It wasn't quite “The Year the Music Died,” as a CNN web page called it, but 2016 was a rough year for Makers of The Music.
That web site listed 14 notable musicians who passed away during the year that recently passed, including 10 whose work was more or less in this blog’s wheelhouse: David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Keith Emerson, Glenn Frey, Dale Griffin, Paul Kantner, Greg Lake, Prince, Leon Russell and Maurice White.
It wasn’t a calendar year, but I always considered the 12 months between the summers of 1970 and ’71 to be the year the music died, including as it did the deaths of three major rock figures, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, plus Al “ Blind Owl” Wilson of Canned Heat. It was more significant because those musicians died untimely, in their 20s, but not unsurprisingly, considering their lifestyles.
And the Musical Grim Reaper was perhaps more active in 2015. Billboard’s website listed dozens of deaths during the year-before-last. Yes, that death toll included artists who didn’t have much impact on my ears, including a couple original members of Motorhead.
But the 2015 roll call also included the likes of influential New Orleans musician Alan Toussaint, R&B legend Ben E. King and the iconic blues guitarist B.B. King. And the session drummer who took Ringo’s seat during the recording of the Beatles’ first single, Yes co-founder Chris Squire, folkie Theodore Bikel and two members of Three Dog Night, Jimmy Greenspoon and Cory Wells.
But 2016 perhaps had more of an impact because of the stature of some of those who passed away. Bowie was a singular figure in The Music, almost always on the cutting edge; Frey and Kantner were original members of two of the most influential American rock bands.
Russell was a top-tier studio musician who had a great solo career but also worked with other major musical figures like J.J. Cale, Eric Clapon and Joe Cocker. Prince Rogers Nelson was not a ’60s/70s musician, but was an iconic musician who picked up the torch and carried it into the ’80s and ’90s and beyond.
Also, the timing of some of those deaths set the tone for the year. Bowie passed away just 10 days into the new year, and Frey and Kantner were gone before 2016’s first month was done; White left the planet four days into its second month.
During the past year, I wrote about all 10 of those listed in the second paragraph above, — Bowie twice, at the time of his passing, and after hearing his last album. I also wrote about Sir George Martin, the producer who helped make the Beatles’ music so great.
But there were some on the CNN list who passed under my radar. Rick Parfitt played guitar for a half-century for Status Quo, the English band that had a 1968 hit with “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” but kept on trucking for nearly five decades after that.
George Michael added some interest to ’80s music, with the U.K pop duo Wham!, and as a solo artist. I’m not familiar with soul singer Sharon Jones, but she sounds interesting, Godfather of Soul James Brown being her main inspirer.
Since he was a rapper, Phife Dawg totally escaped my notice. I don’t pay much attention to country and western any more, and Joey Feek was not a big star in that genre.
Merle Haggard was, though, and I’m surprised that his April 6 death escaped my notice. He was a C&W legend who emphasized gritty reality more than Nashville glitz, and was Outlaw Country before Outlaw Country became cool.
Haggard riled up some in the counterculture with songs like “Okie from Muskogee” and “Fightin’ Side of Me,” earning a counterpunch in the Nick Gravenites song: “Oh I'll change your flat tire, Merle/Don't you get your sweet country picking fingers/All covered with oil/You're a honky I know, but Merle, you got soul.”
But note the tip of the hat in the last line. The Hag had soul — earned the hard way, via stints riding the rails and serving hard time — and his electric guitar style and minimalist songwriting surely had some influence on rock music.
We can hope that 2017 won’t be as hard on the Makers of The Music as last year was. But the odds are against them — as I noted during last year’s tough first month, most of the artists of the ’60s and ’70s are now in their 60s and 70s, and many lived the rock and roll lifestyle for a long time.