Dead Folks 2005, Music
A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.
Music fans, especially big band enthusiasts, love and respect Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. But if any were forced to take just one bandleader’s work to a desert island, or place the same CD or vinyl album in a time capsule, they might very well choose one by Artie Shaw (94). The clarinet-playing bandleader, in at least three recordings, offered definitive tracks of the swing era: the lilting “Frenesi” (a Shaw original last used to great effect in Woody Allen’s Radio Days), a flowing, magnificent arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” which practically blew Benny Goodman off the charts, and a stunning rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” one of the most instantly recognizable recordings in popular music. Another of Shaw’s compositions, “Nightmare,” is a sultry, gloomy three minutes that evolved into the distinctive sound of films noir, as the scores for countless detective thrillers and crime melodramas all hearken, in some way, to Shaw’s 1938 recording. Throw in the fact that Shaw was a virtuoso clarinetist with looks that made all the girls cry, and it’s understandable that in 1939 there wasn’t a bigger star in the music galaxy.
Shaw’s musical ability was not matched by an ability to win friends or influence people; he broke up bands almost as soon as they made the big time. He wasn’t an egotist, but as a pathological perfectionist he was often devoid of patience with anything or anybody. Oddly enough, that in no way prevented the exceedingly handsome musician from being a ladies’ man (Lana Turner and Ava Gardner are numbered among his many brides), nor did Shaw’s irascibility imply insensitivity. It was Shaw’s idea to work publicly with black composers and players (Billie Holiday was the band’s lead vocalist for a short while), and he was an outspoken advocate for black musicians throughout his career.
Nonetheless, he wasn’t called “the reluctant king of swing” for nothing. Shaw regarded celebrity as an impediment to creative excellence, so his public performances temporarily came to a halt just before 1940. He organized several other groups during the war years and began performing again, but he was never completely comfortable with touring. Although he was approaching new heights in the 1940s and 50s by moving away from swing and into jazz, in 1954 he simply walked away from the music scene to take up a number of other pursuits. —D.P.
Speaking of his collaboration with Bernstein (82), Martin Scorcese said, “It’s one thing to write music that reinforces a film, underscores it. It’s entirely another to write music that graces a film. That’s what Elmer Bernstein does, and that, for me, is his greatest gift.”
The gifted composer didn’t just create marvelous, memorable films scores; he elevated the lyric quality of incidental music in movies. Bernstein’s legacy includes more than 200 movie scores, 50 years in the film industry, and an inestimable influence on three generations of film composers. So engaging and appropriate were his best works that it is difficult to imagine certain films without their scores. The rousing theme to The Magnificent Seven (later the “Marlboro man” theme until cigarettes ads were banned from television) is a textbook example, being cowboy music par excellence; its distinct “great American West” motif derives from Aaron Copland, under whom Bernstein studied. The martial, upbeat march from The Great Escape (1963) is another instance where melody and tone perfectly suit subject and style. Yet if ever there was a movie score that defined a film’s style, it must be the pure jazz score (a first for a Hollywood film) for The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), a downbeat, gritty melodrama starring Frank Sinatra that dared to explore drug addiction. The first minutes of Bernstein’s gripping score pretty much establish that things aren’t going to go well.
Indeed, the composer had a natural ability to convey urban angst and mean-street sensibility, as the jazzy, sleazy themes for Sweet Smell of Success, Walk on the Wild Side, and Some Came Running indicate. Yet for minimal orchestration and gentle, lyric passages, Bernstein also displayed an innate skillfulness; the tender, wistful score for To Kill a Mockingbird is exhibit A in that regard. His music is also associated with Hollywood actors and icons, most obviously John Wayne, for whom Bernstein provided scores for The Sons of Katie Elder, True Grit, and several others. He worked with Martin Scorcese on seven projects, notably The Age of Innocence and The Grifters, the latter being an example of Bernstein’s interest in various offbeat and independent productions such as Rambling Rose, Far From Heaven, My Left Foot, and The Field.
Bernstein’s stunning versatility is apparent from this partial list of compositions: Hud, The World of Henry Orient, Animal House, The Gypsy Moths, An American Werewolf in London, The Carpetbaggers, The Great Santini, the ballet music for Oklahoma and Peter Pan, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, “The Films of Ray and Charles Eames,” and themes for “The Rookies,” “S.W.A.T.,” and “Ellery Queen.” —David Pelfrey
Last year when the record label Varese Sarabande announced the release of a series of film scores entitled “Jerry Goldsmith at 20th Century Fox,” orders started coming in the next day. The first run of the boxed set sold out nine days later. Put another way, everybody digs Jerry Goldsmith (75). His name might not ring a bell, but the motion picture scores and television themes Goldsmith arranged or composed for more than half a century certainly do. A deadly serious student of music since the age of six, Goldsmith learned classical piano and absorbed music theory before taking a film music class at the University of Southern California (under legendary composer Miklos Rosza, no less). Afterwards he landed a pretty good gig at CBS, where he scored several episodes of a show that was getting a lot of attention called “The Twilight Zone.” Dozens more television commissions came, but Goldsmith’s acquaintance with another famous film composer, Alfred Newman, led to his long career in motion pictures. He began as a contract composer for 20th Century Fox, and then basically established himself as the sound of the movies. Even a partial list of his film scores and television themes is daunting: Alien, L.A. Confidential, Planet of the Apes, Chinatown, Patton, Seconds, Logan’s Run, In Like Flint, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Omen, Papillon, Basic Instinct, The Boys From Brazil, Poltergeist, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” and “The Waltons.” —D.P.
Like any founding guitarist who’d been in classic—and still listenable—bands such as Siouxsie & The Banshees, Public Image, and Magazine, John McGeogh (48) had both gotten a day job (as a nurse) and was trying to record dance music by the end of the ’90s. That’s kind of a shame since McGeogh was probably one of the rare punks who really had the versatility to thrive as a session man. It’s certainly no secret that he was a huge influence on subsequent generations. At least to those funky punks who don’t try to get away with citing old blues guys as their heroes. —J.R.T.
He didn’t have many songwriting credits, and that’s probably not even him playing guitar on some of your later favorite Ramones songs. Still, Johnny Ramone (55) got to retire as the wealthiest member of the band because he had 100 percent of the merchandising rights. How did that happen? It’s a long story that certain people can’t wait to tell if certain long-awaited books don’t reveal the whole story. Suffice to say that Johnny benefited from being one of rock ‘n’ roll’s proud conservatives, cashing in on the hypocritical peacenik attitude of certain other band members. The greatest testimony to Johnny, however, is that he was always well-loved in the music community, even after expressing his support for President Bush while being inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. We lost him to prostate cancer, which leaves C.J. and Marky to helm various tribute nights in the future. Jeffrey’s somewhere out there, too. —J.R.T.
The younger brother of pianist Hank and trumpeter/bandleader Thad was a drummer who changed the way we hear jazz. Jones (77) played with major figures like Sonny Rollins and J. J. Johnson in the ’50s, but it was with the iconoclastic quartet of John Coltrane (1960-66) that Jones’ fluid, polyrhythmic blankets of sound found their ideal setting. Jones’ beat was implied more than defined, and although one always knew where it was, the surrounding percussive accents and colors were endlessly fascinating, opening up the rhythmic options for the other players unlike what any drummer had done before, even since. Coltrane greatly appreciated Jones: “I especially like his ability to mix and juggle rhythms. He’s always aware of everything else that’s happening. I guess you could say he has the ability to be in three places at the same time.” Jones played on Coltrane’s classic albums My Favorite Things and A Love Supreme; he led his own bands from 1967 until his death, incubating such talent as Joe Farrell, Dave Liebman, Nicholas Payton, Joshua Redman, and Ravi Coltrane early in their careers. His unique approach, seemingly limitless ideas, and sheer power led many to regard Jones as the world’s greatest drummer, and following a much-ballyhooed “battle” with Cream’s Ginger Baker in the early ’70s, Jones became something of a celebrity, even appearing in the cult film Zachariah. It’s hard to imagine anyone ever sounding like him again. —B.G.
The guy would’ve made an interesting footnote just for signing to Motown with bandmate Neil Young as the Mynah Birds back in the ’60s. Of course, Rick James (54) had to take a stranger path to fortune and disgrace. He finally got to make a record for Motown in 1978 and was a popular R&B star until the release of Street Songs in 1981. “Give It To Me Baby” and “Super Freak” were huge hits that made James briefly seem like another Prince in the rock-crossover sweepstakes. He was a steady performer through 1989—following his move to the Reprise label—but it still felt like nostalgia to the masses when MC Hammer sampled James for “U Can’t Touch This.” By then, James’ drug problems had plunged him into several embarrassing legal situations. He spent the ’90s with critics hoping for a comeback, but James’ last high profile moment was as a punch line in sketches on “The Dave Chappelle Show.” He was probably pretty happy with that, but any future opportunities—say, on VH1′s “The Surreal Life”—were lost after James’ death from a heart attack. At least he got to date Linda Blair. —J.R.T.
Tenor sax man Illinois Jacquet (82) was one of the jazz piledrivers: he typically hit his solos full throttle, with clearly developed musical phrases based in the sophisticated vocabulary of the great Lester Young, but run through a rough-edged dialect of Jacquet’s own creation. The latter included “honking,” later to be overdone by a multitude of R&B and rock horn players, and squealing in the altissimo range (i. e., above where the tenor is normally supposed to sound), an effect that was also subsequently overdone by lesser players. He became a star at 19 when he recorded a rousing solo on Lionel Hampton’s “Flying Home” (1942), and was a featured player in the Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts in the ’40s and ’50s. He also led a septet in that era that featured the likes of Fats Navarro and J. J. Johnson. After becoming the first jazz musician to serve a long-term residency at Harvard in the early 80s, Jacquet formed a his first big band, which had a big success, recording the irresistible Jacquet’s Got It (1987, Label M). Almost everyone who plays the tenor sax owes something to this guy. —B.G.
Lefty hipsters were pissed off that Ronald Reagan’s death overshadowed not only the death of Ray Charles but that Robert Quine’s death was completely squeezed out of all the NYC newspapers. To be fair, Quine (61) was an innovative guitarist and overaged punk who—while unable to make Richard Hell & The Voidoids sound interesting—went on to a stellar career enhancing (and occasionally saving) the work of artists such as Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull. Quine was depressed over the recent death of his wife, but don’t believe anyone who called his heroin overdose a suicide. If you want to see Quine in action, track down the 1983 concert DVD A Night with Lou Reed. —J.R.T.
One of the greats of jazz guitar, Kessell (80) was one of the first generation of guitarists influenced by Charlie Christian, and as an Okie from Muskogee (literally), the sole white member of local jazz bands. It was in that setting that he met Christian, perhaps the most influential jazz guitarist of all, and his direction was set. Kessell played in big bands (Artie Shaw’s, Charlie Barnet’s, and even Chico Marx’s), when Gjon Mili made the short film Jammin’ the Blues in 1944, Kessell was again the only white face, but since an integrated ensemble was not to be shown on the screen, he remained in shadow or silhouette.
Kessel became famous after recording with Charlie Parker (1947) and touring with Oscar Peterson (1952-1953), but it’s likely that many more people heard his studio recordings with pop artists, from Julie London’s “Cry Me a River” to his work with Elvis, Rick Nelson, and the Beach Boys, to numerous movies and TV shows. Phil Spector was his student and protégé; Kessel advised the young man to get into record production and later played on almost all of Spector’s big hits (“You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” et al.). He introduced Brian Wilson to the theremin that was used on “Good Vibrations” and Pete Townshend wrote a song in honor of Kessel after the latter’s 1969-70 residency in London. Throughout, Kessel found time to make numerous jazz recordings, and from 1976 on toured with Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd as The Great Guitars. —Bart Grooms
There was a brief window of opportunity in the late ’70s when lite-pop songwriters discovered they could put on a skinny tie and seem vaguely cool while turning out mellow sounds. Randy VanWarmer was able to break through with the modest hit “Just When I Needed You Most”—modest in its humble wimpiness, that is. The song still made it to number four on the Billboard charts. The solo career went downhill from there, but VanWarmer (48) was already establishing himself as a hit songwriter for country acts. The band Alabama scored with “I’m in a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why),” one of VanWarmer’s earliest compositions. VanWarmer would spend most of his subsequent career in Nashville—including a brief comeback as a solo artist in 1988—although he was settled in Seattle when he finally succumbed to leukemia. —J.R.T.
Jerry Scoggins’ (93) rendition of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme song from “The Beverly Hillbillies,” is one of the best known musical motifs in television history. The show originally ran from 1962 to 1971, with 60 million viewers at one point. Accompanying Scoggins on the theme were bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. —E.R.
As king of the Nashville studio guitarists, Hank Garland (74) was in constant demand. Switching effortlessly between jazz and country, he played with an impressive list of performers ranging from Elvis Presley to Roy Orbison to Patsy Cline to Charlie Parker. He pioneered the use of the electric guitar at the Grand Ole Opry. A 1961 car wreck left Garland in a coma for months. When he regained consciousness, he received more than 100 electroshock treatments that forced him to relearn not only how to play the guitar, but also how to walk and talk again. —E.R.
Many people wanted to kill Terry Melcher (62) for co-writing “Kokomo” with the Beach Boys, but Charles Manson had a personal grudge against Doris Day’s son. As an A&R man in the wake of his early days guiding The Byrds, Melcher passed on Manson as a recording artist. Charlie was also still pissed about the Beach Boys altering his song “Cease to Exist,” so Melcher’s association with the band didn’t help matters. Anyway, Melcher moved out of the house he was renting, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate moved in, and the speculation continues about how things might have changed if Charlie had kept his address book up-to-date. Melcher kept working with some of the great pop acts of the era, and the ’60s lost a key figure when the California icon passed away from cancer. —J.R. Taylor
He could have retired in 1942 as a brilliant arranger, but Billy May (87) was lured away from his staff position at Capitol Records to provide Frank Sinatra with some of his most unforgettable and brassy settings. The association began with “Come Fly With Me” in 1957 and continued to the end of the ’70s. —J.R.T.
Every would-be star who has attempted to play a screaming guitar solo is intimately familiar with Ernie Ball Slinky guitar strings and their neon-colored packages. Endorsed by the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and a million other rock stars, Ernie Ball strings are sold in more than 5,500 music stores in the United States and 75 other countries. They were made to be stretched, but, inevitably, they do break, thereby simultaneously rendering them the most revered and cursed guitar string in the world. Ball was 74. —Ed Reynolds.
As one half of the duo Jan and Dean, Jan Berry (62) and partner Dean Torrence pioneered the surf music sound with hits such as “Dead Man’s Curve,” “Surf City,” and “The Little Old Lady (From Pasadena).” Berry had been in poor health for much of his life after suffering brain damage in a car crash in 1966. —E.R.
Al Dvorin was the concert emcee who made the phrase “Elvis has left the building” a staple of pop culture. The 81-year-old Dvorin was thrown from his car following an accident on a California desert highway after delivering his famous line at the conclusion of an Elvis impersonator contest. —E.R.
Estelle Axton (85) was the “ax” in Stax Records, which she started with her brother James Stewart (he was the “St”). Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes, and the Staple Singers were just a few on the Stax roster of hitmakers. Her son Packy Axton was saxophonist for the Mar-Keys, an instrumental group on the label that often accompanied the singers. She later took over her son’s record label Fretone Records, whose only hit was in 1976 with the novelty “Disco Duck” by Rick Dees. —E.R.
Leader of The Prisonaires, a singing group composed of black Tennessee State Penitentiary inmates that put Sun Records on the map with the hit “Just Walkin’ in the Rain,” Johnny Bragg (79) and his fellow convicts traveled under heavy guard to Memphis to record in 1953. In 1961, Elvis Presley visited Bragg (who had been convicted of rape in 1943), in prison. The Prisonaires were among the first rhythm and blues groups to have hit records in the South. —E.R.
As a bandleader who made the steel guitar popular during the swing era, Rey (95) billed himself as “King of the Guitar.” Rey had a hit in 1942 with “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” —E.R.
To discerning music fans, John Peel (65) was best known as the legendary BBC radio DJ who promoted any number of really forgettable ’80s acts via assorted live “Peel Sessions” releases. There’s certainly no denying that Peel got really excited about way too many forgettable art/punk/new-wave/grunge acts over the years. In his defense, though, Peel would often just as easily lose interest in the struggling acts that he would grace with needed airplay. At least he was always interested in new acts, which was pretty good for a guy who’d been spinning discs since 1965. Peel could legitimately claim much credit for breaking acts ranging from David Bowie to The Smiths. —J.R.T.
Lacy Van Zant
He couldn’t match the output of Olivia Osmond, but Lacy Van Zant (89) made an impressive musical contribution through his rockin’ DNA. This ultimate band parent oversaw the Southern Rock dynasty of Ronnie, Johnny, and Donnie—which covers two Lynyrd Skynyrd vocalists (one, sadly, deceased) and a member of the underrated .38 Special. Van Zant worked hard to help out his kids in their early musical years, and his home also served as a museum. Lacy looked the role, too, with a long white beard and a penchant for overalls. If his image hasn’t been put on an album cover, it should be. —J.R.T.
She was pretty much forgotten at the time of her death, but Timi Yuro (63) cast a striking figure while ruling the early ’60s charts with gloriously overwrought tunes such as “Hurt” and “I Apologize.” Despite the exotic name, she was pure American pop. Still, it didn’t even help her career when Morrissey singled her out as his favorite vocalist in the 1984 tour program for the Smiths’ Meat is Murder tour. While the subject matter helped, Morrissey might have also been influenced by Yuro’s bizarre ability to look androgynous even when dolled up in evening gowns. —J.R.T.
Lizzy Mercier Descloux
She made some forgettable Parisian punk, but Lizzy Mercier Descloux (47) went out as a goddess to French hipsters. The very young gal was hanging out in NYC during the days of the New York Dolls, and she made it back to Paris in time to start up a pioneering punk clothing boutique. Descloux eventually went into the studio with her musician pals to record two fairly useless albums at the end of the ’70s. (This past year’s CD reissues reminded us why she was promoted mainly as a moody sex symbol.) Nobody was paying much attention to Descloux when she suddenly came up with an international chart hit in 1984. “Mais où sont passées les gazelles” was recorded with South African musicians about two years before Paul Simon got the idea, and the World Music genre was suddenly off and running. Descloux didn’t benefit much, though. Her major-label career was over by the ’90s, and she had moved on to a successful career as a painter before succumbing to cancer. —J.R.T
From 1964 to 1966, Alfred George Bicknell (75) chauffeured The Beatles to concerts and other appearances. The inspiration for the song “Drive My Car,” Bicknell wrote the 1999 autobiography Ticket to Ride: The Ultimate Beatles Tour Diary!, in which he recalled the moment John Lennon reportedly snatched his chauffeur’s cap from his head and declared, “You don’t need that anymore, Alf. You are one of us now.” After The Beatles ceased touring, the former circus clown began driving business executives. A chainsaw accident ended his driving career in 1980, and he joined a Beatles convention circuit giving speeches and selling memorabilia. —E.R.
One of the few women who serve as both a footnote and a legend, Skeeter Davis (72) spent her very long career skirting the pop and country markets. She started out as a rockabilly pioneer with her partner Betty Jack Davis, in 1953, before the duo ended up in an automobile accident that left her as a solo act. It took another decade before she finally became a huge solo star with “The End of the World.” Her public profile would later be that of a one-hit wonder. Within the Nashville scene, though, Davis was much admired and often sought out for duets. She aged pretty well, too, as NRBQ bassist Joey Spampinato noticed when he began courting her back in the ’80s. —J.R.T.
You can find at least two CD booklets from the ’90s that refer to the late Arthur Kane, while others believed that the New York Dolls’ bass player had simply disappeared after a jilted groupie cut off his thumbs. The only person who seemed willing to insist that Kane (55) was still alive was Keith Richards, and everybody probably thought that was just a hallucination. Anyway, Kane made a triumphant reemergence with his old band in 2004, after Morrissey invited the Dolls to perform at a UK music festival he was curating. Sadly, Kane succumbed to leukemia before the Dolls could follow up with any American dates. —J.R.T