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A History of Country Vol. 16: 1980-84

February 22nd, 2012 8 comments

At a Country Music Association awards show in the late 1970s, Ray Benson of Asleep At The Wheel showed up wearing a stetsons. He and the similarly behatted and long-haired Charlie Daniels and John Anderson were politely asked to remove their headgear. But as the rhinestones faded, the Stetson would become an obligatory sartorial item in the country fraternity. We might credit the mercifully brief Urban Cowboy movement — spearheaded by John Tavolta’s Honky Tonk Night Fever movie — for popularising the cowboy hat, which had been sported by many people over the years but never was standard apparel in country.

Ironically, the Urban Cowboy soundtrack featured mostly AOR artists, such as Boz Scaggs, The Eagles, Bob Seger, Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt (who was yet to revisit her country roots). Country, the genre portrayed in the movie, was marginalised, reduced to the presence of The Charlie Daniels Band, Jerry Lee Lewis’ cousin Mickey Gilley and Johnny Lee (whose Looking For Love from the soundtrack became a million-seller). The movement the film described moved country away from its roots, crossing over into middle-of-the-road rock, adult pop and easy listening with the likes of Kenny Rogers, Juice Newton, Crystal Gayle. Even Dolly Parton got in on the act, as did Willie Nelson, who contributed to the mush of MOR by duetting with  Spanish housewives’ favourite and übersmoothie Julio Iglesias.

The Urban Cowboy hype didn’t last long. While the faithful Outlaws — Jennings, Kristofferson et al — were falling out of the charts, there was a vacuum. It was partially filled by credible artists such as John Conlee, but it took the breakthrough in the early 1980s of George Strait and Ricky Skaggs to lend country a new identity.

Strait, Skaggs and others, like the less successful John Anderson, were spearheads of a wider movement driven by innovative new producers and executives (perhaps taking to heart Waylon Jennings’ 1975 call to country revolution in You Sure Hank Done It This Way). Their influence was profound: with their initial success they returned country music to its traditional foundations — the honky tonk of Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb  and the bluegrass of Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers — while maintaining a commercial sound which could sustain such a renaissance. Had their formula flopped, who knows where country would have gone.  Skaggs, who went on to become the biggest selling country artist of the 1980s, was an alumni of Emmylou Harris’ backing band; the stetsoned Texan George Strait went on to score a record number of country charts toppers.

In their wake artists who had battled along for years — Rosanne Cash, Hank Williams Jr, Reba McIntryre, Rodney Crowell — began to flourish, and important new blood emerged in numbers unseen since the 1950s: Naomi and Wynonna  Judd, Randy Travis, Keith Whitley, Holly Dunn, Patty Loveless, Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett, k.d. lang, Pam Tillis, Ricky van Shelton, Steve Earle, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Vern Gosdin and so on. Not a few of these were songwriters who would help inspire the alt.country movement of the 1990s and 2000s.

So it was all the more strange when the New York Times in a front-page article (on what must have been a morbidly dull news day) by the critic Robert Palmer declared country music dead. The mainstream country music of the 1970s was indeed fading, but the evidently poorly premised and slothfully researched article exaggerated the demise of the genre. To his credit, Palmer later embraced some of the acts who would prove him wrong. Two years later, the New York Times covered how country “had turned itself around”.

As always, this mix is timed to fit on a standard CD-R and includes homebrewed cover artwork. Be warned that the final track is lacking in anything that is defensible. Let the musical assault that is God Bless The U.S.A. be representative of all that gives country music such a bad name.

TRACKLISTING
1. Charlie Daniels Band – The Devil Went Down To Georgia
2. Johnny Lee – Lookin’ For Love
3. Ronnie Milsap – Smoky Mountain Rain
4. George Jones – He Stopped Loving Her Today
5. Willie Nelson – On The Road Again (live)
6. Hank Williams Jr. – Kaw-Liga
7. Alabama – Old Flame
8. Merle Haggard – Big City
9. David Allan Coe – The Ride
10. The Oak Ridge Boys – Elvira
11. Barbara Mandrell & George Jones – I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool
12. Roseanne Cash – Seven Year Ache
13. Dolly Parton – Do I Ever Cross Your Mind
14. Skeeter Davis – Crying Time
15. Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers – Houston (Means I’m One Day Closer To You)
16. John Conlee – Common Man
17. Ricky Skaggs – Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown
18. George Strait – Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind
19. Earl Thomas Conley – Holding Her And Loving You
20. Don Williams – That’s The Thing About Love
21. The Judds – Mama He’s Crazy
22. John Prine – People Puttin’ People Down
23. Waylon Jennings – America
24. Lee Greenwood – God Bless The U.S.A.

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Previously in A History of Country
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Curious Germany Vol. 5

February 16th, 2012 No comments

In the fifth instalment of Curious Germany we have Françoise Hardy singing in German, a Schlager star getting groovy in London, a British rock singer going German, country star Lynn Anderson doing a German original, and retired football players singing about flags.

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Françoise Hardy – Ich bin nun mal ein Mädchen (1965).mp3
Françoise Hardy – Er war wie du (1965).mp3

I grew up in the 1970s, so my first celebrity crush was the lovely Agnetha from ABBA. Had I been born ten years earlier, that first celebrity crush probably would have been Françoise Hardy. What an absolutely beautiful woman she was, as even Any Minor Dude (now 17) agrees. Obviously a superstar in France, she had some hits in Germany as well, with covers of French hits as well as German originals with material that took a bit from chanson, a bit from what was called Beat music. As a former student of German, her command of German was excellent, with that lovely French inflection. She also recorded in English and Italian.

Ich bin nun mal ein Mädchen (I am a girl after all) was a version of her French 1964 hit Pourtant tu m’aimes, itself a cover of The Joys’ I Still Love Him. A cute song, it has cute lyrics. One verse goes: ‘I am a girl, after all, and you a man, and each one does things the other can’t understand, it’s true. You are looking at other girls even when I’m around, and I’m afraid you might forget about me soon, and yet you love me and I can’t be without you.”  The song was a minor hit in 1966. Er war wie Du was the b-side, a lilting song very much of its time.

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Heidi Brühl – Berlin (1969).mp3
Schlager singers, as a rule, were not cool. We’ve met some who dabbled with cool, such as Michael Holm, who was a Krautrocker with Daisy Chain before donning the Schlager singer’s suit, crooner Howard Carpendale who covered Daisy Chain for a b-side, and the usually über-square Cindy & Bert who made a German version of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid (all in Curious Germany Vol. 3). Heidi Brühl was not cool. She had been a popular child actress, making her screen debut in 1954 as a 12-year-old. As a 17-year-old she became a Schlager singer, selling a million copies of her 1960 hit Wir wollen niemals auseinandergeh’n, the runner-up in the Eurovision Song Contest that year.

In the late ’60s Heidi, now married to American actor Brett Halsey, wanted to be cool — understandably, since her first hit in three years in 1966 was a cover of The Ballad of the Green Berets. By now living in Rome, she went to London and recorded in English. Berlin, released in 1969, has that Swingin’ London sound which might have had a revival in an Austin Powers movie. Brühl’s Petula Clark covering Nico sound was not well received, and the excellent Berlin was relegated to the status of a b-side. In 1970 the singer moved to the USA, thereby putting a slow end to her Schlager career. Brühl died of breast cancer in 1991 at the age of 49.

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Barry Ryan – Zeit macht nur vor dem Teufel halt (1971).mp3
Best known for his crazy hit Eloise, Barry Ryan had a fairly decent career in West Germany, where he recorded his rather good Sanctus album in 1971. In 1972 he had a top 10 in West Germany hit with the catchy Zeit macht nur vor dem Teufel halt (Time stops only before the devil). The melody was written by his brother Paul Ryan, and used for Irish singer Dana’s song Today, and the lyrics by one Miriam Frances. The latter wrote the lyrics for other songs Ryan recorded in German, to less commercial attention, and also the English lyrics for his minor hit Sanctus Sanctus Hallelujah. Frances made a career of writing Schlager lyrics, as well as adapting German lyrics to English-language hits (such as Wann kommst Du and Willst du mit mir geh’n  by Daliah Lavi from the John Kongos songs Won’t You Join Me and Would You Follow Me, see HERE and HERE). Barry Ryan even appeared on the German-language only music show ZDF Hitparade with Zeit macht nur vor dem Teufel halt, to my knowledge the first time an international rock star appeared on the show (Video here).

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Lynn Anderson – Ich hab’ einen Boy in Germany (1968).mp3
A few years before she had a huge hit in West Germany with Rose Garden, Lynn Anderson recorded a pretty terrible number about having a boy in Germany, in the process linking Tennessee with Deutschland. Of course, the Fräuleins with whom Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash exchanged international fluids during their stints as GIs in Germany could have reciprocated by singing about having a boy in Tennessee. This was a German original, written by Herbert Falk and Helmut Flohr, neither one of whom ever set the world alight with their hitmaking potential. One might say that Ich hab’ einen Boy in Germany served as fertile manure for the Rose Garden.

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Fritz Walter und die Altinternationalen – Schwarz und Weiss (1973).mp3
In 1954, West-Germany’s football team sensationally won the World Cup, beating the virtually unbeatable Hungarian side 3-2. It is difficult to measure the social, political and even economic impact of that on West Germany. Just nine years earlier Germany had been structurally, socially, politically and morally devastated like no other European nation in modern history (ravaged and savaged by both the Allies and by the Nazis, it must be said). Now, being world champions, the refrain in West Germany was: “Wir sind wieder wer” (We are somebody again). The inspirational captain on that July day in 1954 – the same day, give or take a few hours, that Elvis Presley entered the Sun studios in Memphis to record his first single – was Fritz Walter.

Two decades later, with West Germany preparing to host the 1974 World Cup (which their team would win), Fritz got together a bunch of old internationals (the Altinternationalen), ranging from pre-war player Paul Janes to recently retired Uwe Seeler, to record a ditty titled Schwarz und Weiss – black and white, the colours of the German team – written by serial hitmaker Jack White. Rarely has a song sounded as comprehensively German as this. And not in a good way. The lyrics are infused with customary German subtlety: “Black and white are our colours, and our flag is black, red, gold. Today we want to beat our foe, we’ve never wanted to lose.” Ah yes, land of Goethe, Schiller and Mann.

More Curious Germany

Whitney Houston uncovered

February 12th, 2012 5 comments

It was in a place called The Video Café in London’s West End that I first became aware of Whitney Houston. In 1985 the concept of a restaurant playing video promos of pop music on big screens was still so novel as to present a special gastronomic experience. So I heard, and saw, Whitney singing How Will I Know there. She wouldn’t bother the British charts for another few months when she topped the charts with her cover of Marilyn McCoo’s Saving All My Love.

We know the trajectory her career took, from superstardom to megastardom to megadivadom to trainwreck who couldn’t buy a comeback for love or money. Following her passing yesterday, she’ll have that comeback. The timing of her death, on the eve of the Grammys, guarantees it. What a way for a diva to go out (even if that will be of scant consolation to her grieving mother Cissy, her daughter, her family or friends)! The tributes are flooding in, as they tend to when somebody as famous as Whitney Houston dies. People who should know better declare Whitney Houston the “Queen of Pop”, her lack of success or accomplishment over the past decade or so notwithstanding. And even in her pomp, Madonna and Mariah Carey had more solid claims to that crown.

Simon Cowell, who has done more than most to molest and maim popular music, has proclaimed Houston the most influential artist ever, or hyperbolic words to that effect. He might have a point: Houston was in the vanguard of singers who pushed the ostentatious soul wailings so overcooked by people like Patti LaBelle into the mainstream (she was joined there by the even greater offenders in that unwelcome development, Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men), replicated to nauseating effect by many who tried for Cowell’s talent shows. And, of course, many singers say they were inspired by Whitney Houston, and we must take their word for it.

Of course, Houston will be remembered rightly as a singer with a truly great voice, a woman of great beauty (which even in her drug phase was evident beneath the addict exterior), and as an artist who was ready to encourage young talents. She will be remembered as a diva and as a hitmaker. She will be remembered by some with emotions that are less than fond for her ubiquity in 1992/93, when her love-it-or-hate-it version of I Will Always Love You was impossible to bypass. And she will be remembered as a cautionary tale about the very real perils of drugs and marrying men who are known to be major douchebags. Eventually it will be remembered that for all her talent, voice and poise, Whitney Houston’s output didn’t quite justify the acclaim it is getting now.

Her song-choices and much of the production often failed to do her voice justice; for a soul singer, there was a tendency of technique trumping emotion (her song So Emotional is a good example of that). And when the production really let her voice soar, as it did on I Will Always Love You, it annoyed many and turned them conclusively against Whitney. So she leaves us with six albums, a couple of soundtracks, a few singles (such as the 1988 Olympics anthem One Moment In Time), and her spine-chilling performance of the US national anthem that provided the soundtrack to George Bush Sr’s Gulf War.

Her eponymously titled debut album from 1985 remains the stand-out in Houston’s catalogue. The power ballads are already there, as are the pop numbers, like the deliriously catchy How Will I Know. But the LP has a soul feel, especially when Whitney duets with Jermaine Jackson and Teddy Pendergrass (their Hold Me is just beautiful) and on tracks like You Give Good Love.

The sophomore album, titled with a singular lack of imagination Whitney, dispensed with the soul and recycled How Will I Know as I Wanna Dance With Somebody (both co-written by George Merrill, Shannon Rubicam and Michael Narada Walden) and All At Once as Didn’t We Almost Have It All (both co-written by Michael Masser), just with bigger productions, bigger synths or bigger orchestras. It is an album that has not aged well.

The third album, I’m Your Baby Tonight (1990), traded the Masser productions for those by LA Reid and Babyface, with Walden, Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross also chipping in. It was a patchy album, but Whitney regained some of the soul cred which she would promptly lose with The Bodyguard (1992), the soundtrack of the movie in which she acted poorly opposite Kevin Costner, the thespian version of Kenny G (who, predictably, features on the soundtrack). Houston contributed about half of the songs to the soundtrack, which is quite awful once her songs are done with. And even those are not great. Run To You is a sweet song and I Have Nothing is a showstopper type of affair which should go down well at drag clubs. But the horror was Whitney going rock on the dreadful Queen Of The Night, one of the very few songs on which she earned a writing credit.

A couple of other movies and associated soundtracks followed. Of those, The Preacher’s Wife (1997) is mediocre, but Houston’s three turns on the Babyface-produced soundtrack for Waiting To Exhale (1995), are good. A creditable fourth album in My Love Is Your Love (1998) followed – and nothing really worth recalling thereafter.

She had hits, and she even had some fine records, but this is not the strike rate of a legend. Her status as a legend is guaranteed by three other things: her voice, which touched and, yes, influenced many people; her poise, which never suggested, even in her drug-addled days, that she was anything less than a star (the Norma Desmond effect, if you will); and her death at a relatively young age, before her beauty went and before her voice disappeared entirely. She clearly was a troubled soul, far from the seemingly carefree young woman whom I saw in on the screen in The Video Café 27 years ago. May she rest in peace.

Over the next few days we will hear enough Whitney Houston material, and people singing Whitney Houston material in ways that may or may not be classifiable as tributes. So here are the originals of some of the songs Whitney Houston covered. The one non-original is All The Man That I Need, which Sister Sledge covered in 1982 from Linda Clifford’s 1981 original, with guest vocals by David Simmons, before Whitney recorded it in 1990. Their version is superior to Whitney’s. As are, in my view all the other originals, with the exception of Marilyn McCoo’s excellent Saving All My Love For You, which Whitney not only eclipsed but hit out of the park. Singing backing vocals on I’m Every Woman is a 15-year-old Whitney Houston…

Marilyn McCoo – Saving All My Love For You (1978).mp3
George Benson – The Greatest Love Of All (1977).mp3
Isley Brothers – For The Love Of You (1975).mp3
Sister Sledge – All The Man I Need (1982).mp3
Dolly Parton – I Will Always Love You (1974).mp3
Chaka Khan – I’m Every Woman (1978).mp3

 

Covered With Soul Vol. 10

February 8th, 2012 8 comments

We reach a decade of Covered With Soul mixes with interpretations of songs better known in versions by the Mamas and the Papas, Rolling Stones, Randy Newman,  The Righteous Brothers, Brook Benton, Ben E King (or Shirley Bassey), Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick, The Shirelles, Frankie Laine, Frankie Valli, Jimmy Cliff, Blood Sweat & Tears, Bob Dylan, Chicken Shack (or the late Etta James),  Kris Kristofferson,  Gil Scott-Heron, Carpenters, Doobie Brothers, Bread and Abba.

Even if you are a casual observer of soul music, you will know at least one voice here among the lesser known singers: Dorothy Morrison. She was the lead voice on Oh Happy Day, the mammoth hit for the Edwin Hawkins Singers. A superior singer, Morrison never hit the big time as a solo artist – she had one Top 100 hit in 1970 with All God’s Children Got Soul –  though she was much in demand as a backing singer with acts like Boz Scaggs and Rita Coolidge, and continues to perform as a gospel artist. In 1970 she backed Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell at the Big Sur Folk Festival, which yielded the Celebration album, from which Merry Clayton’s version of Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ comes. Clayton will, of course, always be associated with the Rolling Stones for her spine-tingling vocals on Gimme Shelter (her solo version of the song featured on Covered With Soul Vol. 1). A Stones song is also represented in this mix: Labelle’s fantastic take on Wild Horses, which might actually eclipse both the Rolling Stones and the Flying Burrito Brothers’ version, which was released before that by the Stones.

Tommy Hunt features here covering Kris Kristofferson in 1976. He had a mammoth hit some two decades earlier, as a member of The Flamingos with I Only Have Eyes For You. We have also met him in The Originals as the first performer of Bacharach/David’s I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself (see The Originals 36). Even at 78, Hunt remains very active in show business, as his website  proves.

 TRACKLISTING
1. Vessie Simmons – Dedicated To The One I Love (1971)
2. Labelle – Wild Horses (1971)
3. Maxine Weldon – I Think It’s Going To Rain Today (1971)
4. Vivian Reed – You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling (1970)
5. Hearts Of Stone – Rainy Night In Georgia (1971)
6. Dee Dee Warwick – I Who Have Nothing (1969)
7. Melba Moore – People (1971)
8. Gladys Knight & The Pips – Theme From Valley of the Dolls (1968)
9. Cissy Houston – Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (1972)
10. The Ebonys – I Believe (1973)
11. The Manhattans – Can’t Take My Eyes Off You (1970)
12. Martha Reeves – Many Rivers To Cross (1974)
13. Dorothy Morrison – Hi De Ho (That Old Sweet Roll) (1970)
14. Merry Clayton – The Times They Are A Changin’ (Live) (1970)
15. Margie Joseph – I’d Rather Go Blind (1973)
16. Tommy Hunt – Help Me Make It Thru The Night (1976)
17. Esther Phillips – Home Is Where The Hatred Is (1972)
18. Jimmy ‘Bo’ Horne – They Long To Be Close To You (1979)
19. Candi Staton – Listen To The Music (1977)
20. The Whispers – Make It With You (1977)
21. Carol Douglas – Dancing Queen (1977)

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In Memoriam – January 2012

February 3rd, 2012 10 comments

Last month I announced the end of the In Memoriam column. The reaction, by comments and messages via email and Facebook, surprised me. I had been under the impression, acquired by the few comments they received and the very average hits recorded, that the feature was only mildly popular (which serves to stress the importance to comment on posts in features you enjoy).

The labour required for the In Memoriam feature remains prohibitive, but by cutting out what really took a lot of time – researching and collating the music and pictures – I can still provide a list, and at least some tunes, of the month’s music deaths.

The headline death of the month was that of Etta James on January 20, just three days after the death of the man who discovered her, R&B legend Johnny Otis. The father of Shuggie Otis, Johnny Otis was the son of Greek immigrants to the US (his real name was Ioannis Alexandros Veliotes) who decided to live and work in the black community. Along the way Otis produced Big Mama Thornton’s Hound Dog, and discovered artists such as Esther Philips, Jackie Wilson and Hank Ballard.

January 17 was a sad day indeed for soul fans – much of the month was (and the passing of Don Cornelius on Wednesday didn’t lighten things up much). On the same day Johnny Otis went, a day after Jimmy Castor’s departure, Leroy Taylor of New Birth and Walter Gaines of The Originals (you might remember their Baby I’m For Real on Motown) passed away.

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Robert Dickey, 72, Bobby of James & Bobby Purify, on December 29
James & Bobby Purify – I’m Your Puppet (1966)

Fred Milano, 72, singer with Dion and The Belmonts, on January 1
Dion and the Belmonts – A Teenager in Love (1959, as backing singer)

Larry “Rhino” Reinhardt, 63, guitarist with Iron Butterfly and Captain Beyond, on January 2

Ian Bargh, 76, Canadian jazz pianist, on January 2

Bob Weston, 64, briefly guitarist with Fleetwood Mac, found on January 3

Kerry McGregor, 37, British singer and X-Factor contestant, on January 4

Tom Ardolino, 56, drummer of rock band NRBQ, on January 6
NRBQ – Boys In The City (1972)

Nicole Bogner, 27, singer of Austrian metal band Visions of Atlantis, on January 6

Dave Alexander, 73, blues singer and pianist, suicide on January 8

Bridie Gallagher, 87, Irish singer, on January 9

Ruth Fernandez, 92, pioneering Puerto Rican singer, on January 9

Ernie Carson, 74, Dixieland jazz musician, on January 9

Cliff Portwood, 74, English-born Australian singer and former professional football player, on January 10

Edgar Kaiser Jr, 69, soft-rock singer, on January 11

Charlie Collins, 78, member of Roy Acuff’s Smoky Mountain Boys, on January 12

Phil Kraus, 94, jazz percussionist and drummer, on January 13
Sarah Vaughan – Street Of Dreams (1949, as drummer)

Robbie France, 52, drummer (Skunk Anansie, Diamond Head, UFO, Ellis, Beggs, & Howard), on January 14
Skunk Anansie – Weak (1994, as writer and drummer)

Pee Wee Moultrie, 89, member of Hank Williams’ Drifting Cowboys, on January 15

Terry Dolan, 68, singer and guitarist of 1960s folk-rock group Terry & the Pirates, on January 15

Jimmy Castor, 71, R&B and funk saxophonist, on January 16
Jimmy Castor Bunch – Troglodyte (Cave Man) (1972)
Jimmy Castor Bunch – Bertha Butt Boogie (1975)

Johnny Otis, 90, R&B singer, songwriter and producer, on January 17
Johnny Otis – Willy And Hand Jive (1958)
Etta James – The Wallflowerr (a.k.a. Roll With Me Henry) (1955, as producer and co-writer)

Leroy Taylor, 67, funk bassist of funk-soul group New Birth, on January 17
The New Birth – Brand New Lover (1970)

Walter Gaines, founder and baritone of soul group The Originals, on January 17
The Originals – Why When Love Is Gone (1969)

Al Urban, 77, rockabilly singer and songwriter, on January 18

Winston Riley, 65, Jamaican reggae musician and producer, on January 19

Etta James, 73, R&B and blues legend, on January 20
Etta James – Stop The Wedding (1962)
Etta James – Don’t Go To Strangers (1995)

Larry Butler, 69, country music producer, songwriter and musician, on January 20
B. J. Thomas – Hey Won’t You Play Another Done Somebody Wrong Song (1975, as co-writer)

John Levy, 99, jazz double-bassist and manager (Nancy Wilson, Cannonball Adderley,  Ramsey Lewis a.o.), on January 20
Don Byas & Big Bill Broonzy – You Go To My Head (1945, as bassist)

Dick Kniss, 74, bassist for Peter, Paul and Mary,  John Denver a.o., on January 25
John Denver – Sunshine On My Shoulder (1971, as co-writer)

Mark Reale, 56, founder and guitarist of heavy metal group Riot, on January 25

Clare Fischer, 83, jazz and pop composer, arranger and keyboardist, on January 26

Todd Buffa, 59, singer of jazz group Rare Silk, on January 27
Rare Silk – New York Afternoon (1983)

Leslie Carter, 25, pop singer and sister of Nick and Aaron Carter, on January 31

King Stitt, 71, Jamaican ska singer, on January 31

Mike Kelley, 57, artist and musician with cult rock band Destroy All Monsters, suicide on January 31

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