When many of us awoke on New Year’s Day (2016) to the heartbreak that Natalie Cole had quietly slipped from this Earth, we had no idea that this valiant award winning Soul/Pop/Jazz heiress to music royalty was but the first of an unprecedented string of deaths that would leave music lovers reeling – dreading to check their social media newsfeeds to learn, “Who died today?” As in every year, some of the transitions seemed cruel and out of the blue. Others mercifully occurred at what would be considered a respectable and generous amount of life time. That won’t stop them from leaving us with varying levels of sadness individually and an overwhelming cause for pause when we consider them collectively…
Before I launch into my reflections on “The List,” I am compelled to iterate that death is a part of life, and that it is a great honor to have lived and left something that will ever be of value: in these cases, performances, recordings, compositions and arrangements of everlasting love via the channel of musical excellence.
On the icon level, there was no more devastating loss than that of Prince Rogers Nelson, the prolific purple genius who was peerless in his ability to excel on all levels of music from conception and recording to the stage and film. Among his influences was the fearlessly chameleonic and androgynous David Bowie whose unleashed imagination whisked us into deep space then dropped us back to earth with the Funk of ”Fame.” Another of Prince’s influences was Maurice White, the visionary creator/leader of ancient/future superstars Earth Wind & Fire which electrified international audiences with breathtaking concert spectacles and left behind a catalog of soul stirring songs of pride, devotion and fortitude. In the end, every Prince needs a Princess…and though Prince had many in his lifetime, none was more ravishing than “Vanity,” a beauty whose once wicked womanly wiles sizzled eyeballs and overheated earlobes on wax, stage, celluloid and television before she made a vehement 180-degree U-turn to become Evangelist Denise Matthews for her Lord Jesus Christ, leading a flock up to the day she perished.
Beyond category, Bernie Worrell’s transition marked the departure of a classically trained musical genius whose endless invention as a composer, keyboardist, synthesist and arranger left indelible imprints on music as far reaching as Parliament/Funkadelic, Talking Heads and Pharaoh Sanders. Equally singular was songsmith supreme Rod Temperton whose highly sophisticated, jazz soaked pen blessed the Quincy Jones camp (especially Michael Jackson) and beyond with the crème de la crème of Soul/Pop. Meanwhile, songwriter/producer Kashif was able to do what intensely private Temperton had no interest in doing which is be an artist in his own right while also creating memorable hits for Whitney Houston, George Benson, Melba Moore and many more. Then there was one of a kind vocal stylist Billy Paul who brought a supper club honed approach to album oriented soul, becoming a standout of Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records with the crossover classic, “Me and Mrs. Jones.”
Rhythm & Blues was hard hit with the passing of Sharon Jones (a latecomer to music who boldly ditched a series of 9 to 5s pursue her dream, create a Trans-Atlantic following and have a documentary made of her life before succumbing to cancer at 60), triple threat Soul, Blues and Gospel legend Otis Clay, prolific southern soul songwriter Sir Mack Rice (“Mustang Sally”), lascivious Miami nasty man “Blowfly” (Clarence Reid), Louisiana House Rockin’ accordion great Stanley “Buckwheat Zydeco” Dural Jr., writer/producer/artist Leon Haywood (“I Want’a Do Something Freaky To You”), breakout 80s club music star Colonel Abrams (“Trapped”), and singer/songwriter Gavin Christopher (writer of Rufus’ “Once You Get Started”).
Then there were the members of Soul groups: Nicholas Caldwell (co-founder of The Whispers), Marshall Jones (turban rockin’ bassist and co-founder of the Ohio Players), trumpeter/horn arranger Mic Gillette (of both Tower of Power and Cold Blood), Willie B. Holland (The Persuaders), Robert “Big Sonny” Edwards (The Intruders), Reginald Torian, Sr. and Ralph Johnson (both members of the 70s-era edition of The Impressions), guitarist T.J. Tindall (MFSB, the Philly Soul Orchestra), drummer Larry Payton and saxophonist Jesse Ward, Jr. (both of Disco Funk band Brass Construction), Jimmy Williams (Double Exposure), Attrell “Prince Be” Cordes (PM Dawn), Trisco Pearson (Force MD’s), Larry “Bingo” Marcus (Rude Boys) and Kenny Kelly (R.I.F.F.).
Then there were the sidemen/women of Soul: Memphis songwriter/producer/guitar hero Chips Moman, trumpeter Wayne Jackson of the ubiquitous interracial Memphis Horns duo, James Jamerson, Jr. (bottom by birthright bassist, son of the Motown legend), Sonny Sanders (Chicago/Detroit songwriter/pianist), funkateer guitarist Jimi Macon (GAP Band), Bernadette Randle (pianist/songwriter for Sylvia Robinson’s All Platinum Records), indispensible Chicago session drummer Morris Jennings (Chess Records), drummer Dennis Davis (Stevie & Bowie), and drummer Nathaniel Neblett (The Nite-Liters, Aretha…and Bill Cosby: “NATE! I think I wanna fall down!”).
Behind the scenes of Soul were Raynoma Gordy Singleton (co-architect of Motown and one-time wife of Berry Gordy), Motown songwriter Robert Bateman (“Please Mr. Postman”), record producer Leo Graham (Manhattans and Champaign), color barrier breaking pop record producer Billy Jackson (Ronnie Dyson), cutting edge Neo Soul artist manager Dominique Trenier (D’Angelo, Nikka Costa), record producer Fred McFarlane (Jocelyn Brown’s “Somebody Else’s Guy”), beloved artist manager Blue Johnson (Seawind), and Chicago engineer Ron White (youngest of Maurice White’s brothers).
From the executive suite we said goodbye to Bob Krasnow (co-founder of Blue Thumb Records and one time Warner Bros. hot shot who ultimately sealed his reputation for turning around Elektra Records in the 80s with signings that included Anita Baker and Natalie Cole), Robert Stigwood (founder of SRO Records & Filmworks, home of the once untouchable Bee Gees and the movie version of “Grease”), Jimmie Haskell (arranger/orchestrator extraordinaire), recent Atlantic Records Sr. VP of Urban Music Mar Brown, dance club maven David Mancuso, and controversial west coast rap label CEO Jerry Heller (Ruthless Records, launching pad of N.W.A and thus Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Michelle’).
The most profound passings in Hip Hop were A Tribe Called Quest’s Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor who lived long enough to complete his rhymes for the critic and fan-acclaimed reunion CD ,We Got it From Here, before succumbing to diabetes at 45, and pioneering DJ “Mr. Magic.” In Gospel, beloved Daryl Coley and powerhouse Mighty Clouds of Joy lead singer Joe Ligon ascended to Heaven. In Reggae, the great Prince Buster departed. And in World Music, openly gay South African singing star Kolo Bala perished (37, cancer).
The jazz world was rocked by the August transitions of peerless vibraphone trailblazer Bobby Hutcherson and master recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder whose immaculate New Jersey studio was responsible for an astonishingly high percentage of the music’s finest masterpieces. Also departing: heart-piercing harmonica master Toots Thielemans, passion personified tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri, Herculean drums smasher Alphonse Mouzon, quintessential composer/arranger/conductor Claus Ogerman, Brazilian percussion shaman Nana Vasconcelos and his countryman drummer/educator Joao Palma, electric bass pioneer Bob Cranshaw, wunderkind electric bassist Victor Bailey, Avant-garde pianist Paul Bley, Dixieland clarinet legend Pete Fountain, violin magician Michael White, fusion flautist Jeremy Steig, fusion keyboardist Allan Zavod (Jean-Luc Ponty), composer/keyboardist William Allen (Roy Ayers), longstanding vocal giants Bill Henderson and Ernestine Anderson, witty Jazz/Blues songwriter, pianist and vocalist of deadpan cool Mose Allison (“The Seventh Son”), and lounger Frank Sinatra, Jr. (The Chairman’s Ichiban Son).
Black Radio said goodnight to Chicago legend Herb Kent “The Kool Gent” at 88 (who was on-the-air to his dying day), New York’s Jazz and Quiet Storm master Vaughn Harper, Los Angeles station owner Bill Shearer (of Inner City Broadcasting fame) and, saddest, Chicago’s Doug Banks from diabetes at 57.
Finally, Pop-Rock lost many this year, the following six weighing heaviest:
Sir George Martin (Beatles producer and orchestral arranger), Leonard Cohen (songwriter/poet supreme whose words will live forever as sung by him and scores of others, “Suzanne” alone rendered by Nina, Aretha and Roberta), Leon Russell (singer/musician/songwriter responsible for the evergreens “A Song For You,” “This Masquerade” and “Superstar”), Glenn Frey (Detroit-born blue eyed soul singer best known as a lyricist, singer and guitarist in super group The Eagles), Doug Edwards [co-composer of the crossover classic “Wildflower,” introduced by Canadian band Skylark (from which David Foster sprang) then brought over to the Soul side of town by The New Birth and The O’Jays before being revived yet again from a woman’s point of view by Lisa Fischer (as produced by Luther Vandross)], and – in the 11th hour – George Michael, a truly soul stirring singer who’s gift was all the more mesmerizing as wedded to his matinee idol good looks that made him a superstar of the golden MTV era of the 80s.
May they all rest in peace, and their contributions be honored and enjoyed into eternity.
by A. Scott Galloway
December 26, 2016
(The writer dedicates the spirit of this piece to the memories of San Francisco record retailer Joseph Lambert and Muhammad Ali – both “The Greatest” in their arenas… Respect)