A presidential election offering a choice of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump isn’t the only thing that’s gone wrong this year. This annus horribilis has also taken a severe toll on the world’s dwindling supply of outstanding musicians.
The past week has added Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell to the long list of important music figures who have passed on to that great jam session in the sky in 2016. Cohen, who died last Monday at the age of 82, was a brilliantly brooding songwriter whose limited vocal range and homely voice somehow added an extra layer of earthy angst and spiritual yearning to his work. Russell, who died Sunday at the age of 74, came out of Oklahoma’s rich musical tradition and became a legendary studio guitarist and pianist in Los Angeles during the ’60s, working with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Sam Cooke to The Monkees and helping to create Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” had a nice run of rock ‘n’ roll stardom as a headliner in the ’70s with a an idiosyncratic style that mixed country and jazz and soul and the sort of hard rock you’d expect from such a long-haired and bearded fellow, then happily settled into a career as the guy all the big names wanted on their recording sessions, and never did lose his Okie accent.
Some big name stars are among the year’s fatalities, including the artist known as Prince, whether he liked it or not, who was about as big as you can get back in the ’80s and ’90s with a flamboyant funk-based style, and retained a fervent fan base up to his death at age 57 last April. The similarly flamboyant David Bowie, whose theatrical style and gender-bending personas have proved all too influential, died in January at the age of 69. As a founding member of The Eagles, Glenn Frey sold about a gazillion or so records with a smooth country-rock sound before his death in January at age 67. Merle Haggard, who can simply be described as the greatest country singer there ever was and one of all-time greats of American music in general, died on his 79th birthday last April.
Other names on the death list that might be familiar to even casual music fans include John Berry, whose Beastie Boys combined hip-hop and heavy metal to become stars, and who died at age 52 in May. Maurice White, a founder of the hugely popular pop-funk group Earth, Wind and Fire, died at age 74 in February. Paul Kantner was a founder of Jefferson Airplane, the definitive San Francisco psychedelic rock band, but he also managed to reach 74 before his death in January. Bobby Vee, a more clean cut fellow who had some of the best of the teen idol hits in that brief interregnum between the greasy rockabilly of the ’50s and the long-haired psychedelia of the late ‘6l0s, died at age 73 in October. Frank Sinatra Jr., an underrated singer who could never escape his more famous father’s shadow, was 72 when he died in March.
The true music aficionados will also be missing some lesser-known but equally talented figures. Scotty Moore, the pioneering rockabilly musician who played the extremely cool guitar riffs you hear on the early Elvis Presley records, died at age 84 in June. The world’s greatest jazz harmonica player, Toots Theilemans, who would have been the best even if there had been others, was 94 when he died in August. The head-banging sorts of music lovers will fondly recall Lemmy Kilmister, bassist and frontman for the very hardcore heavy metal band Motorhead. If you’ve ever watched “West Side Story” and “The King and I” and “My Fair Lady” and marveled at how well Natalie Wood and Deborah Kerr and Audrey Hepburn could sing, that’s because Marnie Nixon, who died in July at age 86, did all the singing for them and countless other musically-challenged actresses during the golden era of movie musicals. Last February also saw the passing of Dan Hicks, whose hippie hokum-revival band The Hot Licks was one of the overlooked delights of the ’70s.
We apologize if you’re a big fan of one of the many other notable musicians who have died this year, and we fear that the next month and a half will probably add some names worth mentioning to the year’s unhappy roster. At least the recordings live on, and the way things are going we’ll need them. There’s an ad that always pops at the National Review’s internet site that offers a sampling of the latest hits, which we’ll sometimes click on out of a curiosity about what the young folks are listening to these days, and so far as we can tell the same decline you see in our politics is also affecting the nation’s music
— Bud Norman