This has been a tough year for losses in the music world. For this week’s Friday Mix Tape, Marc Millman has selected a song a piece from many of those who have passed over the first five months of 2012.
Robin Gibb (1949-2012): The Bee Gees – I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You
They became the Kings of Disco. But that was in what was really their second career. The brothers Gibb started out as a soulful acoustic trio consisting of Robin, his fraternal twin Maurice and their older brother Barry. And if you aren’t familiar with the early years, you are missing out on some of the sweetest harmonies in the history of rock.
Donna Summer (1948-2012): Dim All The Lights
In 1979, I was eleven years old and supposed to be in my “Disco Sucks” phase. But secretly I wasn’t. My parents were taking Hustle lessons in the living room with all their friends and going to Studio 54 on the weekends. And the music was infectious. Donna was the Queen of it all. Dim All The Lights was the third single off her amazing Bad Girls album. It is also the only song she ever wrote by herself (Trivia: she originally wrote it for Rod Stewart before changing her mind). And as of May 17th, the lights of every dance club the world over should be dimmed in her honor.
Chuck Brown (1936-2012): Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers – Bustin’ Loose (Part 1)
In the late 70s, funk music was big but the mainstream had seen it mutate into disco. Around Washington D.C., a sub-genre named go-go developed. And Chuck Brown was considered the Godfather. Today most people will recognize the funky break that made Nelly’s Hot In Herre a hit in 2002. But shakin’ yo’ ass to the original was a right of passage for anyone clubbing it “back in the day.”
Donald “Duck” Dunn (1948-2012): Albert King – Born Under A Bad Sign
“Duck” played with everyone. He wrote. He composed. And his bass lines were what made the “Memphis sound” of Stax Records so famous. And as a member of the backing band, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, he helped to racially integrate rock & soul in the South during the tumultuous late ’60s. Albert King is one of three “Kings of the Blues Guitar” and this single from his second album (the first recorded for Stax) helped cement that reputation. And other than King’s stinging lead lines, it is Dunn’s bass lines that people remember from the song.
Adam “MCA” Yauch (1964-2012): Beastie Boys – Sure Shot
The Beastie Boys will be remembered by many people as the obnoxious white rappers with their misogynistic videos…the forefathers of Kid Rock. And those people will all be wrong or at the very least, misinformed. When the Beasties exploded onto the scene in 1985, hip-hop music was Black & Latino and it was essentially music of the inner city. White kids in the suburbs of even New Jersey knew very little more than Rappers’ Delight. Maybe a little Kurtis Blow or Run DMC. But Public Enemy? Murphy’s Law? And if we didn’t know it in the Tri-state area, you can be sure they didn’t know it in Nebraska. But MCA, Ad Rock & Mike D changed all that. And although they may have been slightly obnoxious on their classic debut album, Licensed To Ill, over the course of the next three albums, they grew and helped show that hip-hop, rock, funk & punk all belonged together. And it was on Check Your Head and its follow-up Ill Communication that they perfected that mix. But Yauch was more than just a white rapper. He was a director of videos (under the alias Nathaniel Hornblower), a film producer, a devout Buddhist and a driving force behind the Free Tibet movement. And for my generation, this role model will be missed.
Levon Helm (1940-2012): The Band – Up On Cripple Creek
Levon was my Dad’s contemporary. And in a group that helped define Americana Roots Rock, he was ironically the only American. The man from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas sang with that soulful Southern twang in his voice and played the drums in a style all his own. And along with songs like The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Ophelia and The Weight the man who always seemed to be smiling etched his place in the history of rock & roll.
Jimmy Ellis (1938-2012): The Trammps – Disco Inferno
Mr. Ellis is probably the least famous person on this list. In fact, most people probably don’t even know who The Trammps were. But there are very few people who don’t know the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack. And this song heated up dance floors in the late ’70s and beyond. Hell, who hasn’t been at a party at some point and yelled, “I heard somebody say burn baby, burn…”
Ronnie Montrose (1947-2012): Montrose – Rock Candy
If you were into loud guitar rock in the ’70s and even the ’80s, you might be familiar with Ronnie by name. If not, let’s just consider that he was a member of the Edgar Winter Group for whom he played guitar on the hits Frankenstein & Free Ride. He also played for a bit with Boz Scaggs. But most likely his most important contribution to the history of rock would be the vocalist for his self-named band: a certain Red Rocker. Montrose’s self-titled debut album in 1973 had everything you needed: sexual innuendo, hard rock stomping, belted vocals and crunchy guitar riffs supplied by Ronnie.
Davy Jones (1945-2012): The Monkees – Daydream Believer
They weren’t The Beatles. They weren’t even a real band…at least at the conception. But the band invented for a short-lived TV show became a hit-making machine. And Davy Jones became the face of the band. In fact, he was the one that Marcia Brady was so excited to get to play at her school. And this is the song that will forever be associated with the little Englishman.
Whitney Houston (1963-2012): My Love Is Your Love
They say that voices like this come along once a generation. It’s too bad that this one belonged to a woman who seemed tortured by the fame it brought her. Her pedigree to become a famous singer was there: her mother is the gospel singer Cissy Houston. Her mother’s cousins are Dionne & Dee Dee Warwick, her godmother was Darlene Love and Aretha Franklin was considered an aunt. Whitney took it straight to the top. And starting in 1985 with the release of her first solo album, everyone knew her name. It was her 1991 rendition of the Star Spangled Banner for the Super Bowl and The Bodyguard soundtrack that took it all over the top in 1991 & 1992. Whitney was never an artist I will claim to have had much attachment to. But when she released the My Love Is Your Love album in 1998, the gritty, urban R&B feel finally connected with me. You don’t have to be in love with an artist to appreciate their body of work. You just need to know that some voices don’t need a television show to vote them to prominence. Some voices are just larger than life.
Etta James (1938-2012): I’d Rather Go Blind
Released as the B-side to Tell Mama in 1968, it’s this song that truly showed the depth of the soul music “The Matriarch of R&B” was capable of. Most people know her for At Last. And Blues fans probably know Tell Mama from her live shows. But in this one song, you can hear the weight of the world as it pushed down upon the shoulders of this woman who battled thru addiction and had a career that included jazz, soul, R&B, blues, gospel & rock over more than five decades. And it seems fitting that she should pass just after the man who helped spark her career.
Johnny Otis (1921-2012): The Johnnie Otis Show – Willie and the Hand Jive
Most lovers of classic rock know this song from the Eric Clapton or George Thorogood versions that were played ad nauseam in the ’70s and 80s on FM radio. Very few know of the man who wrote and first recorded the track. Mr. Otis was a bandleader, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, singer and radio DJ. And starting out in the mid-40s as a drummer in Swing orchestras on the West Coast, he progressed in to a bandleader of his own with the Johnny Otis show and is commonly known as “The Godfather of Rhythm and Blues.” And for the sake of this list, let us not forget that he is the man credited with discovering the late great Etta James.