Dead Folks 2011: Music


Jane Birkin and John Barry (click for larger version)
January 26, 2012

John Barry

Technically speaking, composer and five-time Oscar winner John Barry scored 111 motion pictures, most notably 11 of the James Bond movies, starting with Dr. No and ending with The Living Daylights. But from a larger, cultural perspective, it’s fair to say that Barry—like Burt Bacharach, Herb Alpert, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and several others—helped write the soundtrack to the 20th century.

That may be because Barry was composing engaging, infectious melodies for movies at a time when radio stations had theme songs and film scores in regular rotation. No one needed to see Midnight Cowboy in 1970 to memorize its haunting, lonesome theme. And for better or worse, the theme from Born Free was in the mix as well. At the top of any John Barry playlist, of course, would be the composer’s personal favorite, the theme from Goldfinger. The most famous of the Bond themes boasts an unmatched brass attack with the last three of the melody’s first six notes (wah waaaah wah!). That was a trademark device in many of Barry’s scores, and a method he learned from his big band idol, Stan Kenton.

The bold, brassy sound colored numerous scores, but Barry added some key elements that came to define the international-man-of-mystery music associated with Cold War-era spy thrillers. Omnipresent in themes for The Quiller Memorandum, The Ipcress File, the James Bond pictures, or the television series “Vendetta” and “The Persuaders,” was the gloomy twang of zithers, dulcimers, and other Eastern European stringed instruments, the chilling blast of a few off-kilter notes, and sometimes the futuristic timbre of the Moog synthesizer. All those elements blended into what might be called the music of espionage, or perhaps the ultimate score for international intrigue everywhere, for all time. Did Barry know anything about the KGB, the CIA or MI6? Probably not, but he essentially composed for each agency a theme song in case they needed one.

In many instances, Barry’s scores were also excellent pop music. The title track for You Only Live Twice was understandably a huge hit for Nancy Sinatra (and later, thanks to a portion of the melody, for Robbie Williams with “Millennium”). Shirley Bassey made a career from the title track for Goldfinger. Yet apart from Barry’s success with the Bond series, he was also laying down innovative, sometimes bizarre, but decidedly cool scores for The Knack and How to Get It, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, The Wrong Box, Boom, The Appointment, and dozens of others. Today, young music enthusiasts might think they haven’t heard much of Barry’s music, but if they listen to Sneaker Pimps, Portishead, Grantby, Pulp, Broadcast, or countless electronica acts, then they have actually heard a lot of John Barry.

As if providing a distinctive sound to a certain era were not enough, Barry was equally prolific in the late 1970s through the late ’80s, creating memorable scores for films that often didn’t deserve them (Somewhere In Time, Night Games, The Black Hole, Dances With Wolves, Jagged Edge). He’ll be remembered for the spy stuff, no doubt, along with the cool, jazzy touches in his music that he matched with a lifestyle. Barry drove a Jaguar E-type, married swinging sixties icon and actress Jane Birkin, and wore expensive tailored suits. He was available for photo shoots—anytime, anywhere. Today you can’t find many people who might recognize Barry, but everybody knows that sound. (77) —DP

Don Kirshner

The legendary songwriters working out of New York City’s Brill Building during the ’50s and ’60s included Neil Sedaka, Carole King, and Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil. They were all working for Don Kirshner. He ran Aldon Music with his partner while also producing and promoting young talents such as Bobby Darin and Neil Diamond. Kirshner might have continued behind the scenes if he hadn’t begun consulting for television series in the mid-’60s. He contributed some classic rocking scenes to “Bewitched,” but Kirshner really raised his profile when he helped launch “The Monkees” in 1966. Kirshner oversaw the song selection for the band’s first two albums and helped give the pre-fab band a slew of genuine chart-topping singles.

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Kirshner, however, would soon find himself at odds with the genuinely talented Monkees as they began to insist on selecting their own songs and playing their own instruments. The Monkees would go on to make some of the best albums of the ’60s, but they never regained the record sales after Kirshner was kicked out of the Monkee machine in 1967. (His final fireable offense was releasing the hit “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” without corporate permission.)

Among other conflicts, Kirshner couldn’t convince The Monkees to record a pop tune called “Sugar, Sugar.” He then ditched the human element by forming a pop group out of the cartoon characters from the Saturday morning hit “The Archie Show.” “Sugar, Sugar” would become the The Archies’ huge debut single in 1969, and the fictitious band would go on to record plenty of hits. Some other animated acts bombed, but Kirshner would become a real-life cartoon as the leisure-suited, deadpan host of “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.”

YouTube is full of vital clips from the show’s 1973 to 1982 run—including performances by Kansas, who enjoyed their ’70s success on the Kirshner label. (Paul Shaffer would famously parody his old boss in a few classic “Saturday Night Live” skits.) Kirshner essentially retired at the end of the ’80s, and it was hilarious when his son and daughter took over the “Rock Concert” hosting duties with the same stiff demeanor. Kirshner retired in style, too, since his publishing company had picked up everything from classic Broadway musicals to the Beatles catalogue. Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, however, seems to have extended his Monkees vendetta to also keeping Kirshner out of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Kirshner still got to enjoy one final bow when the Songwriters Hall of Fame stretched their usual qualifications to honor him in their 2007 induction ceremony. (76, heart failure) —JRT

Nick Ashford

Nick Ashford liked to stroll the streets and pick up the latest lingo—which made him different from most millionaire songwriters. He was easily recognized while walking around New York, too. As performers, Ashford and his wife Valerie Simpson scored plenty of R&B hits on their own. As songwriters, they were a constant presence on the R&B and pop charts with hits such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Reach Out And Touch Somebody’s Hand” for Diana Ross, as well as Chaka Khan’s anthemic “I’m Every Woman.” Ashford & Simpson also wrote the biggest hits for the duo of Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell. “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” is the enduring classic, although “Ain’t No Mountain” was mostly known as a Gaye & Terrell tune before Miss Ross’ version came along.

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And then Ashford went out walking one day and heard a familiar word becoming modern slang. He went home to Valerie and they began to write what would become their own big crossover hit. “Solid” would go to #1 on the U.S. R&B charts, fall just short of the Top Ten on the pop charts, and land the duo a big hit in the UK. Ashford & Simpson made only two more ’80s albums, though, and spent the ’90s indulging themselves as NYC bar owners and DJs. The couple also hit the local cabaret circuit to showcase their timeless pop instincts in a stripped-down setting. Ashford would pass away the same day as his fellow hitmaker Jerry Leiber. Plenty of obituaries paired the duo, and the Grammys will do the same for a tribute on February 12. (70, throat cancer) —JRT

Jerry Leiber

In 1950, Jerry Leiber teamed with Mike Stoller when someone suggested that he find a piano player to put his words to music. The pair penned classics such as “Stand By Me,” “On Broadway,” and “Hound Dog”—the latter for blues singer Big Mama Thornton in 1952. The song later became Elvis Presley’s 1956 signature hit. “Hound Dog” took 12 minutes to write, Leiber said. In the late ’50s, Leiber and Stoller moved to New York City to join the Brill Building songwriting factory. Their contributions to popular music, and even the cheesy, hip-shaking 1960s pop classic “Love Potion No. 9,” are legendary. (78, heart attack) —ER

Clarence Clemons

As sax player for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Clarence Clemons’ imposing frame and dynamic horn playing made him a popular onstage personality. Clemons began playing with Springsteen in 1972. His melodic hooks and powerful blasts were a highlight of Springsteen’s sound, especially during the early phase of their career. As a 6 foot 4 inch, 250-pound college football star, Clemons tried out for the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns until a knee injury ended any pro football dreams. One of his finest musical moments is his dramatic solo on “Jungleland,” the closing track on Born to Run. According to Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau, Clemons spent 16 hours perfecting the part. (69, stroke) —ER

Andrea True

Tennessee-born Andrea True was enjoying the glamorous life of a ’70s porn star when she found herself stuck in Jamaica with money she couldn’t take out of the country. She called in a record producer from NYC, went into a local recording studio, and invested her stalled cash in the making of a disco anthem called “More More More (How Do You Like It).” Suddenly, the star of Deep Throat Part II and Psyched For Sex was topping the charts with a dance anthem. The frontwoman of the Andrea True Connection was singing about what she knew, too. Anyone paying attention to the song’s lyrics would find that Andrea was dedicated to entertaining you as more than just a disco diva—explaining that “if you want to know/how I really feel/just get the cameras rolling/get the action going.”


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Not too surprisingly, True decided to retire from porn in 1977. The Andrea True Connection would go on to make three albums and just a few horrible songs. Her sneering take on Lou Reed’s “Sally Can’t Dance” remains neglected, although her attempt at reggae was pretty painful. True would later end up in Florida as a drug counselor with a sideline in astrology. She continued to get royalties from “More More More,” though—and even had a career revival when her hit was sampled by the band Len for the 1999 hit “Steal My Sunshine.” (64, heart failure) —JRT

Andrew Gold

He wasn’t a one-hit wonder, but Andrew Gold would have been a lot better off as one. “Lonely Boy” certainly stood out as a bizarre piano-driven pop tune in 1977. It was an overdue breakthrough for the longtime session musician who had become best known for backing Linda Ronstadt. The showbiz scion (son of Oscar-winning composer Ernest Gold and vocalist Marni Nixon) had established himself as a potential Elton John when Leo Sayer covered his “Endless Flight” in 1976. Unfortunately, the What’s Wrong With This Picture? album didn’t muster up a second single—although “One of Them Is Me” would later be rediscovered as a haunting fern-bar classic.

Gold then went full-tilt cornball for on 1978′s All This and Heaven Too, which featured the hateful giddiness of “Thank You for Being a Friend.” The song would keep paying off for Gold as the theme to “The Golden Girls.” Not many people recognized Gold singing the opening theme to “Mad About You” for most of the ’90s. He spent his later years fooling around in his home studio and creating elaborate power-pop homages to his main influences. (59, cancer) —JRT

Ferlin Husky

Ferlin Husky was the first of three country music giants to emerge from Bakersfield, California. (The other two were Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.) Husky’s silky voice perfectly complemented the new “Nashville Sound” that caught on in 1956 with his record “Gone.” Husky pioneered the revolutionary style, which featured a smooth, orchestral approach to country music that boosted the genre’s record sales at a time when Elvis Presley had unleashed a new sound called rock & roll. (85, poor health for years) —ER

Marshall Grant

As Johnny Cash’s original bass player from 1954 to 1980, Marshall Grant joined guitarist Luther Perkins in the Tennessee Two to create Cash’s distinctive “boom-chika-boom” sound. A non-drinker, Grant was often required to babysit a drug-fueled, out-of-control Cash to make sure that he arrived at gigs on time. Cash fired him in 1980 after a series of disputes. Grant retaliated with a lawsuit for wrongful termination and embezzlement of retirement money. It was settled out of court. He and Cash made up in 1999 when the bassist rejoined him on stage. (83) —ER

Ralph Mooney

Pedal steel guitar great Ralph Mooney played with Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings for years. His gushing steel guitar lines on Buck Owens’ hits defined the Bakersfield, California, sound that Owens perfected along with Haggard. Mooney also wrote the Patsy Cline classic “Crazy Arms.” (82, cancer) —ER

Lee Pockriss

As co-writer of the 1960 pop hit “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” Lee Pockriss was a component of the cultural upheaval that resulted when sexual mores retreated amid an onslaught of bikinis and mini-skirts. The song title alone was titillating. Pockriss had earlier written “Catch a Falling Star” for Perry Como in 1957. He also wrote “My Polliwog Ways” for Kermit the Frog. (87) —ER

Gladys Horton

In 1961, Gladys Horton of the Marvelettes sang “Please Mr. Postman”—the Motown label’s first number one hit. Horton started the group with classmates Georgeanna Tillman and Katherine Anderson, among others. Horton was often credited as only a co-founder but original Marvelette Anderson says Horton deserves all the credit. “We only started singing together because Gladys asked us,” she recalled. “Usually we’d go to Georgeanna’s house and play canasta.” (65, poor health for years) —ER

Eddie Burris

Tulsa native Eddie Burris played drums for Merle Haggard’s band The Strangers from the early ’60s until 1970 when he quit to become a truck driver. Credited as co-writer on Haggard’s love-it-or-leave-it ode to America, “Okie from Muskogee,” he said the song originated on Haggard’s tour bus in 1969 as a reaction to the turmoil gripping the country at the time. “Merle had seen a signpost that said ‘Muskogee: 17 miles,’ and he already had the first two or three lines wrote,” Burris told the Tulsa World. “I was in bed. He woke me and we finished it in about 10 minutes.” (79, failing health) —ER

Roger Williams

Mr. Easy Listening was a target of ridicule by many music critics. Pretentious yet pedestrian, pianist Roger Williams nevertheless created gorgeous, irresistible music that, by osmosis, snuck into the heads of listeners who loathed him. Williams’ renditions of classics were labeled “lush” and “elevator music.” The sentimentality of his piano arrangements were well evident in his two most popular recordings—”Autumn Leaves” and “Born Free.” He “virtually transformed the piano into a harp,” noted music historian Joseph Lanza in his book Elevator Music, writing that Williams “cultivated a flair for making dramatic sweeps from classical to jazz to country to soft rock & roll.” Beginning with Harry Truman, nine presidents invited him to the White House to entertain guests. (80, pancreatic cancer) —ER

Charlie Louvin

Born in rural Alabama, The Louvin Brothers—Charlie and Ira—are revered as one of the great country music vocal duos of all time. Singing in a slightly updated Depression-era style inspired by the Blue Sky Boys, the Louvin Brothers’ lonely Appalachian sound and intricate harmonies influenced a generation of country rockers, pre-dating the Everly Brothers by several years. Their songs ran the gamut from religious numbers such as “The Christian Life” (which was covered on The Byrds/Gram Parsons collaboration Sweetheart of the Rodeo) to horrifying murder ballads like “Knoxville Girl.” They even sang a Cold War-anthem, “Great Atomic Power.” Declining record sales and Ira’s drinking ended their act in 1963. Two years later Ira was killed in a car accident. Charlie reportedly kept a photo of the wreckage on his mantel for years. He went on to further success, placing 16 singles on the Country Top 40 over the next ten years.


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His real name was Charlie Elzer Loudermilk. He and Ira were first known as the Radio Twins, and then changed their last name to Louvin because they thought Loudermilk sounded too awkward. Discussing his brother’s absence after so many years singing together, Charlie Louvin once told NPR’s Terry Gross: “When it comes time for the harmonies to come in, I will move to my left because my brother and I always used to use one microphone,” he said of performing solo. “Even today, I will move over to the left to give the harmony room, knowing in my mind that there’s no harmony standing on my right.” (83, pancreatic cancer) —ER

Dobie Gray

We can still only guess at his real name, but the man who became Dobie Gray spent the early ’60s in L.A. as the typical sharecropper’s son looking to make it as a soul singer. He had already gone through a host of aliases before meeting Sonny Bono. Thatwhen the unknown began recording regularly as Dobie Gray, with the name sticking when he finally scored a hit with “The In Crowd” in 1965. “See You at the ‘Go-Go’” was a strong follow-up, but Gray was floundering again by the ’70s. Then he went to Nashville to record an album with Paul William’s brother Mentor, who also did a little songwriting on the side. Mentor had a tune called “Drift Away” that would return Gray to the top of the charts in 1973.

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Gray’s next few albums drifted toward country music, and he enjoyed much more success internationally than in the U.S. In another unexpected move, Gray—who never had a hit with something he’d written himself—ended up in demand as a Nashville songwriter. He continued to tour all over the world (including an apartheid-busting concert in South Africa) and recorded into the ’90s. Uncle Kracker brought Gray back to the pop charts with a duet on “Drift Away” that gave the old-timer one last hit in 2003. (probably 71, cancer) —JRT

Gerard Smith

In 1995, there was a gutter-rock band in NYC called Surgery who had an album out on Atlantic. The lead singer died suddenly from what turned out to be an asthma attack. That taught a lot of people not to assume that a musician is always dead from a drug overdose. It would then take a while before Gerard Smith came along as a particularly tragic reminder. The bassist and keyboardist for TV On The Radio—which had played Bottletree the same year they were filling theaters in NYC—had lung cancer, and the band had actually announced Smith’s medical condition about a month before his death. (In a particularly classy move, TVOTR noted that Smith had a fine health plan and was getting good care.) Smith’s death still came as a big surprise, since TVOTR continued to book shows. It was both a personal and artistic loss, since anyone who saw Smith play live could understand how the band had finally managed a cohesive mix of their heavy psychedelia and hip-hop beats. (36, lung cancer) —JRT

Gerry Rafferty

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Gerry Rafferty was one of the music biz’s biggest unknowns when he emerged as a solo artist with 1978′s “Baker Street.” The Scotsman had already enjoyed success in England as Billy Connolly’s partner in the Humblebums, and had international success with Joe Egan when “Stuck In The Middle With You” became a hit for Stealers Wheel. That band had a tough breakup, though, and it took a lot of legal maneuvering before Rafferty could strike out on his own. “Baker Street” helped City to City top the charts as his U.S. solo debut, and the entire album had lots of catchy tunes. (“Right Down The Line” instantly prevented Rafferty from being a one-hit wonder.) Rafferty then promptly derailed his career momentum by refusing to tour America. He’d chart with two more singles (“Get It Right Next Time” and “Days Gone Down”) from next year’s Night Owl album, but a reputation for being difficult soon had Rafferty bouncing from label to label.

The closest Rafferty would get to a comeback occurred when Quentin Tarantino used “Stuck In The Middle With You” for a memorable scene in Reservoir Dogs. He make the UK papers after becoming the subject of a missing persons report in 2008, but Rafferty eventually reemerged in fine—if not exactly sober—shape. It wasn’t too much of a surprise when he passed away at the start of 2011. (63, liver failure) —JRT

Gil Scott-Heron

He gifted hack writers with the phrase “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” but Gil Scott-Heron’s career also provided the gift of harsh perspective. Scott-Heron was barely in his 20s when he emerged from the Bronx as a beat poet bringing soulful melodies to black bohemia. His early ’70s work paired him with musician Brian Jackson on gorgeous, jazzy funk tunes that could, fairly enough, establish Scott-Heron and Jackson as the true fathers of hip-hop and neo-soul. Scott-Heron certainly deserves credit for his quick transition from spoken-word artist to dynamic soul man, and he was initially fearless about confronting the failings of the black community as part of society’s downfall.

Scott-Heron was set to stay relevant into the ’80s when he recorded the lovely “Angel Dust” and “The Bottle” after splitting from Jackson in 1978. He was pretty much unable to get a record deal by 1985, though—partly due to an obsession with Ronald Reagan that didn’t translate into smart ideas. Sadly, Scott-Heron wasn’t just falling prey to political simplicity. He had also fallen into a deadly culture that he had once so eloquently warned against.


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An attempted comeback album with 1993′s Spirits soon demonstrated that it wasn’t just Heron’s voice that had become ravaged with time. He would go on to spend several years as Manhattan’s most high-profile crackhead. A second comeback in 2007 was interrupted by yet another drug bust—and accompanied by the announcement that Scott-Heron was HIV-positive. He managed one last album with 2010′s I’m New Here, which was Goth folksiness mixed with sad mutterings.

Scott-Heron still had enough of his old spirit to begin to wonder whether it was a good thing to be credited as a forefather of rap. It’s certainly understandable that this year’s posthumous memoir The Last Holiday conveniently ends with Scott-Heron enjoying his artistic heyday. There was never an official cause of death released after he passed away at the start of last summer, but you certainly have your choices. (62, probably pneumonia but maybe drugs or some other HIV-related thing . . . seriously, take your pick) —JRT

Joseph Brooks

Anyone who endured the 10-week stretch in 1977 when Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” topped the charts was wishing songwriter Joseph Brooks a particularly miserable death. Some wishes come true. Brooks was already established as a jingle writer (including some classic work with Pepsi and Maxwell House) when he decided to follow Barry Manilow’s path into showbiz. He wrote and directed the dopey romance film You Light Up My Life, in which a young female ventriloquist learns to embrace her true destiny as a popular vocalist. That realization comes about when she belts out the treacly title track for a film audition. Brooks got really lucky when his vanity project—which he originally booked into theaters himself—led to Debby Boone (a daughter of Pat) recording her own version of the title tune. The huge success of the sappy ’70s hit helped to launch a punk backlash even while winning Brooks a Grammy, a Golden Globe, and even an Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Brooks followed up by casting himself as a romantic lead in 1978′s If Ever I See You Again, and put together a few other bad movies along with the notoriously awful 2005 Broadway flop “In My Life”—which, like If Ever I See You Again, was about the fascinating love life of a songwriter. As it turned out, Brooks’ love life was more fit for an episode of “Law & Order.” A police investigation in 2009 showed that Brooks was regularly putting ads on Craigslist and then flying gullible, would-be actresses across the country to Manhattan so he could rape them. He ended up facing charges of raping (or sexually assaulting) over ten women between 2005 and 2008. That added up to more than 90 counts of criminal acts when he killed himself via asphyxia last May. Brooks left behind more than just a sappy pop legacy, though. His son Nicholas still awaits trial for the December 9, 2010, murder of fashion designer Sylvie Cachay. (73, suicide) —JRT

Lamar Fike

As a member of Elvis Presley’s “Memphis Mafia,” Lamar Fike often dressed in black mohair suits and wore sunglasses at night while protecting, baby-sitting, and scoring girls and pills for Presley. The gang was the King’s “buffer zone,” as Fike once explained. He was one of Presley’s closest confidants, but he noted that they often fought and that Presley fired him “about 500 times.” Lamar Fike introduced Elvis to 14 year-old Priscilla Beaulieu in Germany, who became Mrs. Elvis Presley seven years later. About the couple’s early courtship, Fike was quoted in Britain’s The Independent: “When I found out their relationship was more than just necking, I was afraid we were all going to prison without a trial,” Fike recalled. “Elvis told me he had the whole thing in control. I said, ‘I hope you do, otherwise they’ll ship us home in a godd*** cage!’” (75, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) —ER

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