The Living Legends We Lost in 2016 – by Eric J. Lawrence
Our musical heroes are vivid players in our lives, often indispensable to our emotional wellbeing and, in ways, as familiar as family. They’re unusually dependable in this fast-changing world – one need only hit play and they’re there for us. Always.
Yet time takes its toll, and we are reminded that these songs that echo through our lives are made by real people with their own lives that, in a sometimes too real way, come to an end. The loss is profound.
A general consensus is that 2016 took a particularly high number of these familiar artists and from nearly every musical genre – from rock to jazz, from country to hip hop, from funk to classical. We fear it’s just a beginning, since so many of our modern musical heroes emerged as part of a generation. Most of the icons of the first wave of rock and roll are hitting the threshold of life expectancy (Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly would be in their early 80s had they not died young).
Still, math does little to soothe the ache. Those of us who are privileged to host music shows on KCRW have the opportunity to celebrate these artists above and beyond a quick spin of a ‘greatest hit’ or two. We can spend some time to more fully explore their discographies and put their importance and artistry into context. As hardcore music fans, this is a challenge and an honor; an emotional, cathartic experience. We share with you tributes to some of the great musical minds we have lost in 2016.
Musical chameleon David Bowie would release Blackstar – which proved to be the final album completed in his lifetime – on his 69th birthday. Recorded in secret, with even his collaborators unaware of the extent of his illness, the record felt like a triumphant, magisterial return from one of pop music’s most important and beloved artists. It made his death from liver cancer two days after its release all the more shocking, and only after we had a chance to listen (and look) more carefully to the record did we see that Bowie understood more about his situation than we knew. Already on its way to topping the Billboard Chart for the first time in his career, Blackstar hit #1 in dozens of countries in the wake of his passing, and landed as a near-ubiquitous selection on virtually every critical community’s “best albums of the year” lists. Various KCRW hosts celebrated the life and work of this legend throughout the first part of the year.
Listen to KCRW DJ David Bowie tributes here.
Prince Rogers Nelson, aka the one and only Prince, was one of the towering figures in pop music: A singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist who changed the face of the industry during the 80s in innumerable ways. While his later records may not have been as iconic as those of his heyday, his reputation as a live performer was unsurpassed, as he thrilled audiences from the Super Bowl and music festivals like Coachella, to small, unannounced club dates and weeks-long engagements at venues like the Forum. He was a true believer in the power of music, fighting corporate music industry interests and Internet monoliths for the sake of the artists and their work. His sudden death in April at the age of 57 robbed the world of one of its most passionate performers, a passion shared by KCRW DJs and listeners alike.
Listen to KCRW DJ Prince tributes here.
Bob Dylan’s surprising nod for the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature in October may have led to a spirited discussion regarding the relationship between song lyrics and poetry, but Leonard Cohen’s death less than a month later tended to make all the arguments against moot. Having spent a decade as a published poet and novelist, he embarked on a musical career at age 33. Cohen proved a master of the art, combining his witty, meditative, often-ironic lyrics with a deep, incantatory croon. While never prolific, a flurry of recordings in his final years, including this year’s You Want It Darker, demonstrated the 82 year old still had much to say. KCRW’s Chris Douridas conducted what would become Cohen’s final public interview on the eve of the release of his final album.
Miss Sharon Jones was one of the fieriest and infectious performers around, bringing back to life the soulful funkiness of classic ‘60s-era R&B and giving it her own modern spin. Beloved by fellow artists, the Grammy-nominated Jones’ fans and collaborators included such diverse talents as Lou Reed, Booker T. Jones, Michael Buble, David Byrne, Fatboy Slim, Phish and Prince. We knew of her struggles with cancer, which began in 2013 and to which she finally succumbed in November at the age of 60. Her loss is keenly felt at a time when we all need more empowering female voices in our lives. Thanks to her being a friend of the station, and a frequent guest on Morning Becomes Eclectic, we can relive the wonder and good vibes of Jones and her crack band, the Dap-Kings.
Listen to (or watch) all of Sharon Jones KCRW performances here.
Finally, we lost a key figure in the story of the most important band in the history of popular music. Sir George Martin, who died in March at the age of 90, had a hand in all of the Beatles’ albums and hit singles, to such a degree that even Paul McCartney acknowledged him to be essentially the “Fifth Beatle.” His innovative mind, studio mastery, and a rare openness to closely and creatively work with groundbreaking musicians who were a generation younger than he was, helped make their music timeless. If that weren’t enough, Martin produced numerous other hits, from such artists as Gerry & the Pacemakers, America, Jeff Beck, Kenny Rogers, Cheap Trick and Celine Dion, as well as two iconic James Bond themes: Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” and Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Live & Let Die.” Listen to an archival interview Chris Douridas did with the legendary producer here:
There were, sadly, many more musical losses in 2016. Perhaps a KCRW DJ shared the news with you, along with a memory and a song or two in recognition of the artist’s memorable life. As the year draws to a close, you, too, can pay tribute by exploring their work, which will stand the test of time for as long as music fans still cherish a great song. As 2016 comes to a close, we remember these men and women, and many more.
Paul Bley, jazz pianist
Long John Hunter, blues singer/songwriter
Pierre Boulez, classical composer & conductor
Otis Clay, R&B singer
Glenn Frey, member of the Eagles
Paul Kanter, co-founder of Jefferson Airplane
Maurice White, founder of Earth, Wind & Fire
Sonny James, Country Music Hall of Fame singer/songwriter
Nana Vasconcelos, Brazilian percussionist
Keith Emerson, member of Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Phife Dawg, member of A Tribe Called Quest
Gato Barbieri, jazz saxophonist
Merle Haggard, iconic “outlaw country” singer/songwriter
Lonnie Mack, blues/rock guitarist
Billy Paul, soul singer
Papa Wemba, Congolese king of “Rumba Rock”
Guy Clark, country/folk singer/songwriter
Thomas Fekete, from the band Surfer Blood
Bernie Worrell, keyboardist for Parliament-Funkadelic
Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley’s guitarist/right-hand man
Rob Wasserman, bassist for Lou Reed, etc.
Alan Vega, half of the band Suicide
Sandy Perlman, rock music producer
Glenn Yarbrough, folk singer
Bobby Hutcherson, jazz vibraphonist
Toots Thielemans, harmonica legend
Juan Gabriel, iconic Mexican singer/songwriter
Prince Buster, ska legend
Kashif, contemporary R&B keyboardist
Oscar Brand, folk music songwriter & broadcaster
Issa Bagayogo, Malian musician
Pete Burns, of new wave band Dead or Alive
Bobby Vee, 60s pop idol
Kay Starr, pop/jazz singer
Leon Russell, Rock & Roll Hall of Famer
Mose Allison, hip jazz singer & pianist
Greg Lake, also of Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Photos by: Scott Penner (Prince), Jonathan Kalan (Sharon Jones), kyonokyonokyono (flickr) (Leonard Cohen)