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                           Muses on The Music

2018: The Year in Passing, Part I

January 5, 2019

        The year 2018 has passed — and during it, so did a number of those involved in influencing and making The Music.

        It wasn’t quite as bad a year for rock and pop musicians as 2016, when we lost the likes of David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner, Leon Russell and others. But a bunch of musicians left the planet during the preceding 12 months who either made rock or pop, or influenced it.

        (There were enough artists exiting stage left, and enough to say about them, that it will take a couple blog posts to cover them. Bear with me …)

        Certainly the most significant death was that of Aretha Franklin, on Aug. 16. I blogged about the Queen of Soul shortly after her passing, so I won’t recapitulate her storied career; I will only say that she had an incredible voice, a remarkable knack for choosing what music to record, and left us a legacy of great songs and performances.

        There were way too many artists whose death escaped my notice, probably the most significant of them being Marty Balin, who died Sept. 27 at the age of 76. Born Martyn Jerel Buchwald, he started making records at age 20, fronting a folk music group called the Town Criers.

        Moving to San Francisco, he helped found Jefferson Airplane, introducing the seminal psychedelic rock band at the restaurant he had converted into a club, the Matrix. His smooth, soulful voice was a counterweight to Grace Slick’s acid-etched vocals and Kantner’s bellowing; and the songs he wrote tended to be more melodic, like “Comin’ Back to Me” (although he also wrote or co-wrote numbers like “Volunteers” and “3/5ths of a Mile in 10 Seconds”).

        But the band’s substance-abuse issues and personal conflicts drove Balin out five years after it got started, in 1971, and he worked on other musical projects. He returned to his former bandmates after they transitioned into Jefferson Starship, and again sang on and wrote hits, including “Miracles.” He left Starship in 1978 to start a solo career, but later formed a band with former Airplane/Starship members and performed with a later incarnation of the original band.

•        Most music fans hadn’t heard anything from him in decades, but Tony Joe White — who died Oct. 24 at age 75 — created some hits, and played with and influenced other, better-known artists. His “Polk Salad Annie” was a No. 8 in 1969, and I remember being knocked out by it the first time I heard it — the gritty vocals and swampy beat.

        White also wrote “A Rainy Night in Georgia,” which was a big hit for Brook Benton in 1970; almost two decades later, he penned four songs for Tina Turner’s international smash hit album Foreign Affair. In between, although he didn’t have much commercial success on his own, he worked on a variety of projects, in various genres.

        One of those was Jerry Lee Lewis’ Southern Roots album, which also featured members of Booker T. and the MGs and the Memphis Horns, Carl Perkins and Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere and the Raiders. I had never heard that album, but now that I I’ve heard about it, I want to.

        White continued writing, recording and performing until the month before his unexpected death, from a heart attack. Three of his later albums made it into the Top 10 on the U.S. Blues chart, the last of those 2013’s Hoodoo, which also was a critical success.

•        Ed King, who died Aug. 22 at 68, was not a household name — at least not in my household. King, a Southern California guitarist, got his start as a founding member of Strawberry Alarm Clock, the psychedelic rock band best known for the 1967 No. 1 hit “Incense and Peppermints.”

        The Clock’s fortunes went south in the early 1970s, and so did King, who signed up with Lynyrd Skynyrd. He knew some of its members because an earlier iteration of that Southern Rock band, the One Percent, had opened for SAC.

        He joined Skynyrd in 1972 and played on their first three albums, co-writing the band’s best-known number, “Sweet Home Alabama,” and several other of their songs. King bailed on Skynyrd in 1975 — two years before Steve Gaines, his replacement, and several other members of the band were killed in a chartered plane crash.

        King rejoined the band when it reunited in 1987, but had to leave for health reasons in 1996. He received a heart transplant in 2011, and had been fighting cancer when he died.

        Nokie Edwards is another name that many fans won’t recognize, but he was an influential guitarist for a band that had some big hits, and continued performing into the 21st Century. Edwards, who died at 82 on March 12, got his start with Buck Owens’ pre-Buckaroos band, and met the Ventures when they appeared on the Tacoma, Wash., TV station where he was a member of the house band.

        Edwards played on classic surf music hits like “Walk Don’t Run,” but left to pursue a solo career and work on other projects. He sat in on country and western legend Lefty Frizzell’s last album, and also played with several country and western swing bands, although he later rejoined the Ventures.

        Edwards also designed electric guitars and mechanisms for them, and promoted Mosrite’s instruments. He was called the “King of Guitars” in Japan, where the Ventures continued to tour until 2012.

•        Barbara Ann Alston — who died Feb. 16 at age 74, from complications of influenza — was the co-founder and original lead singer of the Crystals. She and the band were discovered by legendary producer Phil Spector, who helped them create some of the great “girl group” songs of the decade, including six Top 40 hits.

        However, she and her bandmates didn’t sing on “their” biggest hit, the 1962 No. 1 “He’s a Rebel.” Spector instead used Darlene Love and the Blossoms, because the they were more available for his LA studio than the New York-based Crystals.

        Alston and the Crystals did provide the vocals on “Then He Kissed Me,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Uptown” and others, but Alston was shy and uncomfortable with the spotlight. She turned the lead vocals over to Dolores Brooks and eventually left the band in 1964.

        The Crytals, who had feuded with Spector over his use of other musicians under their name, and financial matters, left his label and disbanded in 1967. The group has been put back together with varying combinations or original members and other singers since then.

        Continued on Next Rock …

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