The only soul legend whose hand I’ve ever shaken has died. Percy Sledge enjoyed the privilege of my handshake in London in 1987. Sledge is of course best remembered for his soaring performance of When A Man Loves A Woman, and perhaps for Warm And Tender Love. In South Africa he enjoyed legendary status thanks to several tours there in the 1970s, especially in 1970/71, when he played to segregated audiences. There were of course those who objected, but even a good number of anti-apartheid activists went because, well, it was Percy Sledge. This was a time when the cultural boycott had not got traction yet — even The Byrds toured South Africa; the reason Gram Parsons gave for leaving the group. Of the featured tracks, two relate to that time: the opening of a 1970 concert for mixed-race audiences at the Luxurama in Cape Town, and the very rare Swazi Lady which appeared only on the soundtrack album of a documentary on his South Africa tour, Percy Sledge In Soul Africa.
Just a fortnight later, Ben E. King left us. Coincidentally, both Sledge and King had UK hits in 1987 with their classic songs on strength of commercials for Levi 501s. King, then still known by his birth name Benjamin Nelson, got his break in the late ‘50s as the frontman of The Drifters. That group’s whole line-up was fired by their manager (who owned the rights to the name) in 1958 and replaced by King’s doo wop group The Five Crowns. Due to a contract dispute King didn’t stay long with the group, recording just 13 songs (11 of them as the lead) before going solo. But what a line-up of songs that was, including There Goes My Baby (which he co-wrote), Save the Last Dance for Me, This Magic Moment and I Count the Tears (on TV King’s vocals were lip synched by Drifters member Charlie Tomas).
As a solo artist King enjoyed several hits, some later covered by others with commercial success, such as Spanish Harlem, Don’t Play That Song (You Lied), So Much Loved and I (Who Have Nothing). But his biggest hit was, of course, Stand By Me, which he wrote with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, based on a gospel song, Lord Stand By Me. King used the royalties for the song for the Stand By Me Foundation, which provides education to disadvantaged youths.
Anybody who has ever played Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird loudly while driving will have banged out the song’s drum rolls on the steering wheel. The drummer who created these is now gone, at the age of 64. Bob Burns joined Lynyrd Skynyrd’s in 1966 and played on the first two albums, which yielded hits such as Free Bird, Simple Man, Gimme Three Steps, Tuesday’s Gone, Don’t Ask Me No Questions and Sweet Home Alabama. He left the band in 1974 on account of the stress of touring. He died after hitting a tree on the way home from a gig in Bartow County, Georgia.
It is unusual to feature people in this series who never recorded or in some way helped to record music, but in the case of Suzanne Crough I must make an exception. Suzanne played little Tracy on The Partridge Family, a TV show which is still very watchable and the music of which (recorded by members the Wrecking Crew with David Cassidy) is much better than it is given credit for. On the show, Tracy’s job on stage was to play the tambourine, which was rather more believable than Danny playing like Larry Knechtel or either of the Chrises drumming like Hal Blaine. Crough left acting in 1980; she later owned a bookshop and managed an office supply store.
Jack Ely was responsible for one of the great iconic rock vocals of the 1960s. As a co-founder of The Kingsmen, he slurred the lyrics of their 1963 cover of Richard Berry’s Louie Louie in one take; not helped by wearing braces at the time. The good times hadn’t arrived when Ely got screwed over. The single had just been released, far from being a hit, when drummer Lynn Easton ordered that he’d front the group forthwith, with Ely tasking over drumming duties. Ely refused and left The Kingsmen. Once Louie Louie became a hit, Easton would mime the words to Ely’s recorded voice. Legal action put a stop to that, and secured Ely a slice of royalties, a rather paltry $6,000.
Nobody wrote more songs for Elvis Presley than Sid Tepper, who has died at 94. Tepper wrote 45 songs for Elvis, all of them for his movies; other than GI Blues none of them are very well known (though Tepper said Elvis had particular affection for the featured song). Tepper, a WW2 veteran, got his break in 1948 when he wrote Red Roses For A Blue Lady, with which Guy Lombardo scored a big hit. It was covered many times after, including a version by Frank Sinatra, for whom Tepper later wrote the hit A Long Way From Your House to My House. He also wrote the Cliff Richard hit The Young Ones, which inspired the title of the 1980s British cult comedy of that name.
Few will know the name, but in Bill Arhos the world lost a man who helped boost many careers and brought great joy to many music lovers. He was the founder of the TV programme Austin City Limits, which has showcased a huge number of great artists since 1974, when the pilot was shot — a gig by Willie Nelson (see a track from the show at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qn8A72wnOZM). In 2010 the show was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Ray Charles has died. And if you are slightly bemused at my failure to keep up with the news, let me hasten to point out that I mean the sighted, white Ray Charles who has died at 96. You’ll have heard his voice, perhaps even sang along to it: “Come and knock on our door….”. This Other Ray Charles, as he self-deprecatingly called himself, sang on the theme song of the sitcom Three’s Company. American readers of a certain age may remember him as the leader of the Ray Charles Singers, who backed Perry Como on his TV show for 35 years. And US school kids may have sung, or still sing, his Fifty Nifty United States, which lists the union’s states in alphabetical order.
Ralph Sharon, 91, long-time pianist with Tony Bennett, on March 31
Tony Bennett – Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe (1961)
Billy Butler, 69, soul singer, on April 1
Billy Butler – Play My Music (1977)
Cynthia Lennon, 75, first wife of John Lennon, on April 1
Dave Ball, 65, English guitarist (Procol Harum 1971-72; Bedlam), on April 1
Procol Harum – Conquistador (live, 1972)
Bob Burns, 64, drummer of Lynyrd Skynyrd (1966-74), car crash on April 3
Lynyrd Skynyrd – Simple Man (1973)
Julie Wilson, 90, singer and actress, on April 5
Julie Wilson with Ellis Larkins Trio – The Party’s Over
Ray Charles, 96, singer, songwriter, conductor and arranger, on April 6
The Ray Charles Singers – Love Me With All Your Heart (1964)
Ray Charles & Julia Rinker Miller – Theme of Three’s Company (1977)
Milton Delugg, 96, composer, conductor (Tonight Show), musical director, on April 6
Nat King Cole with Stan Kenton – Orange Colored Sky (1950, as co-writer)
Stan Freberg, 88, comedian, voice actor, novelty hit singer, on April 8
Stan Freberg – Yankee Doodle Go Home (1961)
Tut Taylor, 91, American bluegrass dobro player, on April 9
Tut Taylor – The Old Post Office
Anne Tkach, 48, bassist of alt.country band Hazeldine, in a fire on April 9
Hazeldine – When You Sleep
Keith McCormack, 74, singer and songwriter, on April 10
The String-A-Longs – Wheels (1960, as member)
Jimmy Gilmer & the Fireballs – Sugar Shack (1963, as writer)
Bill Arhos, 80, musician and founder of Austin City Limits, on April 11
Lost Gonzo Band – London Homesick Blues (1977, original theme)
Ronnie Carroll, 80, Northern Irish singer, on April 13
Chuck Sagle, 87, arranger and composer, on April 13
Gene Pitney – Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, as arranger)
Percy Sledge, 74, soul legend, on April 14
Percy Sledge – What Am I Living For (1967)
Percy Sledge – Cover Me/Knock On Wood (live, 1970)
Percy Sledge – Swazi Lady (1971)
Margo Reed, 73, jazz musician, on April 15
Johnny Kemp, 55, Bahamian singer, body found after drowning on April 16
Johnny Kemp – Just Got Paid (1988)
Eric Allen Doney, 62, musician, musical director (Bob Hope), jazz label founder, on April 17
Richard Anthony, 77, French singer, on April 20
Wally Lester, 73, tenor with doo wop group The Skyliners, on April 21
The Skyliners – Pennies From Heaven (1960)
Pete Phillips, 50, guitarist of synth band Six Finger Satellite, on April 23
Sid Tepper, 96, songwriter, on April 24
Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians – Red Roses For A Blue Lady (1948)
Marty Napoleon, 93, jazz pianist, on April 27
Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra – Kiss Of Fire (1952, on piano)
Jack Ely, 71, co-founder and original lead singer of The Kingsmen, on April 27
The Kingsmen – Louie Louie (1963)
Guy LeBlanc, 54, Canadian keyboard player with prog rock band Nathan Mahl, on April 27
Suzanne Crough, 52, tambourine shaker in The Partridge Family, on April 27
The Partridge Family – Brown Eyes (1971)
Keith Harris, 67, British ventriloquist who had a UK hit with puppet Orville, on April 28
Patachou, 96, French singer and actress, on April 30
Patachou – Mon homme (1951)
Ben E. King, 76, soul legend, on April 30
The Drifters – There Goes My Baby (1958, on lead vocals)
Ben E. King – Don’t Play That Song For Me (1962)
Ben E. King – Cry No More (1965)
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