I’ve never bought the argument that music was better in the past, and that somehow music, popular or otherwise, is anything more than a reflection of the times. That said, there’s no denying that we lost a lot of brilliant musicians in 2008, and it won’t be the same without them.
This is far from a comprehensive list, but rather a baker’s dozen of people that I was sad to see leave us. I’m also going to recommend a place to start, in case you need to catch up on any of these giants.
Black Moses truly had a golden touch, and it’s hard to imagine the course of popular music if he’d never walked into the nascent Stax studio on McLemore Ave. I was fortunate enough to attend one of his last performances at the Hollywood Bowl, and even if he looked a little shaky post-stroke, his mere presence lent magnitude to the night air. No matter what Hayes did, whether it was an arrangement for Sam & Dave, the most badass theme song ever (“Shaft… damn right”), the black Woodstock (Wattstax) or the voice of the inimitable Chef, he left an indelible impression.
Where to start: Hot Buttered Soul, the 1969 LP that pretty much determined the course of soul music in the 1970s with epic songs like “Walk On By,” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.”
The Hammond B3 has had its share of extremely talented practitioners, but Jimmy McGriff perhaps did more than any of them to meld jazz, blues and gospel into accessible slabs of sizzling R&B. From his chart-topping reworking of Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman” to “The Worm” the Philadelphian never stopped growing as an artist, but more importantly, as a musician who knew how to make people move.
Where to start: The beginning. His first album, I Got A Woman, launched him onto a soul jazz scene that he would continue to grow with well into the 1980’s.
Harlem, New York
Norman Whitfield’s extravagant productions are the exception to every rule Motown had. He was responsible for quality control, songwriting and production for the fabled Sound of Young America, and his list of accomplishments there make picking a highlight daunting. If I had to go with one, it would be “I Wish It Would Rain,” a song he co-wrote with Eddie Holland that ushered in a new era at Motown. Without Whitfield proving that adventurous new sounds could still make money, who’s to say Berry Gordy would have allowed (Whitfield-aided) masterpieces like What’s Going On and Innervisions.
Where to start: The Temptations’ Masterpiece. This 1973 album represents the tail end of Motown’s commercial peak, but the soaring strings and psych-influenced instrumentation perfectly demonstrate his visionary talent.
The Redskins had a pretty bad year, but no, I’m not talking about their beloved (former) coach. This Gibbs, a Kingston icon and former TV repairman, played a vital role in nearly all the music that came from the island in the 60s and 70s, through financial backing or sheer force of personality. Whether it’s dub, rocksteady, dancehall, ska or shit, just reggae, Gibbs’ steady hand oversaw a lot of great music for a very long time.
Where to start: Productions on Soul Jazz is about as good a place as any, if a price-y one. Really, any one of the many compilations is a good place, just to get a sense of all the different types of work he was doing. It’s easy to lump reggae under one large genre tag, but Gibbs makes the differences between, say, dub and ska seem not so subtle.
Bronx, New York
Someone, I can’t remember who, said, “Without Jerry Wexler, Aretha Franklin would be just another failed jazz singer.” Now, I have a hard time agreeing with that, but there’s more than a shred of truth there. No Jerry Wexler and there isn’t the decision to take her to Muscle Shoals. And, the man was the first to use the term “rhythm & blues.” No matter which way you cut it, Wexler helped bring us Atlantic Records, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, The Queen of Soul, Led Zeppelin, even a little Dylan, and wanted two words on his tombstone: more bass. My kinda guy.
Where to start: Wexler’s decision to sign Aretha Franklin away from Columbia Records, where they’d put her prodigious pipes in a jazz setting to little commercial success, and back her up with the hottest band in Alabama was brilliant. So yeah, I’ve Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You is the place to go first. You might be there for a while.
I was a little surprised at the positive response to my obituary for Stubbs earlier this year. I kind of saw him as unappreciated by casual music fans who know his voice, but not his name. I think I underestimated people a bit though; Stubbs is a legit icon who led the Four Tops to the top of the charts again and again. He had one of those gritty soul-shouter voices, but the ability to make it sound like he was never straining. Quiet confidence, passionate delivery—Levi Stubbs was born to sing, and gave his life to Detroit and his music.
Where to start: Like most Motown groups, The Four Tops were a singles band, so any greatest hits package will do. Some are a better value, but it’s hard to go wrong.
Often cited as Jamaica’s most soulful singer, I often think of Anton Ellis as the island’s answer to Marvin Gaye. Ellis’ sides for Studio One and Treasure Isle set the blueprints for ska and rocksteady, although he was equally adept at interpreting American soul. “I’m Still In Love With You,” “Cry Tough” and “Get Ready – Rock Steady” made him famous, but he was a few years too early for the international superstardom many felt he deserved (instead accomplished by Bob Marley).
Where to start: Sunday Coming, the 1970 LP on Coxsone Dodd’s legendary Studio One, demonstrates Ellis’ talents as well as any of his LP’s for the label. A nice mix of covers and originals, with a killing band led by keyboardist Jackie Mittoo, the album show shim at the height of his considerable powers.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Palmer was a true innovator on the traps, bringing the backbeat to prominence with a veritable who’s who of New Orleans musicians throughout the 1950s and 60s. If that weren’t enough (and it is), he’s often attributed the first use of the word “funky” to describe the sound he was looking for. After he left for Hollywood in 1957, Palmer became the top session drummer in the industry, eventually becoming David Axelrod’s go-to guy, and subsequently one of the most sampled drummers in hip hop. He was capable of a lot more than a killer break though, manning the throne for everyone from Frank Sinatra and The Beach Boys, to Tom Waits and Dizzy Gillespie.
Where to start: Honestly, if you’re listening to music made from 1950 to 1980, there’s a very good chance Earl Palmer is playing drums. He rarely recorded as a leader, and he hasn’t really been anthologized (nor is there a proper discography for his session work), but the Ace compilation, The World’s Greatest Drummer, Ever! does a decent job of rounding up some of his best sides.
Diddley is so much larger than life that a paragraph could never do him justice. Instead of repeating he impressive resume, here’s a couple lesser-known facts: Diddley (real name Ellis Otha Bates) first band was The Hipsters, which means something, I’m just not sure what. His unique guitar design was inspired by a Gibson L5 related groin injury (fun to think about). He opened for The Clash in 1979 and sat in with the Grateful Dead in ’72. He’s gotten dap in the House of Representatives and has a cameo in Trading Places. Not only that, the man has his own rhythm. But you knew that.
Where to start: I’d say start with his very first album for Chess, the eponymous Bo Diddley from 1958. From there, his discography is your oyster… but since you can’t get it on CD, try The Definitive Collection.
Johannesburg, South Africa
Mama Afrika died exactly the way she long maintained she’d like to: performing for adoring fans. After she finished “Pata Pata,” and walked offstage (in Caserta, Italy) we lost a voice that transcended language (she sang in English & Xhosa, most famously on “The Click Song”), continents and genres. The wife of trumpeter Hugh Masekela and SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael and the “discoverer” of Harry Belafonte, Makeba was many Americans’ first exposure to African music. And she always kept it real, even though it long made her South Africa’s most notable exile.
Where to start: Pata Pata, the album and the song make for a phenomenal introduction. The joyous horns, the buoyant bass, and most importantly, her smooth, soaring alto make it easy to see how she could meld authentic African music to jazz, blues, folk and soul.
Shirley’s 1967 “Hold Them” is widely acknowledged as the first rocksteady hit (produced by Joe Gibbs), but that success is relative. Shirley made quite an impact on the island with his slowed-down soul sound and James Brown-inspired dance moves, but then virtually disappeared to the UK in 1973. Shirley emerged from obscurity after a compilation of his singles was released a few years ago, and was even coaxed back to the stage for the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival earlier this year. Unfortunately, he was taken before he could really receive his proper dues.
Where to start: That compilation, West Side’s Roy Shirley: Your Musical Priest has his big hit (“Hold Them”) and a lot of lesser known, but still quality tunes.
Most famous for being Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys drummer and eventually, the lead California Raisin in those unforgettable commercials, Miles was a rare talent. He was a wicked percussionist, and a gifted songwriter, churning out classics like “Them Changes” for his own bands like The Miles Express and Electric Flag. Miles is another one of those guys that seems like he had an indefatigable spirit and a perpetual style that will probably serve him well up in that fantasy funk band in the sky.
Where to start: It’s not the easiest thing to find, but Miles’ 1968 debut, Expressway To Your Skull, featured Jimi Hendrix in the producer’s chair and a whole lot of fuzzy guitars and monster drums. It also manages the elusive feat of sounding like an album conceived on acid. Like, whoa dude.
Freddie passed away as I was writing this column, and it really shook me. There’s another great one, gone, and once the last of these jazz trumpeters passes, that’s it. I mean, we’ll always have all of his classic sessions, and that’s enough for me, but Hubbard was the walking story of jazz. Like a lot of musicians that matured along with the art form, it’s hard to overstate his influence on his peers and their techniques. But from Atlantic to Blue Note to Columbia to Impulse to CTI, he always played with the best. From hard bop to free jazz to soul jazz to fusion to funk, he always kept it fresh.
Where to start: It really depends on what kind of jazz you’re most interested in, because Hubbard’s discography really is that wildly diverse, but if I had to go with one, I’d start with 1970’s Red Clay. Joined by Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Lenny White, the post-bop classic flaunts his blues-y melodicism and soulful arrangements on a fine set of originals plus one John Lennon (!) cover.