Whew! We made it. 2020, the most disruptive year most of us can ever remember, is now history. January 1, 2021 is really just another day, and things aren’t going to suddenly change for the better overnight. But we can hope that gradually, inexorably, life just may head towards some semblance of “normal.” We’d all like to congregate, and hug each other, and see live music performances, and try to be kinder and less antagonistic toward each other (regardless of which way we voted), and the odds look good we’ll achieve these things.
There’s one task left, though. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of Americans (and too many citizens of other countries) who died of the coronavirus, there were a few dozen luminaries of the rock and pop music community who passed away in 2020. Hack’s Back Pages would like to pay tribute to them, in our own small way, with this “In Memoriam” feature. There’s a robust playlist at the end to remind you of the fine music these folks made.
Rest in peace, all you musicians who brought us joy through the years.
Richard Penniman, known far and wide as Little Richard, died May 9 at age 87. Long regarded as one the true pioneers of rock and roll music, he co-wrote and sang some of the first and best rock songs ever recorded — “Tutti Frutti,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” “Lucille,” “Keep A-Knockin’.” He was also a trailblazer of rock’s tradition of outrageous appearance and performance. For an in-depth tribute to Little Richard, see “On bended knee, I beg you not to go.” https://hackbackpages.com/2020/05/15/on-bended-knees-i-beg-you-not-to-go/
Eddie Van Halen, lead guitarist of the band that bears his name, died October 6 at age 65. Van Halen became one of the most successful U.S. rock bands of the 1980s, in large part due to Eddie’s superhuman skills on the frets. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of younger guitarists worship at the altar of Eddie, inspired by his sheer joy of performing and recording all those great hard rock licks on tracks like “Panama,” “Unchained,” “Jump” and “Dance the Night Away.” For an in-depth tribute to Van Halen, see “Hot shoe, burnin’ down the avenue.” https://hackbackpages.com/2020/10/09/hot-shoe-burnin-down-the-avenue/
Peter Green, founder, guitarist and vocalist of Fleetwood Mac, died July 25 at age 73. He was a distinguished alumni of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, where he met drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie and teamed up with them to form Fleetwood Mac. This early version of the group, heard on “Fleetwood Mac,” “Mr. Wonderful” and “Then Play On,” recorded some of the best blues to ever come out of Britain. Later in life, he recorded many captivating solo albums that continued his enviable legacy. For an in-depth tribute to Green, see “Shall I tell you about my life?” https://hackbackpages.com/2020/07/31/shall-i-tell-you-about-my-life/
Charlie Daniels, premier fiddle player and a pioneer of Southern rock, died July 6 at age 83. Daniels was universally admired for his superb abilities on fiddle, guitar, banjo and mandolin, and as a vocalist and songwriter. Best known for his #3 pop hit “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” The Charlie Daniels Band toured relentlessly in the ’70s and ’80s and released a dozen consistently strong albums that attracted a faithful audience. For an in-depth tribute to Daniels and his band, see “Rosin up your bow and play your fiddle hard.” https://hackbackpages.com/2020/07/10/rosin-up-your-bow-and-play-your-fiddle-hard/
John Prine, one of the finest lyricists of all time, died April 7 at age 73. Prine wrote simple country songs and sang them with a gruff honesty, but it was the wise, economical words he came up with that left people speechless, even other celebrated songwriters like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. While not commercially successful, he left behind an amazing catalog of songs (“Sour Grapes,” “Dear Abby,” “In Spite of Ourselves”) that I urge you to check out. For an-depth tribute to Prine, see “Ain’t the afterlife grand?” https://hackbackpages.com/2020/04/10/aint-the-afterlife-grand/
Neil Peart, drummer extraordinaire for Rush, died January 6 at age 67. As Canada’s entry in the progressive rock genre, Rush offered bold, experimental rock opuses and synth-driven mainstream rock that attracted enormous audiences in the ’70s and ’80s. The tight-knit community of rock drummers recognizes Peart as one of the half-dozen best to ever pick up a set of drumsticks, which is evident on tracks ranging from “A Farewell to Kings” to “The Anarchist.” For an in-depth tribute to Peart and Rush, see “Catch the mystery, catch the drift.” https://hackbackpages.com/2020/01/31/rush-catch-the-mystery-catch-the-drift/
Kenny Rogers, one of the biggest-selling artists of all time, died March 20 at age 81. He was best known for his voluminous catalog of country music successes (“The Gambler,” “Lucille”) but had many crossover pop hits as well, often in duets with other established artists (Lionel Richie, Dolly Parton, Sheena Easton). Early in his career, Rogers even wrote a psychedelic rock hit, “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” with his first band, The First Edition.
Bill Withers, one of the smoothest R&B singers of the 1970s, died March 30 at age 81. Withers got a relatively late start in the music business but he burst forth with a King Midas touch. His first three singles all went gold. His debut, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” won a Grammy in 1971; “Lean on Me” was the #1 song in the country in July 1972, and “Use Me,” another track from his “Still Bill” album of that year, reached #2. His collaboration with Grover Washington, “Just the Two of Us,” went Top Ten in 1981
Tommy DeVito, who died September 20 at age 92, was lead guitarist and backing singer for The Four Seasons, one of the most successful vocal groups of all time. Despite some personal demons that took him out of the lineup for a spell, DeVito nevertheless played an instrumental part of the group’s widespread appeal, which came through on hits like “Rag Doll,” “Sherry,” “Let’s Hang On” and “Workin’ My Way Back to You.”
Johnny Nash, who helped introduce reggae music to the U.S. market, died October 6 at age 80. Born in Texas, Nash had a number of minor pop hits as a Johnny Mathis-type crooner in the late ’50s and early ’60s before going on to become the first non-Jamaican to have success with reggae music (the #5 hit “Hold Me Tight” in 1968). He is best known for the enormous #1 hit “I Can See Clearly Now” in 1972.
Spencer Davis, whose group that bears his name played a key role in the ’60s “British Invasion,” died on October 19 at age 81. With future Traffic founder Steve Winwood on keyboards and vocals, the Spencer Davis Group reached the top of the charts in the UK with “Keep On Running” and “Somebody Help Me.” In 1966-67, the band had back-to-back Top Ten hits in the US with “Gimme Some Lovin'” and “I’m a Man.” Davis moved to California in the ’70s and became a denizen of Catalina Island for 40 years.
Ken Henseley, guitarist/keyboardist/singer/songwriter for Uriah Heep, died November 4 at age 75. Henseley was part of the classic lineup of the hard rock band that recorded its best known albums, “Demons and Wizards,” “The Magician’s Birthday,” “Sweet Freedom,” “Wonderworld” and “Return to Fantasy” (1972-1977). It was his adventurous work on keyboards that made radio-friendly songs like “Easy Livin'” and “Lady in Black” so popular.
Leslie West, guitarist of the hard rock group Mountain, died December 22 at age 75. A devotee of the bless/jazz trio Cream, West assembled his own trio in 1969, performing at Woodstock, and then released two moderately successful LPs, “Mountain Climbing!” and “Nantucket Sleighride,” including their signature tune, “Mississippi Queen.” West later formed West, Bruce & Laing with Cream bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce and drummer Corky Laing.
Helen Reddy, pop singer and actress, died September 29 at age 78. Born into an Australian show-business family, Reddy was groomed for stardom but rebelled against that path for most of her teen years. She emerged stronger and more independent, and at age 30 came up with “I Am Woman,” a #1 song that became a bellwether of the women’s movement of the 1970s. She had eight more Top Twenty hits including “Delta Dawn” and “Angie Baby.”
Mac Davis, songwriter and singer who also made his mark in acting, died September 29 at age 78. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Davis wrote songs that others made famous: “In the Ghetto” for Elvis Presley, “Watching Scotty Grow” for Bobby Goldsboro and “I Believe in Music” for Gallery. He had his own #1 hit in 1972 with “Baby, Don’t Get Hooked on Me,” and recorded many successful country albums. He also hosted his own TV variety show and a dozen Christmas specials.
Bobby Lewis, a talented rock/R&B singer in the ’50s and early ’60s, died April 28 at age 95. Lewis had only two hits, but they were huge, especially “Tossin’ and Turnin’,” which was a #1 hit for an impressive seven weeks in 1961. A new generation embraced the song in 1978 when it was used in the soundtrack to “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” Lewis’s other hit, “One Track Mind,” reached #9 later in 1961.
Bonnie Pointer, one of The Pointer Sisters, died June 8 at age 69. She and her sisters June, Anita, Ruth founded their own vocal group in 1973 and had three Top 20 hits (“Yes We Can Can,” “Fairytale” and “How Long”). Bonnie went solo on Motown Records in 1977, and had a #11 hit in 1978, “Heaven Must’ve Sent You.” She only rarely reunited with her sisters, who had continued as a trio and had big successes without her in the late ’70s and 1980s.
Ronald Bell, co-founder of the hugely successful R&B group Kool & the Gang, died September 9 at age 69. Bell wore many hats in the band, including songwriter, arranger, producer, saxophonist and singer. He was responsible for writing and producing many of the band’s biggest hits on the pop charts, including “Jungle Boogie,” “Hollywood Swinging,” “Joanna,” “Cherish,” “Misled” and their timeless #1 smash, “Celebration.” The group also registered more than 25 Top Ten singles on the R&B charts in the ’70s and ’80s.
McCoy Tyner, Grammy-winning jazz pianist, died March 6 at age 82. He was a member of the original John Coltrane Quartet in the early 1960s, touring almost non-stop and recording live and studio albums with them. He recorded with many of the best jazz players in the business, including Stanley Turrentine and Freddie Hubbard. Under his own name, Tyner recorded nearly 80 albums for many different labels, and continued performing across the U.S. and Europe until his health prevented it in the 2010s.
Frederick “Toots” Hibbert, regarded as The Godfather of reggae music, died September 11 at age 77. Hibbert was the leader of the seminal reggae and ska band Toots and the Maytals, formed in Jamaica in the early 1960s, and his 1968 song “Do the Reggay” is credited as the genesis of the genre name. The band appeared in Jimmy Cliff’s film “The Harder They Come” and, later in life, Hibbert and his band won a Grammy for best reggae album in 2005.
Charley Pride, hugely successful country singer and the first Black artist to enter the Grand Ole Opry, died December 12 at age 86. He lodged more than 50 Top Ten hits on the country charts between 1967 and 1987, with 30 of them reaching #1. His first album with RCA was released with no photo, and audiences who turned up for his shows because they loved his voice were shocked to see he was Black. He was also a moderately successful minor league baseball player in the 1950s and early ’60s.
Emitt Rhodes, multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter, died July 19 at age 70. His brilliant self-titled pop debut LP reached #29 on the album charts in 1970 when he was only 20, but subsequent releases stalled. He fell victim to bad business dealings and grew disillusioned with recording music again until the 2010s. I consider Rhodes an overlooked wonder, a true diamond in the rough that deserves your attention.
Ruben “Benny” Mardones died June 29 at age 73. He had a pop/rock hit, “Into the Night,” which reached #11 in 1980, and then, thanks to radio station promotion, re-emerged in 1989 to reach the Top 20 a second time. He released nine albums between 1978 and 2006 but never again matched the success of the 1980 LP “Never Run, Never Hide.”
Phillip Baptiste, known professionally as Phil Phillips, died March 14 at age 94. He wrote and recorded “Sea of Love,” a #2 hit and slow-dance favorite in 1959. It was the only song he ever recorded. A version by Robert Plant and The Honeydrippers reached #3 in 1985, and Phillips’s original rendition was featured prominently in the 1989 Al Pacino-Ellen Barkin film thriller “Sea of Love.”
Leonard Baristoff, known professionally as Len Barry, died November 5 at age 78. He was the lead singer of The Dovells, the early ’60s group that had Top Ten hits like “Bristol Stomp” and “You Can’t Sit Down.” In 1965, he scored his only solo hit, “1-2-3,” which reached #2.
David Stuart Chadwick, known as Chad Stuart, one half of the ’60s British duo Chad and Jeremy, died December 20 at age 79. The twosome never clicked on their home turf, but their soft sounds made an impression with early-to-mid-’60s U.S. listeners. Their hits here included “Yesterday’s Gone,” “Willow Weep for Me” and their only Top Ten hit, “A Summer Song,” co-written by Stuart.