Nothing becomes a new year quite like looking at the one just left behind. It begets a feeling of exhilaration, akin to driving away from the car dealership in a shiny current model and catching a glimpse of the heap you traded in, dented and wan, parked in the service bay.
Don’t get too excited, though. You know how much new years depreciate the moment you drive off the lot.
Before we floor it into ’14, take a moment to remember some folks who won’t be along for the ride. At Boutwell Studios, where I toil, it has been a recurring Christmas tradition to place a photo of a worthy, recently deceased musician on an old red vinyl Flexidisk and hang it as an ornament on the tree. In recent years, there have been so many potential honorees that the dead musicians now have a tree all their own. It’s macabre, but it’s also merry.
2013 took an inordinately high number from the ranks of the musically prominent. January started slowly, marking the passing only of “The Singing Rage, Miss Patti Page,” one of the first multi-tracked vocalists and a hitmaker who sold over 100 million records, and Sammy Johns, whose only hit, “Chevy Van,” sold considerably fewer.
February was brutal, though. The first day of the month, we lost the last Andrews Sister, Patti, as well as funk guitarist Sugarfoot Bonner of the Ohio Players, and it was downhill from there. Reg Presley, lead singer of the Troggs; blues stars Ann Rabson and Magic Slim; Paul Tanner, so versatile he played trombone with the original Glenn Miller Orchestra and the Theremin on “Good Vibrations”; jazzy Donald Byrd and country Mindy McCready; Tony Sheridan, who hired the Beatles as his backup band in Hamburg in 1961; Shadow Morton, who produced melodrama out of music with groups like the Shangri-Las; Cleotha Staples of the Staple Singers and Dangerous Dan Toler of the Allman Brothers Band — they all fell in February.
Some of the musicians we lost were more memorable than others. Anyone who saw the movie Woodstock likely remembers the flying fingers of Alvin Lee, guitarist for Ten Years After, but Jason Molina of Magnolia Electric Band seemed to be just getting started. Everybody knew Annette Funicello, mostly by her first name, but not many could recall the names of her hit records. By contrast, people remember the great hits of the Spinners, like “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love,” “I’ll Be Around,” or “Then Came You,” but not many know that it was the late Bobby Smith who sang the leads on those songs.
Some people famous for working behind the console passed in 2013, too. There was Andy Johns, who engineered tracks for the Stones and Zeppelin, among others, and George Jackson, who wrote hits for other folks to sing, like “One Bad Apple” and “Old Time Rock and Roll.” Two of the great record producers are gone as well: Phil Ramone, who won 14 Grammys getting the best out of everyone from Aretha to Sinatra to Dylan, and Cowboy Jack Clement, who put in 50 great years in Tennessee waxing a Who’s Whom of country music, but also finding time to work with Elvis and U2.
Jazz is missing solos now from the likes of Chico Hamilton, late of the West Coast scene; Ronald Shannon Jackson, another drummer whose band Decoding Society broke big in free jazz; and sure-footed Ed Shaughnessy, whom you might remember watching behind the kit in Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show Orchestra. Gone as well two sublime guitar players: Jim Hall, who showcased his skills all over the world and Johnny Smith, born in Birmingham, who gave the world the original version of “Walk, Don’t Run.”
Big names shuffled off the musical coil in 2013. So long to Ray Manzarek of the Doors, Richie Havens, another instant Woodstock legend, and Bobby “Blue” Bland, whose legend was created one show at a time, singing the blues from Buckingham Palace to Birmingham. There were other Alabama connections in the obit columns as well last year. There was Rudy Mockabee of the Drifters, who came from Huntsville, John Wyker of Decatur, whose one-hit wonder was “Motorcycle Mama” for Sailcat and Arab’s Wayne Mills, who died as an outlaw country singer might, by an angry man’s gun after hours in a Nashville bar.
Another outlaw, Tompall Glaser, departed last year, as did a honky-tonk sinner turned easy-listening saint, Ray Price. Allen Lanier of Blue Oyster Cult did not fear the Reaper, while Chris Kelly Kris Krossed over to the other side. Sayonara to Chi Cheng of the Deftones, Claude King of “Wolverton Mountain,” Steve Lawrence’s Eydie Gorme, taciturn J.J. Cale, ebullient George Duke, reggae’s Junior Murvin and Gordon Stoker, the last of the Jordanaires.
The top of the Boutwell Studios tree this year was shared by dissimilar but unforgettable stars. One was George Jones, in whose singing country music came as close as it could to opera. He was given a variety of nicknames, from “Possum” to “No-Show,” but when you put him in front of a microphone and gave him a sad song to sing, he was just Jones, and there was no voice his equal in the vast range of country and Western music.
The other picture atop the tree was of a man who could scarcely sing a lick, but who changed the course of rock and roll history. That, of course, was Lou Reed. Oddly akin to Frank Sinatra in his conversational approach to phrasing a lyric, but by no means as melodic, he broke out with a group called Velvet Underground that anticipated punk rock and his iconoclasm helped move pop from adolescence to adulthood.
Because of 2013, it’s a lot more crowded backstage in Valhalla than it was last year. But that floor show’s well worth waiting for.