2016 — Who We Lost In Music

  By VennerRoad, 3rd Jan 2017

Last year was not a good year for contemporary music, at least not for some of its biggest names.

A young Rick Parfitt

Millions of people worldwide die every year, but only a small fraction are professional musicians, and an even smaller number are famous to any degree. However, most native English-speakers and many others will have heard the names and music of Bowie, Prince, and George Michael, along with Leonard Cohen and Greg Lake arguably the biggest names, to leave us last year. Let’s deal with them in chronological order.

David Bowie died in New York City, January 10, aged 69. Although he left a considerable body of work, his last album being released only two days before his death, all Bowie’s outstanding songs were written early on in his career. This subject was covered shortly after his death, but basically after Young Americans he crafted only a handful of passable songs. Leaving aside for example the brilliant 1973 Aladdin Sane album, Bowie will be remembered more for his influence, the same way is the now ninety year old Chuck Berry.

February 13 saw not simply a death but a tragedy. The band Viola Beach were little known, being at the start of their career, but would surely have become stars if not superstars given time. Indeed, they were already in the ascendant when all four members together with their manager were killed in a car crash near Stockholm. In their early twenties, they were mere boys. Their eponymous debut album was released posthumously.

Keith Emerson died March 16, but see Greg Lake below.

Prince died April 21. Eccentric, even weird in a profession that has given the world the likes of Elton John and Michael Jackson, he was defined not simply by his genius but by his work ethic. His greatest song, Purple Rain, was written early on in his career, but in the three decades that followed, the multi-instrumentalist produced a staggering volume of work in addition to touring and other commitments, and it is rumoured there are many Prince songs that have yet to see the light of day.

Singer-songwriter Candye Kane may not have been as big name as Prince, but she was indeed a big woman, one who was comfortable with her size. Born Candice Hogan three years after him, she had a bad start in life, and fought cancer for the last eight years of it. In April 2008 she underwent major surgery that left her with 150 stitches in her abdomen. This led to her writing the autobiographical Superhero with her regular songwriting partner, guitarist Laura Chavez. She died May 6 in California.

Pete Burns is the only one hit wonder on this list. He and Steve Coy wrote You Spin Me Round (Like A Record) with which their band Dead Or Alive topped the singles chart in the UK and just missed out on the American top ten. That was in 1984, since then he produced little of merit in or out of music, but earned notoriety especially for his increasingly bizarre physical appearance. Best not to say anymore about that here. Bankruptcy and worse followed, and his death from cardiac arrest in October at the age of 57 was probably in one sense a merciful release.

Leonard Cohen was the biggest Canadian star to die this year, or most any year. The first on our list to beat the Biblical three score and ten (barring Keith Emerson), Cohen was still working when he died in Los Angeles on November 7 at the age of 82. He would quite likely have retired or at least let up if his manager had not plundered his earnings. Cohen was far from the first musician to be ripped off in this fashion, of course. Kelley Lynch ended up serving an eighteen month sentence, not for theft but for hounding him including making vague death threats. Like Bowie, Cohen will probably be more important as an influence on future songwriters than for his actual work.

If you haven’t heard of Holly Dunn, she was a big star in her genre, Country & Western. Her breakthrough song was the autobiographical Daddy’s Hands; her father was a preacher. Maybe I Mean Yes caused manufactured controversy with the sisterhood of lies. Sadly, she quit the music scene in 2003; even more sadly, in 2015 she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died November 14 age 59.

Six days later, Craig Gill died. If the name is not familiar to you he was the drummer for the commercial band Inspiral Carpets. Aged only 44, little information is available about his death, but it appears to have been caused by heart failure. Inspiral Carpets were formed in 1983 then resumed in 2003 after an eight year hiatus. The future of the band is not clear, but they have a new album out.

George Michael in the studio

December saw three big stars of English music go to that great gig in the sky. The first was Greg Lake, who wrote his first song - and one of his best - aged just twelve. He also wrote a popular Christmas song. Aged 69, he had apparently been suffering from cancer for sometime. Before his solo career, Lake was best known for being one third of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, having previously played bass for King Crimson. ELP was basically an ego trip for keyboard player Keith Emerson. Emerson was two years older than Lake, and tragically committed suicide earlier this year. He was said to have been suffering from depression due to a nerve condition that affected his playing. Like Lake, his tenure with ELP and then his solo career were the twin pinnacles of his achievement. In addition to regular keyboards he played a wide variety of synthesisers and composed music for soundtracks. He has 21 soundtrack entries in the IMDb.

The other two big names in English music died on consecutive days. Rick Parfitt was rhythm guitarist and occasional vocalist with Status Quo. Aged 68, he became the fourth big name to die in Spain in recent years. Guitarist Gary Moore died in Malaga in February 2011 as did singer Cilla Black in August 2015; American songwriter Allen Toussaint died in Madrid in November 2015. Rick was admitted to a Marbella hospital where he died from an infection, but ultimately his heart was the problem. Two heart attacks and major surgery resulted from his rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, a hint of which can be found in the song Living On An Island. Although he was married three times, his real soulmate was Francis Rossi; the two were like brothers, or more accurately peas in a pod, and the Quo’s lead guitarist was clearly devastated by his bandmate’s death.

Finally, George Michael died on Christmas Day at the relatively young age of 53. Like Greg Lake, Michael wrote his greatest song at a young age, in his case, 17. Careless Whisper topped the singles chart on both sides of the Atlantic, so although in a sense it was all downhill from there, it was a very slow ride during which he picked up dozens of awards and a fortune estimated at £175 million. Though far from his best song, Last Christmas featured in all three of Britain’s leading soap operas on Christmas Day, performed by the man himself in two of them

George had it all: talent, good looks, charisma, the adulation of millions, but the one thing that always eluded him was happiness. It remains to be seen how much of that was due to his sexuality; he may have been homosexual, but he was certainly not gay. Then there were the drugs. This latter goes hand in hand with the itinerant lifestyle of a world famous musician, and he was no exception. In short, George was the archetypal tortured artist, a latter day Van Gogh or Sylvia Plath. Thankfully he did not die by his own hand in a literal sense, and he did not die that young, but although his best days were clearly behind him, there is no telling what he might have achieved in other fields. Shortly after his death was announced, stories about his unspoken philanthropy started coming out. Space does not permit chronicling the other music names who died last year, but aside from the Viola Beach tragedy, the death of George Michael has to be the saddest.

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