All of them made their mark over an explosive 50-year period when American music became a worldwide phenomenon.
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!”