and he really helped us know it and love it.”
Grady Gaines: He played the sax for Little Richard, and Little Richard is the architect of rock and roll. Gaines is the guy who gets up on the piano to play his solo.
Hilton Valentine: The guitarist for the pioneering Animals, whose version of “House of The Rising Sun” broke through as a part of the English “invasion” of the United States charts, passed away this year. The song was a folk classic, performed by many, including Bob Dylan. According to lore, Valentine‘s version—which cribbed Dylan’s chord choices for the song, electrified them and moved them into the minor A—“stunned” Dylan when he heard it and was one of the impetuses for the Tamborine Man deciding to go electric.
Randy Parton: The younger brother of Dolly, Randy Parton had his own country singing and songwriting career.
My brother Randy has lost his battle with cancer. The family and I are grieving his loss but we know he is in a better place than we are at this time. We are a family of faith and we believe that he is safe with God… https://t.co/zAgHdHEdOQ
— Dolly Parton (@DollyParton) January 21, 2021
Jimmie F. Rodgers: He was the singer of “Honeycomb” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” His career was sidelined after sustaining a head injury that allegedly was the result of a police officer assaulting him during a traffic stop (the case was settled in late 1967).
Junior Mance: A jazz pianist who worked with Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, and Dinah Washington. When Mance was 10 years old, a saxophonist neighbor asked Mance’s parents if their son could fill in on piano for a roadhouse gig the neighbor had. “My father said I could,” Mance told JazzWax. “The gig went well. The audience was made up mostly of truckers taking a break from the road. No one paid much attention.” The rest is history.
Sammy Nestico: Jazz Times writes that Nestico was the “world’s most published scholastic jazz arranger.” He was a composer, an arranger, a trombonist, and an educator. His is probably best known for being an arranger for the Count Basie Orchestra for 17 years.
Phil Spector: He was most famous for being an eccentric and revolutionary music producer and then he murdered someone and the story of Phil Spector became very dark indeed. The music was amazing.
Slide Hampton: A prolific Jazz trombonist whose career spanned 80 years of active playing, Hampton was reportedly started touring at the age of 12.
Joanne Rogers: She was a concert pianist who recorded music in the 1990s at the insistence of her husband Fred Rogers—who most of us know as Mr. Rogers from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. A New York Times profile from a year ago gives a great rundown of her life and her work to maintain the kind and neighborly legacy of her late husband.
Duke Bootee: He was a cowriter, behind the scenes, of one of the most historic songs in modern history: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message.”
Howard Johnson: Johnson was an arranger and multi-instrumentalist jazz musician. If you saw him, it was likely with his tuba as an original member of the Saturday Night Live band. He also contributed horn arrangements to music by John Lennon.
David Darling: A cellist from Indiana and a Grammy Award winner in the New Age category, Darling was a virtuoso of styles from classical to Indian music.
James Levine: The long-standing maestro of the New York Metropolitan Opera passed away after many years of success and a few years of disgrace due to multiple accusations of sexual abuse.
Michael Morgan: Morgan was a longtime director of the Oakland Symphony. He tried hard to create a diversity in the audiences he saw, hoping to spread the gospel of classical music. Here he is back in 1986 being given the wunderkind profile treatment.
JD Crowe: JD Crowe was a legendary Bluegrass banjo player. Bluegrass music developed in the United States in the 20th Century. It took Irish, Scottish, and English folk music traditions, melded them with existing American musical traditions, and is one of the many great cultural American creations. Like all great American music, Bluegrass consciously or unconsciously employed the entire collective cultural American experience. The banjo, Crowe’s instrument, probably most associated with Appalachian-derived Bluegrass music, is itself the embodiment of America’s history. Crowe said that he was a young guitarist when he saw Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys perform in Lexington. “There was no other sound like that, so I dropped the guitar and got into the banjo.” The rest is more American history.