Every year it seems celebrity deaths increase, and not just amongst the elderly. In 2017, we lost some still young souls in addition to those classic artists we loved growing up. Rock and roll heaven expanded so greatly this year that it’s still hard to process the loss of so many beloved icons. However, we are here not to mourn, but to remember and celebrate those rockers and musicians whose legacies will live with us forever, even though their lights went out in 2017.
February 12 – Jazz, pop, and R&B master Al Jarreau passed at age 76. Winner of six Grammy awards in three different categories, he didn’t begin his musical career until he was nearly 30. He had a remarkable ability to combine different genres into his sound, including pop, soul, gospel, and Latin, and make something completely his own. His music was featured in TV shows and movies. If you grew up in the 80’s, Jarreau’s honeyed voice dominated your radio with such hits as “Boogie Nights”, “Mornin’” and “Breaking Away.” Jarreau continued to tour right up until the time of his death.
March – We lost two legends in March of this year, Joni Sledge of Sister Sledge – the group that gave us the party and wedding reception classic “We Are Family” – passed at age 60. The Sledge sisters also performed for Pope Francis in 2015. An even bigger blow was Chuck Berry, one of the very first pioneers of rock and roll. He has been called rock’s “conceptual genius” and was the creator of some of the most iconic guitar licks and moves in music history. Who isn’t familiar with “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “No Particular Place to Go,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Rock and Roll Music,” and “Hail Hail Rock and Roll.” It has said without him there would have been no Beatles, no Beach Boys, no Bob Dylan, and no Rolling Stones. It may surprise people to know he started out as a beautician before he started playing in small bands. As a black man in the pre-Civil Rights Era, he was persecuted and prosecuted many times and spent time in prison. His struggles served only to make him the very archetype of rock and roll that he is today, and will be forever. He was 90 at the time of his death.
April 11 – J. Geils, 71, made an impact on the 80’s with such songs as “Love Stinks,” “Centerfold,” and “Freeze Frame.” His full name was John Warren Geils Jr, and he was an accomplished guitarist who started his band in the 1970’s in Boston. After the sting of catchy pop hits in the 80’s, the band split up at the end of the decade. Geils went on to release two solo albums in the 90’s and three in the 2000’s. We will never forget the man who made pink fuzzy sweaters sexy in the decade of decadence.
May – This month well and truly hurt. On May 18, Chris Cornell, the iconic singer/songwriter and voice of Soundgarden and Audioslave, took his own life after a concert performance in Michigan. He was one of the architects of the grunge movement and provided a voice for the disenfranchised youth of the 1990’s and 2000’s. His voice was spectacular, whether singing with a group or on all of his solo efforts. This man touched so many souls; it’s hard to believe he is gone and at only 52.
We also lost 60’s and 70’s southern rocker Gregg Allman, one of the founding members of the Allman Brothers Band. He was the lead singer and keyboardist, and the primary creator of the band’s individualistic blend of blues, jazz, country and rock. Famous for songs like “Midnight Rider,” “Melissa,” and “Ramblin Man,” Allman was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement in 2012. He was briefly married to Cher in the late 70’s, and they released an album together called Two the Hard Way. He battled drug and alcohol abuse for years, surviving Hepatitis C and a liver transplant, before succumbing to liver cancer. He was 69.
June 20 – Rapper Prodigy, half of the hit duo Mobb Deep (along with Havoc) was born Albert Johnson. He came from a musical family, with his grandfather playing the saxophone, a grand-uncle who played the trombone – both were contributors to the bebop era of jazz. His mother was a member of the girl group the Crystals, and his father played doo wop music with a group called the Chanters. Johnson attended the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, where he met future musical partner Havoc. By 16, Prodigy was already signed to Jive Records. Mobb Deep released their first album, The Infamous, in 1995 which went gold within two months, followed by Hell on Earth. Prodigy also recorded solo albums that included H.N.I.C. and H.N.I.C. 2. His lyrics were no nonsense portrayals of street life in New York, and he possessed a vivid eye for detail. He published his autobiography My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy in 2011. He lost his battle with sickle cell anemia at age 42.
July – Christopher Wong Won (also known as Fresh Kid Ice), founder of 2 Live Crew, passed on July 13 at the age of 53. He was one of the first notable rappers of Asian decent. 2 Live Crew may be best remembered – especially by those of us who live in Florida – for recording the first record ever to be deemed legally offensive, “Me So Horny” from As Nasty As They Want To Be. In 1990, then Broward County Sheriff, warned record store owners that selling the record was a prosecutable offense, despite the fact that the song was already in heavy rotation on Miami radio stations. A local retailer was actually arrested for selling the album, and the brouhaha culminated in the arrest of three of the members – including Won – of the Crew after performing the album at a local club in Hollywood, Florida. The entire music community rallied around the group – whether you listened to hip hop or not – as we saw this as a hug violation of freedom of expression (not to mention a waste of law enforcement time with so much real crime happening in Miami and Fort Lauderdale). A Federal Appeals court overturned the obscenity ruling and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, but this was a landmark test of artistic freedom in the music industry. After the group broke up, Mr. Wong Won released several solo albums. In recent years, he reunited with 2 Live Crew members for several performances. His memoir, My Rise 2 Fame, was published in 2015. He died in Miami.
Just as we thought things couldn’t get any worse, we lost Chester Bennington of Linkin Park on July 20 to suicide at 41. The voice of Generation X and many millenials, Linkin Park captured the feelings of anxiety, frustration and depression of many disenfranchised youth. Linkin Park released a total of seven albums, with the most recent, “One More Light,” releasing only this May. Noted for hits such as “Numb,” “In The End,” “Breaking the Habit,” “Given Up,” and “What I’ve Done,” Bennington never had an easy life; he was the victim of sexual abuse, bullied for being skinny and looking different, and suffered from depression and addiction. In addition to Linkin Park, Bennington performed with Stone Temple Pilots from 20130-2015. Many believe his death may have been influenced by the loss of friend Chris Cornell, whose funeral he performed at. His suicide occurred on what would have been Cornell’s 53rd birthday.
We thought we may have been off the hook for the year, as we had several quiet months until we were hit with a doozy on October 2 – legendary rocker Tom Petty, whose career spanned decades, and was always a radio staple. He is considered one of the best selling musical artists of all times. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, and performed at the Super Bowl halftime in 2008. Petty was born in Gainesville, Florida, and at age 10 met Elvis Presley while his uncle worked on the film Follow That Dream. Between that and seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1964, he knew he wanted to become a musician. One of his first guitar teachers was Don Felder, who later went on to become a member of the Eagles. In 1976 he formed the Heartbreakers, and in 1977 released their first single, “Breakdown.” Their third album, Damn the Torpedoes went platinum, and featured the hits “Don’t Do Me Like That, “Refugee,” and “Here Comes My Girl.” The hits never stopped coming after that and Petty became a household name. In 2017, the Heartbreakers embarked on a 40th Anniversary Tour of the United States. The tour began on April 20 in Oklahoma City and ended on September 25 with a performance at the Hollywood Bowl in California. The Hollywood Bowl concert, which would ultimately be the Heartbreakers’ final show, ended with a performance of “American Girl”. Petty’s contributions to music are endless and many artists have been influenced by him. His legacy will live forever.
Also in October we lost Fats Domino (real name Antoine Dominique), another pioneer in the industry. The boogie-woogie piano man gave us more than three dozen top 40 hits, including “Blueberry Hill,” “Ain’t It A Shame,” and “Blue Monday.” He was one of the biggest stars of the early days of rock and roll, and was the master of the wordless vocals, making songs out of woo-woos and la-las. His 1949 release “The Fat Man” is widely regarded as the first million-selling Rock ‘n Roll record. In 1986, he was one of the first musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Numerous artists have covered his songs, including Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Lennon and McCartney, Cheap Trick, Norah Jones, Willie Nelson, Elton John and Led Zeppelin to name a few. In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of the Arts although he declined to sing at the White House. According to Richie Unterberger, writing for AllMusic, Domino was one of the most consistent artists of early rock music, the best-selling African-American rock-and-roll star of the 1950s, and the most popular singer of the “classic” New Orleans rhythm and blues style. His million-selling debut single, “The Fat Man” (1949), is one of many that have been cited as the first rock and roll record. He passed at age 89.
November – When it rains, it pours. In this mont, we lost teen idol David Cassidy, rapper Lil Peep, and country music Hall of Fame epochal, Mel Tillis. We wrote about the loss of Cassidy on November 22, which you can read here.
Lil Peep, Gustav Elijah Åhr, was perhaps the youngest person we lost from the music scene this year, passing at age 21 from a drug overdose. He was one of pop music’s upcoming new talents, who blended emo with hip hop to create an entirely new sound. He was once called the Kurt Cobain of rap. He had a large following on Soundcloud, and released his first two mixtapes on the streaming platform in 2015. In 2017, he released “Crybaby” and “Hellboy.” On June 2, he released his first mainstream album, Come Over When You’re Sober. The rawness and sincerity of his lyrics and what they conveyed about life created an intense bond with his fans. He was on tour promoting his latest releases when he died.
Mel Tillis, 85, could quite possibly have an encyclopedia written about him. Once known as “Stutterin’ Boy” for what ending up becoming a trademark speech impediment, he placed a whopping 35 singles on the country music music top 10. In addition to being a musician to being a musician, Tillis was an entrepreneur, and had a song publishing and film company. He also owned a theater in Missouri and a 1400 acre farm. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame and was awarded a National Medal of the Arts from President Barack Obama in 2012. He was also awarded Entertainer of the Year at the Country Music Awards. He was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2007. He was another homegrown Florida boy, and his stutter came about after suffering from malaria. It didn’t stop Tillis from pursuing a career in music, and began playing guitar and drums at 16. After serving in the Air Force, he moved to Nashville and began to write songs, first for other artists and then for himself. He had his first top 40 hit in 1958. He influenced many other country music artists over the decades, and daughter Pam Tillis continues his country music legacy.
We also lost rocker Malcolm Young, AC/DC co-founder and guitarist. He had been living with dementia; a condition which forced him to retired from his band in 2014. The Glasgow-born, Sydney-raised Young and his brother Angus founded AC/DC in 1973, when Malcolm was only 20. The band is widely considered one of the greatest rock outfits of all time, and Young is frequently cited as the driving force behind its success. Young and AC/DC were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003. “Back in Black,” “Shook Me All Night Long,” “Thunderstruck,” “Shoot To Thrill,” ‘Highway to Hell,” “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” and “Hell’s Bells” (my ringtone) are only a few of their well known hits.
December: Kim Jong-hyun, of K-Pop band SHINee, was certainly a shocker when it was announced he had committed suicide. Jong-hyun was selected as a member of the South Korean boy band SHINee when he was 18 years old. Since then, SHINee continued being one of the most popular groups with songs, like “View,” “Dreamgirl,” and “Sherlock.” In 2015, Jonghyun made his solo debut, and later released his first solo studio album, She Is, in May 2016. Considered to be the first artist of S.M. Entertainment to have participated the most in the writing, organizing, and composing for an album, Jonghyun has frequently been called one of few K-pop artists who have a higher level of musicality.
Our hearts always break for the talented musicians who pass, whether tragically or from natural causes, young or old. Whether you were a fan of these musicians or not, the music they gave this world will always be remembered. News of a musician dying saddens friends, families, and fans because of their unforgettable songs and performances and I firmly believe their legacies can’t be overstated. Let’s celebrate the music these people gifted the world with and lift a glass to the singers and musicians we lost, and keep them in our hearts and memories forever.