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