All good things must end some day

What’s that pop culture superstition about celebrities dying in threes? It’s pretty much nonsense, is what it is. How close together must their death dates be for it to qualify as a hat trick of celebrity deaths, anyway?

Three notable people in the rock music world died within a few days of each other at the end of May, but then this week, there was a fourth… Or was it the first of the next group of three? I think you see my point. Regardless, four very different but similarly influential musicians have just passed away, and Hack’s Back Pages has decided to pay a modest tribute to each of them. Their individual careers, backgrounds and preferred musical genres had little to do with each other, but they all operated under the broad umbrella of classic rock music, and are consequently deserving of our attention here.

The Spotify playlist at the end includes a batch of songs from each honoree’s catalog. These are songs that typically wouldn’t ever be on the same playlist, but they do show the diversity to be found in the music of the classic rock era…

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Ronnie Hawkins

Referred to in a New York Times obituary as a “rockabilly road warrior,” Ronnie Hawkins was actually much more than that. Though he was born and raised in Arkansas, he relocated to Ontario, Canada, and is credited with kickstarting the Canadian rock music scene in the mid-’60s, bringing his infectious blend of gregarious rock ‘n’ roll and R&B.

Hawkins died May 29th of cancer at age 87.

Born in 1932, Hawkins came from a musical family that included his father, two uncles and a few cousins who played the honky-tonk circuit in Arkansas and Oklahoma in the ’30s and ’40s. In the ’50s, cousin Dale Hawkins wrote and recorded “Suzie-Q” (later made famous by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s rendition in 1968). While serving in the Army, Hawkins was astounded when he heard a black group perform “a cross between the blues and rockabilly,” and ended up joining them for a while as the Blackhawks. “Instead of doing a kind of rockabilly that was closer to country music, I was doing rockabilly that was closer to soul music, which was exactly what I liked,” he recalled.

Hawkins (second from left) with The Hawks (Helm at far left)

In 1958, he formed a band of Arkansas-based players called The Hawks that included a young drummer named Levon Helm, still in high school. Country singer Conway Twitty urged Hawkins and his band to tour in Ontario, Canada, where rockabilly music was becoming popular at the time, so Hawkins and The Hawks split their time between Arkansas and Ontario, eventually releasing their first album there on Roulette Records. The album failed to chart, but the first single from it, “Forty Days” (a version of Chuck Berry’s 1955 hit “Thirty Days”), peaked at #4 on the Canadian charts and made it as far as #45 on the US pop charts. The follow-up, “Mary Lou,” was a Hawkins original that reached #26 in the US and was later covered by ’70s stars Steve Miller and Bob Seger, among others.

Once Hawkins moved permanently to Ontario and became a Canadian citizen, the rest of The Hawks dropped out, and their ranks were filled by guitarist Robbie Robertson, organist Garth Hudson, pianist Richard Manuel and bassist Rick Danko, who would go on to international fame as The Band, one of the most influential groups of the ’70s.

Ronnie Hawkins with Robbie Robertson circa 1964

Hawkins nurtured a reputation as a startling showman on stage, doing backflips and handstands, and something he called the “camel walk,” which some say was the progenitor of Michael Jackson’s “moonwalk” move in the ’80s. The raw energy of his musical output made him a big draw in the Toronto club scene, playing a repertoire that included scorching renditions of classics like Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t,” Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee,” Dion’s “Ruby Baby” and Billy Lee Riley’s “Red Hot.”

You may recall seeing Hawkins as a featured performer in The Band’s celebrated concert film, “The Last Waltz,” or playing the role of Bob Dylan in Dylan’s 1976 experimental film “Renaldo and Clara,” or in Michael Cimino’s 1980 box-office bomb “Heaven’s Gate.”

Danko with Hawkins in “The Last Waltz”

In his later years, he became something of a respected “elder statesman” of Canadian rock music and, having made shrewd investments, lived handsomely and owned several prosperous businesses.

But he remained a devilish rascal at heart, chuckling as he summed up his life: “Ninety percent of what I made went to women, whiskey, drugs and cars,” he said. “I guess I just wasted the other 10 percent.”

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Jimmy Seals

With their precise high harmonies and deft use of guitars, mandolin and fiddle, Jimmy Seals and Dash Crofts crafted some really gorgeous melodies that earned them mainstream success in 1972-73 and made them the darlings of the New Age crowd, thanks to lyrics that often emphasized a spiritual approach.

Seals, who died Monday at age 80, was a gentle soul from small-town Texas who learned fiddle and sax at a young age and began collaborating with the like-minded Crofts while they were still teenagers. By the early ’60s, they had moved to California and met session guitarist Glen Campbell, with whom they performed as part of The Champs and in other configurations. Seals and Crofts eventually became part of a band called The Dawnbreakers, named after a book chronicling the evolution of the Persian religion known as Baha’i, and soon became strong devotees of that faith.

“I think our music is a combination of the Eastern part of the world and the Western,” Seals said in 1971. “We’ve had people from Greece, Israel, England, France, China, everywhere, listen to our music and say, ‘Oh, it’s music from the old country.’ It really seemed strange to us because we didn’t realize it ourselves until we started comparing our work with, for example, Persian music, which, when you listen to it, is really very close to ours. We had no knowledge of this at all beforehand. So it’s just something that happened.”

Their first two LPs received little notice, but beginning with 1972’s “Summer Breeze,” they enjoyed a run of four Top 20 hits and two Top Ten albums that put them right up there with James Taylor and Cat Stevens in the singer-songwriter sweepstakes that dominated the early ’70s. “Hummingbird,” “Diamond Girl” and “We May Never Pass This Way Again,” each offering sunny, positive messages, received heavy airplay. These albums included an impressive diversity of styles and instrumentation on deeper tracks like “It’s Gonna Come Down on You,” “The Euphrates, “Wisdom” and “Say.”

Then Seals and Crofts let their fiercely held beliefs get the better of them. They took a calculated risk in 1974 when they released “Unborn Child,” which took a strong anti-abortion stance in the wake of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision a few months earlier. “Warner Brothers warned us against it,” said Seals. “They said, ‘This is a highly controversial subject, we advise that you don’t do this.’ But we said, ‘You’re in the business to make money; we’re doing it to save lives. We don’t care about the money.” The duo insisted the song’s message was simply “don’t take life too lightly,” and to reconsider abortion as an option. Conservative fans applauded their brave stance, but critics were merciless, and the controversy severely impeded their commercial momentum. The song stalled at #66, although the album of the same name did reasonably well at #14, thanks to other fine tunes like “Desert People” and “The Story of Her Love.”

“I figured either it (‘Unborn Child’) would be very much accepted on the strength of the song itself, or that it would be the biggest bomb that we ever had. But it was incidental by that point, because the music was gone. I was out of gas already,” Seals revealed years later.

Actually, Seals and Crofts continued making music throughout the ’70s, changing their style to match changing tastes. Singles like “I’ll Play For You” (1975), “Get Closer” (1976), “My Fair Share” (1977) and the disco-flavored “You’re the Love” (1978) kept them in the public eye, but the bloom seemed to be off the rose by 1980 when Warners dropped them and they called it quits.

Seals and his family subsequently split their time between their Tennessee home and their coffee farm in Costa Rica, only occasionally reuniting with Crofts for one-off shows, and one album in 2004 (“Traces”). A stroke in 2017 ended Seals’s public appearances.

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Alan White

In 1972, Yes was the biggest progressive rock band in the world. Riding high on the strength of “The Yes Album,” “Fragile” and the then-new opus “Close to the Edge,” the group was about to embark on a major U.S. tour when they found themselves in a serious quandary.

Bill Bruford, Yes’s brilliant drummer from the very beginning, had grown frustrated and impatient with the group’s internal squabbles and drawn-out songwriting/recording process. He decided to take a leap of faith and accept an invitation to become the drummer for prog rock pioneers King Crimson.

Yes needed a capable drummer, and fast. They turned to the most logical choice: Alan White, a prolific London session musician who had just completed a European tour in support of Joe Cocker. White had, in fact, been present during a Yes recording session a few months earlier for the track “Siberian Khatru,” filling in when Bruford had to leave early. White eagerly accepted, spent five intensive days learning the band’s concert setlist, including the dense, 20-minute “Close to the Edge,” and off he went.

Yes in 1973, with Alan White at lower right

White never looked back, holding on to the slot as Yes’s drummer for more than 40 years, through numerous personnel changes and reunions, more than 15 albums and nearly 30 tours.

White died May 26th at age 72 after a brief illness. He had already begged off participating in the upcoming Close to the Edge 50th Anniversary Tour.

As early as age 17, White was getting gigs with London area bands like Griffin and the Alan Price Set, and was called on to be the drummer in numerous studio sessions as well. Seemingly out of nowhere, in September 1969, White was approached by John Lennon to join him, Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton and Klaus Voorman for a quickly arranged trip to Toronto to perform as the Plastic Ono Band at a festival there. The appearance was captured and released as a live LP called “Live Peace in Toronto 1969.” Recalled White, “I thought for sure it was one of my mates pranking me, pretending to be Lennon, but it was the real deal. It was all very exciting for me.”

That experience brought about further collaborations between White and Lennon, including the early 1970 session for Lennon’s “Instant Karma!” single, and also some of the tracks for his #1 LP “Imagine” in 1971.

White in 2014

Following the death of bassist Chris Squire, one of Yes’s founders, in 2015, White became the band’s longest reigning member.

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Andy Fletcher

Despite being a founding member of Depeche Mode, one of the most successful and influential electronic music bands of the ’80s, ’90s and beyond, Andy Fletcher is not a widely recognized name, even among fans of rock music. He was not the lead singer or the main songwriter, and even he would have admitted that his instrumental and vocal contributions were relatively inconsequential.

Indeed, in a scene from a 1989 documentary about the band, Fletcher had this to say: “Martin (Gore) is the songwriter, Alan (Wilder) is the good musician, Dave (Gahan) is the vocalist, and I bum around.”

Depeche Mode, L-R: Andy Fletcher, Gahan, Gore, Wilder, circa 1988

Upon the band’s founding in the early ’80s, Fletcher played bass, synth bass and synthesizer, and supervised the use of sampling. By his own design, he took a supportive role in Depeche Mode, sometimes serving as a tiebreaker in group discussions. Fletcher was typically described as the group’s figurehead, playing a mostly managerial role, taking care of the business affairs of this entity that has sold more than 100 million records worldwide. “I’m the tall guy in the background, without whom this international corporation called Depeche Mode would never work.”

Fletcher died on May 26 at age 60. Cause of death has yet to be officially announced.

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We’re alone now and I’m singing this song for you

Compiling playlists of classic rock songs that share a given theme is one of my favorite leisure pastimes. Researching and whittling down a sizable selection of tunes into a diverse yet reasonably coherent playlist can be a fun challenge.

Songs about sleeping, driving, dancing. Songs about cars, food, money. Songs about gambling, dreaming, forgetting. Songs about fire, sex, magic.

Seems as if I’ve made lists about every topic. Wait — singing! How have I not made a playlist of songs about singing??

I’ve chosen 15 songs, mostly from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, with “sing” or “singing” in the title, followed by another 15-or-so “honorable mentions.” At the end, you’ll find my usual Spotify collection that combines them all in one 100-minute playlist to listen to as you read.

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“Sing a Song,” Earth, Wind and Fire, 1976

Written by EW&F frontman Maurice White, “Sing a Song” was the second of seven Top Ten singles the group charted in the US. As with most of the band’s repertoire, the lyrics to this effervescent tune are brimming with optimism and positive attitude, in keeping with White’s life philosophy: “When you feel down and out, sing a song, it’ll make your day, /Here’s a time to shout, sing a song, it’ll make a way, /Sometimes it’s hard to care, sing a song, it’ll make your day, /A smile so hard to bear, sing a song, it’ll make a way…”

“Sing Me Away,” Night Ranger, 1982

In the mid-’80s, Night Ranger scored five Top 20 singles and a couple of Top 20 albums as well, but their 1982 debut didn’t get the attention they were hoping for. Still, it was the infancy of MTV, and the group’s first music videos — “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me” and “Sing Me Away” — got airplay. Drummer Kelly Keagy took lead vocals on “Sing Me Away,” and it soon became a crowd pleaser during their live shows: “Sometimes I sit and I dream on for hours, sometimes my hours they turn into days, /I dream of a girl I once knew as a school boy, she is the one who could sing me away, /But she is a long ways away, and I want to be with her today…”

“And Your Bird Can Sing,” The Beatles, 1966

John Lennon said he liked the busy, twin-guitar arrangement of the music but was dismissive of the lyrics of this track from the band’s 1966 LP “Revolver.” “It’s one of my throwaways — fancy paper around an empty box,” he said in a 1980 interview. The words are certainly cryptic, and open to interpretation. Lennon’s ex-wife Cynthia claimed it was inspired by a gift she gave him of a clockwork bird inside a gilded cage, which Lennon saw as symbolic of their marriage and her failure to understand him. The song’s working title, by the way, had been “You Don’t Get Me.”

“I Shall Sing,” Van Morrison, 1970

When he was compiling tracks for use on his 1970 classic LP “Moondance,” Morrison wrote this exuberant song that, while infectious and fun, failed to make the cut for the album, but you can find it on the deluxe edition released in 2013. The vibrant horns and irrepressible beat are far more interesting than the simple lyrics, which are designed to be nothing more than, well, a singalong-type number: “I shall sing, sing my song, be it right, be it wrong, /In the night, in the day, any how, any way, I shall sing…”

“Sing, Sing, Sing,” Louis Prima, 1936

How ironic that a number entitled “Sing, Sing, Sing” is best known from its instrumental version as recorded by The Benny Goodman Orchestra in 1938, even though that outfit had the great Helen Ward as its vocalist. One of the quintessential examples of jump blues from the Swing Era, it was written and first recorded in 1936 by Louis Prima and his band, with Prima himself singing the lyrics, which are almost incidental to the musical structure and arrangement: “Sing, sing, sing, sing, everybody start to sing, /Like dee dee dee, bah bah bah dah, now you’re singin’ with a swing, /Sing, sing, sing, sing, everybody start to sing, /Like dee dee dee, bah bah bah dah, now you’re singin’ like everything…”

“When Smokey Sings,” ABC, 1987

The Europop dance band ABC had their biggest U.S. success with their 1987 single “When Smokey Sings.” Lead singer Martin Fry and guitarist/keyboardist Mark White co-wrote the soulful tribute to Motown singer/producer Smokey Robinson, who said in response, “Well, of course, it’s very flattering, and I really appreciate it.” The lyrics praise Robinson’s vocal delivery: “Like a bird in flight on a hot sweet night, you know you’re right just to hold her tight, /He soothes it right, makes it out of sight, and everything’s good in the world tonight, /When Smokey sings, I hear violins, /When Smokey sings, I forget everything…”

“Sing Child,” Heart, 1976

Ann and Nancy Wilson, on their own and in collaboration with guitarist Roger Fisher and bassist Steve Fossen, wrote the songs that made up Heart’s impressive 1976 debut LP, “Dreamboat Annie.” The hit singles “Magic Man” and “Crazy on You” are self-explanatory, but the deeper track “Sing Child” is less clear. To me, it sounds like they’re speaking about a songwriter who is reluctant to give voice to the tunes, deferring to others to sing them: “Sing child sing, sing child sing, /Melody maker, giver and taker, heartbreaker, /He want to sing, I know, try it again, /Sooner or later, he gonna break down and sing…”

“She Sings Songs Without Words,” Harry Chapin, 1974

Chapin was, first and foremost, a storyteller, weaving lengthy, multi-verse tales out of real and fictional characters, set to winsome melodies. On his popular “Verities and Balderdash” LP in 1974, he included the seemingly oxymoronic “She Sings Songs Without Words,” whose heroine gets her message through via her emotional presence: “The morning comes smiling and I laugh with no sound, and snuggle in silence and the sweet peace I’ve found, /And she sings the songs without words, songs that sailors and blind men and beggars have heard…”

“I Got a Right to Sing the Blues,” Sam Cooke, 1959

I won’t lie, I’m a sucker for blues and swing standards from the ’30s and ’40s. Harold Arlen, the musical brains behind the songs of “The Wizard of Oz,” teamed up with lyricist Ted Koehler in 1932 to write this marvelous tune for the Broadway musical “Earl Carroll’s Vanities.” It has since been sung by dozens of popular crooners, from Ethel Merman and Lena Horne to Louis Armstrong and Judy Garland. I’m partial to the late great Sam Cooke’s rendition from his 1959 LP “Tribute to The Lady,” a collection honoring Billie Holiday. It’s a classic tearjerker about a woman whose unhappy love life brings her nothing but woe: “A certain man in this little town keeps draggin’ my poor heart around, /All I see for me is misery, I got a right to sing the blues…”

“Sing,” Annie Lennox, 2007

I don’t typically reach up into the 2000s for tunes to feature here, but Lennox, a 1980s icon with The Eurythmics, wrote an exceptional song designed to help empower women around the globe who have no voice of their own. She enlisted the help of other women, including Madonna, to add their strong voices to the verses and chorus. One critic described the song, found on Lennox’s “Songs of Mass Destruction” album, as having “a killer hook, a big bad soul/gospel refrain, and a beat that, once it gets into the spine, will not be easily dismissed.” Here’s what the chorus preaches: “Sing, my sister, sing! Let your voice be heard, /What won’t kill you will make you strong, /Sing, my sister… sing!”

“Sing a Simple Song,” Sly and The Family Stone, 1968

When life gets you down, what do you do? Sylvester “Sly” Stewart advises, “Sing a simple song!” One of the pioneers of funk music, Sly and the Family Stone, had us up and dancing while preaching a positive message to us. The Supremes, the Temptations, even Prince and Miles Davis lined up to cover this tune from Sly’s 1968 LP “Stand!”, but the original still holds up best, with each band member taking turns singing lead vocals: “I’m livin’ livin’ livin’ life with all its ups and downs, I’m givin’ givin’ givin’ love and smilin’ at the frowns, /You’re in trouble when you find it’s hard for you to smile, a simple song might make it better for a little while…” 

“Singing All Day,” Jethro Tull, 1969/1972

In the pre-“Aqualung” years, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson was dabbling in a broad array of songwriting styles and genres. Some songs made it onto the two studio LPs of that time, “Stand Up” and “Benefit,” while others were singles in the UK only, or left unreleased. In 1972, Tull released the double LP “Living in the Past,” which gathered a smorgasbord of material from that earlier period. The quasi-jazz structure and arrangement of “Singing All Day” always appealed to me, though the lyrics seem a tad slight, talking about “singing ’bout nothing”: “Back to the house, maybe she’ll phone me, /Singing my song, feeling so lonely, /I’ll sing very softly, so if the phone rings, I can hear it, I can hear it, singing all day, singing `bout nothing…”

“Sing Me Back Home,” Merle Haggard, 1968

The first version I heard of this sad country song was as a deep bonus track on the 2000 compilation “Hot Burritos!”, a retrospective of the four-year career of The Flying Burrito Brothers, featuring Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman and Bernie Leadon. The Grateful Dead and The Everly Brothers also recorded it, but when I saw that it had been written by legendary country artist Merle Haggard (whose rendition was one of 35 (!) singles to reach #1 on the country charts in his lengthy career), I concluded I must defer to Haggard’s pretty original recording. Such a classic country lament by a prisoner on his way to the gallows: “Sing me back home with a song I used to hear, make my old memories come alive, /Take me away and turn back the years, sing me back home before I die…”

“The Song We Were Singing,” Paul McCartney, 1997

McCartney’s involvement in the successful “Beatles Anthology” albums and video project in 1995-96 served to remind him of the high standards The Beatles set for themselves. As a solo artist, McCartney had been guilty of releasing some frankly half-assed material that didn’t measure up, but in 1997, he seemed to have been prodded into upping his game, because his “Flaming Pie” LP that year was his best in 15 years. Lots of great tunes there, including the opener, “The Song We Were Singing,” with lyrics that make me smile: “For a while, we could sit, smoke a pipe and discuss all the vast intricacies of life, /We could jaw through the night, talk about a range of subjects, anything you like, /But we always came back to the songs we were singing at any particular time…”

“Singin’ in the Rain,” John Martyn, 1971

Martyn was a British singer-songwriter who received critical praise but not much commercial success. Artists like James Taylor and America recorded his songs (“Someone” and “Head and Heart,” respectively), but his albums and singles failed to chart. Too bad, because an LP like 1971’s “Bless the Weather” is worthy of our attention. In keeping with the album’s theme, Martin chose to include a brief cover of the title song from the 1951 Gene Kelly/Debbie Reynolds classic film “Singing in the Rain.” It’s a tender treatment of the fine “make the best of it” lyrics and happy-go-lucky melody.

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Honorable mention:

All the Children Sing,” Todd Rundgren, 1978; “Let Me Sing Your Blues Away,” The Grateful Dead, 1973; “And the Singer Sings His Song,” Neil Diamond, 1969; “To Sing For You,” Donovan, 1965; “Sing For the Day,” Styx, 1976; “Gonna Sing You My Love Song,” ABBA, 1973; “Sing Another Song, Boys,” Leonard Cohen, 1971; “Lady Sings the Blues,” Billie Holiday, 1956; “Sing Your Life,” Morrissey, 1991; “Sing a Song for You,” Tim Buckley, 1969; “Sing Our Own Song,” UB40, 1986; “And the Angels Sing,” Barry Manilow, 1994; “Every Time I Sing the Blues,” Buddy Guy with Eric Clapton, 2008.

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I feel I have to mention two tunes that are essentially children’s singalongs that I find annoying, but they sold a gazillion copies and became part of early ’70s culture, so I grudgingly list them here:

Sing,” The Carpenters, 1973; “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” The New Seekers, 1971

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