By Joan Tortorici Ruppert
The dirge started with David Bowie on January 10 and ended with George Michael on December 25. In between – if we’re looking specifically at music world – we said goodbye in this order to Glenn Frey, Maurice White, Vanity, George Martin, Keith Emerson, Phife Dawg, Prince, Lonnie Mack, Bobby Hutcherson, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, Greg Lake and many more, depending on how broadly you search across genres.
“We were shocked, in spite of logic,” says Guy Arnston, who edited the music magazine Illinois Entertainer from 1974 to 1987. “We’re all getting older. It’s to be expected. But it’s never expected.” And it always hurts.
David Bowie’s Blackstar album was released on January 8, 2016. It was his 69th birthday. Two days later he was dead, having succumbed to liver cancer. “My first reaction was to cry,” recalls guitarist/songwriter Billy Denk. Denk’s late brother Danny was a Bowie superfan, part of an inner circle of “bowienetters” who participated in a digital portal launched by Bowie himself in the ‘90s. “David Bowie was such an important figure to my brother that I couldn’t contain my grief. In a way, it was as if my brother had died again, or that a part of my brother that had remained had now died.”
Just a few days before the worldwide public launch of Blackstar, Bowie producer Tony Visconti had shared an early release of the album with bowienetters. “It was Bowie’s first recording in some time that immediately grabbed my attention and I couldn’t stop listening,” says Denk. “I finally understood the emotional depth of the recording following his death.”
March, 2016 came in like a lion, claiming Beatles producer George Martin. We live in a world in which many young people aren’t aware of The Beatles, let alone their producer and the seismic shift he unleashed, which is especially ironic in light of how Martin’s technological fingerprints are all over every track on every iPhone. So I asked producer/educator/Central Standard Time publisher Joe Tortorici what he tells his media production students about George Martin. “In addition to his creativity, I talk about the sweep of history and coincidence,” says Tortorici. “Many years ago, magnetic tape recording arrived in the west and a bright young graduate got a gig at EMI. That was George Martin and the rest is history.”
These days, Martin’s inventive DNA is baked into readily available audio editing plug-ins and presets. “What was once innovation is now part of the software as basic signal processing, which is as it should be. Today’s producers and engineers get to a good place more quickly with his help, whether or not they know the history.”
On April 21, physical injuries and painkillers caught up with Prince Rogers Nelson. “I had been aware that he’d had a hip replacement or two, and it didn’t go unnoticed that he’d stopped doing the splits and playing jam sessions in the wee hours of the night. But a drug dependency — or overdose — seemed out of the question,” says saxophonist and bandleader Chris Greene. “My prime musical inspiration and muse was gone.”
Prince was 57 when he died, having landed on this planet not a minute too soon or too late. “Even though he was weird and cutting edge and dirty and futuristic, my parents weren’t put off by Prince,” says Greene. “They were fond of all the music he’d apparently digested: James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Sly, P-Funk, Smokey Robinson, Al Green. He made it cool for Black people to openly rock out in the ‘80s and beyond, both as a musician and as an audience member. Before him, you have to go back to Ernie Isley or Eddie Hazel or Pete Cosey to hear a distorted guitar solo coming from a Black musician for mass audience. No Prince would have meant no Bad Brains. No Fishbone. No Living Colour. No D’Angelo.”
Music fans made it through the summer of 2016 relatively unscathed, unaware of the gut-punches that were lying in wait. Leonard Cohen died on November 10, the day before Maria McLeese’s 60th birthday. “My first thought, selfishly, was ‘crap, why tonight?’ Then I went to bed and prayed that Lenny was at peace.”
Cohen’s death and McLeese’s birthday were sandwiched between two events linked by stunning improbability: Donald Trump’s presidential election victory on November 8 and Kate McKinnon – in her recurring role as Hillary Clinton – singing Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in the opening minutes of Saturday Night Live on November 12. “I hated it,” says McLeese of the SNL bit. “I thought they took a sacred song and tried to turn it into a political statement.” Cohen would have likely agreed. Since the single’s inauspicious release in 1984, “Hallelujah” morphed from obscurity to cult classic to television talent show staple. “I think it’s a good song,” said Cohen in 2009, “but too many people sing it.”
McLeese, a former editorial assistant for national magazines, favors “Anthem,” a lesser-known Cohen composition that, for her, is more than skin deep. And she has the ink to prove it. “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
November, 2016 dealt a particularly cruel blow when it claimed Sharon Jones, a soul/funk singer whose rise to fame came relatively late in a life that was taken by cancer at age 60. She and her band the Dap-Kings were captured in all their fiery glory for a Barbara Kopple-produced documentary film released only a few months before Jones’s death. In the film Jones recalls how in the 1990s a record producer told he she was “too fat, too black, too short and too old.” Undaunted, in 2013 Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings were touring the world in support of their Grammy-nominated album Give the People What They Want.
When Steve Bushbacher, a Philadelphia-based musician and columnist for Central Standard Time heard of Sharon Jones’s death he felt “sadness, of course, but not as much as much as when I first heard that she had pancreatic cancer. I was still hoping for her and for those of us who loved her and her music. A loss to the community of musicians is a loss we all feel.”
But in spite of every bad break and twist of fate in the story of Sharon Jones, Bushbacher sees triumph in the final chapter. “Number One: older folks rock. Number Two: keep at it. It doesn’t matter if you reach people at age 20 or age 40 or age 60. Just connect like she did. And Number Three: Sharon Jones did not get cheated. We did not get cheated. We would have been cheated if we had never been able to enjoy her music.”
He’s right. The best part of a bad year, or any year, is that the music remains. Says Joe Tortorici: “The important business of documenting the arts is real history in the making. The beautiful souls that left this mortal coil are alternately eternal by what’s left in their wake. The composite of their creative output boggles the mind. Yet, here it is for us to experience again because we took the time to save it.”
For Chris Greene, 2016 was a cosmic tap on the shoulder, an edict to create something worth keeping. “I think the universe is trying to tell us musicians to step up our game and make our contributions this world.”
Happy New Year. Stay tuned.
David Bowie, curated by Billy Denk
Bowie hides nothing knowing that he is saying goodbye to all. As the song builds, we know he’ll be free, but from what? The allegorical Bible reference provides a clue.
- “Let’s Dance”
Though not an obscure number or one that challenges the intellect, is one of my favorites because of several factors, but let’s just say that I love the groove! The song featured two of my favorite guitarists at that time: Nile Rodgers and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Now dance!
This is one of my favorites simply because of Bowie’s determination do what he wanted creatively and compose something sonically that was different. For me, the lyrics inspire a “live in the moment” sentiment, to follow one’s muse.
George Martin, curated by Joe Tortorici
- Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
It’s impossible for me to hear any part of Sgt. Pepper without context. I instantly register the song prior to, and immediately after. It’s all one musical movement to me.
- Jeff Beck “Diamond Dust”
Close your eyes and find the band surrounding you at arm’s length. It is a style of its own. You can hear it in Roger Nichols’ future work with Steely Dan.
- Shirley Bassey “Goldfinger”
The very definition of big music. Listen with a good pair of headphones and tell me I’m wrong. It is representative of Martin’s superb work for film.
Prince, curated by Chris Greene
- “Let’s Pretend We’re Married”
I was nine years old and it was the first time I’d ever heard someone talk dirty on an album that wasn’t Richard Pryor. (“I wanna fuck the taste out of your mouth.”) I haven’t been right since.
- “The Ladder”
Had my first middle school slow dance to that song. Another in Prince’s long line of rock-ish power ballads with a spiritual or inspirational bent.
- Any version of “Baby I’m a Star” from the 1985 Purple Rain tour is a clinic in post-James Brown bandleading. Huge influence on how I cue sections for my quartet.
Leonard Cohen, curated by Maria McLeese
Leonard Cohen’s best song. He is a master poet and the lyrics cut you to the core. Profound and reassuring.
- “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”
A song for lovers as they say farewell. Just beautiful.
- “Closing Time”
An upbeat “so long” song. At the end of his concerts he graceful 80+ year old Leonard would skip off stage, leaving his fans wanting more. Which we still do.
Sharon Jones, curated by Steve Bushbacher
- “100 Days and 100 Nights”
Classic old school R&B with actual real live musicians playing. Not a computerized sample in sight. What a radical idea.
- “Stranger To My Happiness”
After Sharon Jones began cancer treatment she still had more soul in her little finger than most people will ever accumulate in their entire lifetime.
- “Please Come Home For Christmas”
With the video released after her death, I could not watch it without breaking down in tears.