Gone but not forgotten

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.

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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.

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The songs of Christmases past

It’s Christmas Friday! How great is that?

The strangest Christmas ever for most of us has arrived. Many of us chose not to (or couldn’t) travel to be with our families, and some of us are all on our own for the holiday. But we’re making the best of it and try to be grateful for what we have, and that “this too shall pass.”

I have always maintained that one of the best ways to get through difficult times is to listen to your favorite music, or maybe some brand new music, or, at this time of year, seasonal music that cheers you up. My favorite rock music Christmas songs have been in rotation at my house for a month now, and perhaps at your house too.

In many cases, there are some interesting back-story details about these songs, and Hack’s Back Pages is happy to provide this information as you listen to the holiday playlist below. Merry Christmas!

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“I Believe in Father Christmas,” Emerson, Lake and Palmer, 1977

Emerson, Lake and Palmer were one of the most bombastic of the British progressive rock bands of the ’70s, with Keith Emerson’s virtuoso keyboards dominating their albums.  Each LP featured at least one commercial ballad by bassist/vocalist Greg Lake (“Lucky Man,” “From the Beginning,” “Still, You Turn Me On”).  In 1974, as a solo track, Lake collaborated with lyricist Peter Sinfield to write this piece, intended as a protest against the commercialization of Christmas.  Musically, it has a grandly traditional, hymn-like flair to it, thanks to Emerson’s suggestion to use a riff from Prokofiev’s “Lieutenant Kij√©’s Suite” (1934). Lyrically, though, it’s a bit dark. As Sinfield has said, “It’s about the loss of innocence and childhood belief. It’s a picture postcard Christmas song, but with morbid edges.” Lake’s solo recording reached #2 in the UK, but didn’t chart here. In 1977, ELP re-recorded it for their “Works Part II” album, and that’s the version you’re hearing here.

“Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, 1975

J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie teamed up back in 1933 to write this holiday favorite, which became an instant hit when performed on Eddie Cantor’s radio show the following December. Hundreds of recorded versions followed, from Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters to The Temptations and Neil Diamond. A version by The Four Seasons reached #23 on the charts in 1962, and Phil Spector included a rousing version by The Frystals on his Christmas collection in 1963. When Springsteen and his band recorded a performance of their rendition in 1975 at a small Long Island college, they used a modified arrangement of The Crystals’ version. It was released as part of the “In Harmony 2” package on Sesame Street Records in 1982, and again as the B-side of the “My Home Town” single in 1985. It had long been familiar to Boss fans through distribution to rock radio stations in the late ’70s, and the band has been featuring it for decades in its playlist any time they’re touring in late November and December.

“Run Rudolph Run,” Chuck Berry, 1958

In a November 1958 recording session, Berry and his backing band recorded two tracks: his new tune “Little Queenie” (which would be released as a B-side several months later with “Almost Grown”), and “Run Rudolph Run,” which was basically the same song with different lyrics, made up quickly in the studio by Marvin Brodie and Berry. The label rush-released “Run Rudolph Run” for the Christmas market, and it reached #28 on the charts that year. Both songs are melodically similar to Berry’s earlier signature song “Johnny B. Goode.” Since then, the song has been recorded by such big names as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Sheryl Crow, Cheap Trick, Grateful Dead, Foo Fighters, Jimmy Buffett, Brian Setzer Orchestra, Hanson and Foghat.

“Please Come Home for Christmas,” The Eagles, 1978

Blues pianist/singer Charles Brown co-wrote this track in 1960 with Gene Redd, and Brown’s recording made the charts that year. It remained a seasonal favorite each year throughout the 1960s, reaching #1 on a Christmas Singles chart in 1972. Six years later, as The Eagles were struggling to come up with the follow-up to their mega-platinum 1977 LP “Hotel California,” their label insisted they select something to release for the lucrative Christmas season. Glenn Frey, a blues rock aficionado, had always liked Brown’s song, so he brought it to the group’s attention, and they polished off a solid cover version, which reached #18 in 1978, the first Christmas single to make the Top 20 on the pop charts since Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Paper” in 1963. Bon Jovi had a popular version of “Please Be Home for Christmas” included on “A Very Special Christmas 2” collection in 1992.

“Father Christmas,” The Kinks, 1977

The hardest rocking tune on this list, and the least Christmassy, is this angry diatribe by Ray Davies and The Kinks.  They wrote this and recorded it in 1977, during punk rock’s heyday in England, as a screed about the unfair class system prevalent there, where rich kids got many Christmas presents while poor kids got none.  Davies sings of a gang of poor kids beating up on a department store Santa Claus, telling him they want his money, not toys. “Father Christmas, give us some money, /Don’t mess around with those silly toys, /We’ll beat you up if you don’t hand it over, /We want your bread so don’t make us annoyed, /Give all the toys to the little rich boys!…” Many punk and hard rock bands have covered it in recent years, from Green Day and Bad Religion to Warrant and Smash Mouth.

“Little Saint Nick,” The Beach Boys, 1963

It’s no secret to Beach Boys fans that there’s plenty of bad blood between Brian Wilson and cousin Mike Love that has kept the band in different camps on and off for decades. Sometimes the differences were artistic; for example, Love didn’t care for Wilson’s new direction with the songs on the universally praised 1966 LP “Pet Sounds.” Love also took exception to being excluded from songwriting credit for some of the classics in the band’s lucrative early catalog. The Christmas single “Little Saint Nick,” recorded in 1963 and borrowing heavily from their earlier Wilson/Love tune “Little Deuce Coupe,” was one such bone of contention. The original single indicates Wilson as its sole writer, but Love won back royalties and co-writer credit in a 1993 lawsuit. The song appeared on “The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album” in 1964 along with a dozen covers of traditional carols.

“Happy Xmas (War is Over),” John Lennon and Yoko Ono, 1971

Like so many Lennon tracks of his early solo period (“Cold Turkey,” “Instant Karma,” “Power to the People”), this unique “holiday protest song” was written and recorded quickly, this time to capitalize on the 1971 Yuletide season, but they were late getting it out. “Happy Christmas (War is Over)” never got past #42 in the US that year, but it was a Top Ten hit in Europe and #4 in the UK when released there for the 1972 holiday season. The song, which utilized the basic structure of the English folk song “Stewball,” was designed as an anti-war anthem mixed with untraditional Christmas tidings (“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?…”), bringing in the “War is Over if you want it” theme from past protests. John and Yoko used session musicians Nicky Hopkins on piano and Jim Keltner on drums, and brought in the Harlem Community Children’s Choir to add vocals to the chorus, all produced by Phil Spector. Following Lennon’s death in 1980, the track soared to iconic status and is now heard relentlessly every December.

“A-Soalin’,” Peter Paul & Mary, 1964

PP&M did a nice little trick in 1963 when they took a traditional English folk song, added a new verse by Paul Stookey with Christmas references and part of the “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” melody, and voila! A Christmas song for their repertoire. It’s a simply stunning performance which appears on their “Peter Paul and Mary In Concert” double live album in 1964 when the trio blend two acoustic guitars and their three voices. Lyrically, it sounds like it’s from some sort of soundtrack for a Charles Dickens tale. “A-Soalin'” is a variation on “A-Wassailing,” which is the practice of going door to door, singing a song and getting a small gift in return. These gifts were often fruit, candy or soul-cakes (or soal cakes) to commemorate the recently departed souls of family members… PP&M’s live recording in Paris in 1965 is on YouTube and should definitely be on your must-see holiday viewing list.

“Song for a Winter’s Night,” Gordon Lightfoot, 1967

Not so much a Christmas song as a wintertime song, its use of sleigh bells evokes fond memories of Christmases from the ’60s and ’70s when I first heard it.  Lightfoot wrote and recorded this beautiful tune in 1967 on a hot summer night in Cleveland. He was there while on a US tour and was missing his wife, and his thoughts turned to winter in Toronto. It appeared on his 1967 album “The Way I Feel” and was then one of several Lightfoot re-recorded in 1975 for his “Gord’s Gold” greatest hits collection, which is the one you’re hearing on my playlist.

“Christmas Song” and “Another Christmas Song,” Jethro Tull, 1969 and 1989

Of all the British rock artists of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, none has written and recorded as much Christmas-related material as Tull. Leader Ian Anderson is a self-confessed Yuletide fan, and as early as 1969, he wrote “Christmas Song,” which uses traditional imagery of “Royal David city” and cattle sheds, but also reprimands us about “stuffing yourselves at the Christmas parties” and reminds us that “the Christmas spirit is not what you drink.”  In the late ’80s, he wrote what amounts to a sequel, “Another Christmas Song,” which centers on a dying patrician who yearns for his estranged family to gather ’round one last time to celebrate the holidays. Both of these tracks are melodic and poignant.

“River,” Joni Mitchell, 1971

Deftly weaving in multiple musical phrases from “Jingle Bells” in both the introduction and the ending, Joni Mitchell created a marvelous piece that is regarded by many as a Christmas-related song, even though it’s actually more about the sorrowful breakup of a relationship she’d been having with Graham Nash.  Her Canadian roots are evident in the recurring line about how “I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”  Several of my close friends and family members share my fondness for this one. My daughter recorded a gorgeous cover of “River” a couple years ago with two musical colleagues. It’s available on YouTube for your viewing pleasure.

“Merry Christmas Baby,” Elvis Presley, 1971

Lou Baxter and Johnny Moore came up with this beauty back in 1947, and dozens of versions have been recorded since then, from Bruce Springsteen to Otis Redding, from Melissa Etheridge to B.B. King.  I’m torn between Elvis’s smokin’ rendition from his 1971 Christmas album and the sexy blues cover by Natalie Cole in 1994. Pretty much any version of this song is worthy of inclusion on your holiday mix, but in the end, you gotta go with Elvis…

“Pretty Paper,” Roy Orbison, 1963

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Willie Nelson struggled mightily to find a major label to sign him as a recording artist. In the meantime, he wrote songs which sometimes were made into hits by other artists. Most famously, he wrote “Crazy” for Patsy Cline, “Funny How Time Slips Away” for Billy Walker and “Pretty Paper” for Roy Orbison. Nelson was inspired by a disabled man he knew in Texas who sold paper and pencils on the street corner to eke out a living, and Nelson turned it into a Christmas-themed song by singing about wrapping paper. Orbison turned it into a #15 hit in 1963, and then Nelson recorded it himself after he was signed to RCA the following year.

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Band Aid, 1984

An amazing collaborative effort by the best of Britain’s pop scene at the time, including Sting, Phil Collins, Bono, the members of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, and Bob Geldof, who produced it and co-wrote it with Midge Ure.  Geldof and his wife had seen heartbreaking footage of the starvation in Ethiopia at that time and rallied their colleagues to put together this charity single, which not only raised needed funds but sparked “We Are the World” by USA for Africa and the Live Aid event the following summer. These and other efforts helped stem the tide of misery in that part of the world.  That’s what Christmas should be all about.