We Gotta Go: The Dead Musicians of 2015

It was a bad year for drummers. And Lemmy.

By Jim Knipfel

In terms of dead musicians, 2015 may not go down as one of the most memorable of years. After all, we didn’t lose any monumental international icons. There were no dead Elvises, Sinatras, or even Michael Jacksons — no singular musical figures whose passing blew all the other news off the air and dominated the public consciousness for weeks, let alone even a couple hours. Still, The Reaper did some serious plucking from the music industry in 2015, which is all more than a little disheartening, considering that as these talented musicians are being taken from us, they’re being replaced these days by what? Vocoders and computer programs like Garage Band.Although we didn’t lose another Elvis, we did lose Elvis’ band leader Joe Guercio, as well as Sid Tepper and Roy Bennett, both of whom wrote songs for Elvis movies. We also lost Grand Ole Opry star Little Jimmy Dickens, who had a big novelty hit with “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose,” and gospel singer Andraé Crouch. Tim Drummond, who played bass for both CSN&Y and Neil Young kicked, as did, coincidentally and ironically enough, Dallas Taylor, who was Crosby, Stills and Nash’s drummer.

Kim Fowley, who not only wrote songs for the likes of Alice Cooper and KISS, but also managed the Runaways, croaked this year, as did legendary songwriter Ervin Drake, the man who gave us “It was a Very Good Year”; rapper A$ap Yams; Tangerine Dream founder Edgar Froese; Bay Area rapper Dominic Newton (aka The Jackal); Buddy Holly bassist Joe B. Mauldin, and Visage lead singer Steve Strange.

It may still have been Leslie Gore’s party this year, but other people were doing the crying. Others (or maybe the same ones) were mourning the loss of Janis Joplin guitarist Sam Andrew ; Duke Ellington and Tonight Show trumpeter Clark Terry; Australian rock legend Stevie Wright; Nashville songwriter and studio musician Bobby Emmons; blues guitarist Robert “Wolfman” Belfour; Charmayne (Maxee) Maxwell of the ’90s R&B group Brownstone; Grammy-winning jazz producer Orrin Keepnews; surf guitarist and “Pipeline” co-writer Brian Carman; R&B singer-songwriter Don Covay; Blood, Sweat and Tears trumpet player Lew Soloff; Three Dog Night’s co-founder Cory Wells and keyboardist Jimmy Greenspoon; Toto bassist Mike Porcaro; Free bassist and “All Right Now” co-writer Andy Fraser; The Left Bank’s songwriter and keyboardist Michael Brown; Twisted Sister drummer A.J. Pero; Molly Hatchet drummer Bruce Crump; Skynyrd’s first drummer Robert Burns Jr.; Motorhead’s drummer Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor; and John Renbourn, the folk guitarist and founder of The Pentangle Quintet. Three members of Khaotika and Wormreich died in a, well, khaotik van accident while on tour and are now, um, feeding the worms. Another Ray Charles bit the dust this year, but this one was the Grammy-winning composer of Easy Listening music and the Three’s Company theme. Jeremy Brown, who played guitar for Scott Weiland & the Wildabouts, stopped breathing this year, and wouldn’t you know it? So did Scott Weiland! Tony Bennet pianist Ralph Sharon has left the building, and so have “When a Man Loves a Woman” singer Percy Sledge; “Stand By Me” singer Ben E. King; blues legend B. B. King (coincidence?); Austin City Limits founder Bill Arhos; Lois Lilienstein of Sharon, Lois & Bram; pioneering country singer Bonnie Lou; R&B singer Johnny Kemp; the Great Jack Ely, whose semi-coherent vocals on The Kingsmen’s seminal (so to speak) “Louie, Louie” sent parents everywhere into paroxysms of fear and dismay; Pulitzer-nominated composer Ronald Senator; “You Sexy Thing” singer Errol Brown; R&B singer Ortheia Barnes-Kennerly; Sly and the Family Stone’s trumpet player Cynthia Robinson; famed NY Philharmonic conductor Kurt Masur; and record executive Bruce Lundvall, who resuscitated Blue Note records back in the 1980s.

Make your own “grave” joke here, but jazz trumpeter Marcus Belgrave died this past year, which leaves him in the same fix as folk singer Jean Ritchie; The Weavers’ Roni Gilbert; Will Holt, the folk singer who wrote “Lemon Tree” and a couple Broadway shows; visionary jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman; The Grand Ole Opry’s Jim Ed Brown; singer Monica Lewis, best known as the voice of Chiquita bananas; R&B singer Wendell Holmes of The Holmes Brothers; legendary New Orleans musician and composer Harold Batiste; legendary New Orleans musician and composer Allen Toussaint; Gunther Schiller, the composer who fused jazz and classical decades after Ellington and Gershwin did pretty much the same thing; Yes founder and bassist Chris Squire; country singer-songwriter Red Lane; and Michael Masser, who did just fine for himself writing songs for Whitney Houston and Diana Ross.

Well, it seems the fat lady has sung for tenor Jon Vickers. She’s also belted out a few tuneful dirges for Chicago rapper Capo; Brooklyn rapper Sean Price; Grammy-winning Mexican balladeer Joan Sebastian; “Always on My Mind” songwriter Wayne Carson; “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” singer Lynn Anderson; British singer and actress Cilla Black; country songwriter and producer Billy Sherrill; record producer Bob Johnston. who worked with Dylan and Johnny Cash; REO Speedwagon guitarist and songwriter Gary Richrath; one of Gladys Knight’s longest-serving Pips William Guest; ’50s singer Frankie Ford, vest known for his hit “Sea Cruise”; and musician Ben Cauley, who was the sole survivor of the plane crash that killed Otis Redding. Until now, anyway.

Phil Woods, a jazz sax player who played with Quincy jones, has wrapped his last gig, as have Motown Records’ first publicist Al Abrams; amplified vibraphonist Dave Pike; Camera Obscura keyboardist Carey Lander; pop country singer Billy Joe Royal; jazz singer Mark Murphy; Prom Kings founder and MTV reality show star Chris Carney; country singer Tommy Overstreet; The Beatles’ second drummer Andy White, who only appeared on their first single; country music traditionalist Ramona Jones; and timeless songwriter P.F. Sloane, who among other things gave us “Eve of Destruction” and “Secret Agent Man.”

Finally, I’d just like to take a moment here at the end to offer a few personal comments about two musicians who died this year who meant something to me, well, personally.

As part of the San Francisco-based avant-garde ensemble Negativeland, Ian Allen was a sonic outlaw, an artist and musician who flaunted copyright laws long before it was a common and thoughtless practice. Difference with Negativeland is that they did it with purpose, as a way of satirizing, critiquing, and dismantling the dominant culture. It got them into a shitload of trouble with Casey Kasem and those fuckers from U2, but they marched on nevertheless, bless them.

A deeply wise and famous man once asked me, “What’s the difference between Lemmy and God?” The answer was simple: “There is no difference—Lemmy IS God.” As mentioned above, Motorhead drummer Philthy Animal passed away earlier this year, which was bad enough, but to close the year with the loss of the legendary metal band’s founder and frontman Lemmy Kilmeister is almost too much to bear. Lemmy was one of those rare individuals who crossed all genre and tribe lines. Everybody loved Lemmy. The punks and the metal kids and parents alike. He was just so damn charming and hilarious and smart, fronting the Loudest Band in the World, appearing in B films, even penning his recent memoirs. I have far too many Lemmy stories to tell here (we were in a movie together!), but let me leave it at this—he was a singular performer and human being, a rare and wild bird whose likes will never be seen again. But his legacy will live on, considering a few years ago a biologist named a newly-discovered species of prehistoric worm after him.

All these dozens and dozens of people (well, most of them anyway) did their part to make the world a little better, a little more entertaining and interesting, at least for a little while, and with their passing it’s become a little less so. So here’s a toast and a tip of the hat in their memory, with some heartfelt thanks.

Published December 31st, 2015

Jim Knipfel is the author of Slackjaw, The Blow-Off, These Children Who Come at You With Knives, and several other books.