Remembering Music Legends We've Lost So Far in 2015 -- From BB King to Joe Cocker
I have a passion for obituaries. I like to read them, I like writing them, and even on my radio show there’s still something fascinating about trying to come up with something relatively brief that, with musical accompaniment, helps others define somebody. Somebody they think they know or know a lot about, somebody they never heard of, sometimes even someone they really do know.
I am starting not to like it so much. Since January, I have done at least a dozen obits. In no order at all: B.B. King, Ben E. King, Ornette Coleman, Joe Cocker, Jack Ely, Jean Ritchie, Guy Carawan, Don Covay, Lesley Gore, John Renbourn, Evelyn Starks, Percy Sledge, Marcus Belgrave, Errol Brown, Bruce Lundvall, Lenore Travis and Lyle Centola.
That list includes the Kings, two of the greatest R&B/soul artists ever; one of that genre’s greatest songwriters, Covay; a pair of its most singular and spectacular voices, Sledge and Cocker; two great proselytizers of folk songs and folk singing, Ritchie and Carawan. It has Ely of the Kingsmen, who is perhaps the greatest one-hit wonder of all time (especially since his hit was swiped and his name temporarily erased from history, forget about royalties); in Gore, arguably the first female vocal star of the modern rock era; and two great discoverers and trainers of talent in Starks, who found the nonpareil singer/songwriter Dorothy Love Coates, who then led Evelyn’s Gospel Harmonettes to great glory, and Belgrave, whose great work with Ray Charles led him to Detroit where he played with damn near everybody and nurtured almost all the recent jazz grandees from the Motor City: James Carter, Regina Carter, Geri Allen, Kenny Garrett and many many others (and not only jazzers, for that matter). Jean Ritchie brought her beloved Appalachian culture to the rest of the nation, if not the world, at the time of the folk revival; she was a major instrumentalist, a key discoverer and historian of song, and a fine songwriter. Renbourn’s work with Pentangle redefined English folk as a searching, yearning counterpart of jazz. Guy Carawan gave “We Shall Overcome” to this country’s greatest liberation movement of our time, the Southern civil rights movement, a signature song that now speaks for freedom-seekers across the planet; he too was a significant song collector, a historian and writer, perhaps our greatest musical activist after Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson. Erroll Brown of Hot Chocolate was, in the United States, a one-hit wonder but what a hit, a love song whose core was the audacious declaration, “I believe in miracles!”
What about Ornette Coleman, a jazz giant who believed his most complicated harmelodic ideas could fit on a jukebox or at least in the head of a juke box oriented listener, who recorded with orchestras, quintets, quartets, duos, trios, and yeah, motherfucker, rock bands? Ornette Coleman was (and for that matter, is ) a miracle. Several of them.
Bruce Lundvall had rare degrees of both vision and integrity as a record company executive, not a big deal unless you know that the total number of such executives over the past century barely reaches two figures. Lenore Travis, one of the first women to achieve success in concert production, left the business to raise her kids and her husband George but never stopped being involved in everything from the seeds of FarmAid to Cambridge’s legendary Revels. I don’t know the exact reach of her relentless community activism, but every single person who shared any one of her convictions was inspired by her—that is testimony of the most personal kind. Lyle Centola, a little guy tough enough to be a Louisiana state wrestling champion, was a tour director, stage manager, rigger, and one of the key figures in professionalizing a once sleazy and haphazard industry.
All of them made their mark over an explosive fifty-year period when American music, in all of its variety and madness, became a worldwide phenomenon. Each of them brought to his or her labors a sense of integrity and a vision, whether verbalized or not, whether politicized or not, that bursts forth from the music they made, or wrote or explored or championed or presented or, come to that, sold.
I mourn them all. I can hardly believe that I will never again be greeted by Ben E. King’s beautiful smile, or Lenore’s intense questions and descriptions of what needed to be fixed or done and how or, for that matter, a new record by Joe Cocker on which he redefines a song I love or one I’d never imagined had greatness in it.
None of them died prematurely—Ritchie and Starks were 92, Coleman, Carawan and B.B. in their 80s; the youngest on that list is Lyle, and he was 60. That’s not how old you have to be to die. It’s how old you have to be to have participated in even the latter stages of that 50 year transformation of the world of music (and perhaps culture in its entirety). Every last one of us.
There’s a portion of the music world that probably welcomes this. Those of us who lived it have, after all, been righteous and self-righteous, arrogant in our convictions, slow to yield to, or even obstinate about rejecting, current changes for the worse that are presented as inevitabilities, aggressive in our musical tastes and willingness to speak our minds. We have been told since we were teenagers that you can't change the world or fight city hall, and as things have changed and city halls have fallen into disgrace, we've been something like smug, some of the time, about how to go about remaking our world, and certainly contemptuous of the idea that it can't be remade. Some of it can and should be toned down before the last of us, who won't be me, shuffles off. Not a single aspect of it needs to be apologized for.
We were quite often wrong. My friend Ben Eicher reminded me the other day of a discussion, which probably took place sometime in the ‘80s, about “Hope I die before I get old,” the key line in the Who’s “My Generation.” Pete Townshend, who wrote it, turned 70 a couple weeks ago and tonight I find myself thinking about the dreadful day when his time comes and every obituary leads with “My Generation,” as it reasonably ought to.
In that conversation thirty-odd years ago, Ben talked about how right “Hope I die before I get old” was, how it spelled out the whole rock’n’roll philosophy.
I loved that record from the moment I heard it in 1965, but, even though I recognized the psychological truth in that line, I disagreed about dying, and by then, I had seen enough to know why. So I asked Ben, “How is this world a better place without Keith Moon or Jimi Hendrix in it ?”
I wonder if any Townshend obituary will have the courage, after quoting "My Generation," to end with the lines from Quadrophenia’s “I’ve Had Enough”: I've had enough of childhood / I've had enough of graves.”
If people don’t get entangled so much in songs and lyrics these days, and mostly they don’t, it’s not because no one writes them. I can think of several dozen songwriters, in pretty much any genre you might name, who write and sing them very well. But I can't think of one of them who could have a hit single doing it.
The theory now seems to be that pop music, since it is an entertainment product, ought to be as shallow as the music, broadcasting and advertising industries originally intended it to be. Now, even "Lust for Life" can be turned into a silly ass pitch for a cruise line. My own evaluation of this jibes with something the musicologist Christopher Small wrote in Music of the Common Tongue: “They call it ‘giving the people what they want,’ but in fact it is a matter of giving the people all they are thought to deserve.”
So the classic rockers, perhaps even the classic rock (though ticket sales deny it) get hated. We’re boomers, like that was our fault. We're old, therefore becoming underproductive. We’re in the way!
That’s some of it. Hardly all. What’s left of us has the clearest memories of the justice movements and for that matter, the far superior public facilities available up to the tightening of the screws in 1972 or so. We have, many of us, some sense of critical thinking, the ability to ask questions, to not take a governmental or military or media boss’s "No" for a definitive final answer. We are considered to have "started all that shit about the war and black rights.' We do not believe in TINA (There is No Alternative), which is the only spine neoliberal capitalism has. In fact, we basically bleieve that alternatives is all we have, what we need, and what our species will die without
Music of the Common Tongue is about many things, among the most important “the idea that the arts and especially the great performance art of music-dance-drama-masking-costume for which we lack a name, are vital means by which human identities and relationships are explored, affirmed and celebrated, and human societies criticized.”
This is what ties together all the people I’m writing about, from the giants to the rigger and the record exec, what makes “We Shall Overcome” a partner of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.” It makes sense of how a British pipe fitter wound up singing one of the great versions of Don Covay’s “Chain of Fools,” shows why the subtle excesses of Percy Sledge’s great ballads have the same heart as the Gospel Harmonettes social gospel and, here's the hard part unless you already get it, Jack Ely’s all-but-incoherent vocal on “Louie Louie” makes a fitting companion for Ornette Coleman’s symphonic Skies of America. It is most certainly what links those who play and sing (and sometimes, even sell) with those who listen, dance and refuse to forget. We are the outsiders who wanted to be part of something bigger and better than ourselves. There is nothing shallow about that.
So I write those obituaries to remember the people who helped me so much to dream those dreams and not just talk about them but try to make them real, to fight those fights, to love what I love and to despise what I cannot help but despise. I write about the dead to try and live up to the responsibilities one takes on after reading and grasping those great lines by James Baldwin: “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness."
My own obituary is not so very far off, I suppose, and I have no wish to control what it says. But I can tell you this. If it says I lived in the darkness by choice it's a lie.