Ten Unheralded Deaths in Music of 2016 (So Far)

Those are people who died, died / 
They were all my friends, and they died

That 1980 lyric, penned by the late Jim Carroll, prefigured a spate of celebrity deaths, and while the words describe the demise of junkies and the destitute, the song’s repeated refrain could easily be applied to those legions of icons who have departed for the hereafter in a seemingly nonstop procession so far this year.

Last week, Prince became our latest devastating loss, but having surrendered the likes of David Bowie, Keith Emerson, Merle Haggard, Glen Frey, and George Martin in the past four months alone, lovers of music and some of its most gifted icons have had a lot to mourn so far this year.

In the first third of 2016, we've also had to say goodbye to many musicians who played their own significant roles in the musical trajectory of the past half-century. These individuals may not have made as indelible an impression as Bowie, Prince, or the other A-list stars, but they were significant and merit remembrance too. Here is a list of ten musicians whose deaths this year deserve a brighter spotlight.

Paul Bley (Died January 3)
Though he never attained the stature of a Miles Davis or John Coltrane, pianist Paul Bley remains one of jazz’s great innovators and masters of improvisation. His work — both solo and in the company of such legends as Charlie Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Jaco Pastorius, and Pat Metheny — was often groundbreaking, and the 80 solo albums he recorded over the course of his career remain blueprints for modern experimental expression.

Robert Stigwood (January 4)
With the possible exceptions of Brian Epstein and Elvis Presley’s Colonel Tom Parker, there’s likely no more famous manager in the music business than Robert Stigwood. His charges included the Bee Gees, Cream, and Eric Clapton, and when he formed his eponymous record label RSO, he was immediately catapulted into the highest echelons of the music industry. He scored further successes with his big-screen productions Tommy, Jesus Christ SuperstarGrease, and Saturday Night Fever, among them.

Giorgio Gomelsky (January 13)
While the Soviet-born producer remained mostly behind the scenes, his impact on music throughout the ’60s and ’70s was enormous. As a manager and record company executive, he helped nurture the careers of the Yardbirds, the Animals, Soft Machine, and John McLaughlin, often by sitting behind the boards and steering their recordings. Consequently, his name is virtually synonymous with any number of classic recordings in a variety of genres.

Clarence Henry Reid AKA Blowfly (January 17)
Reid began his career as a writer and producer for Sam & Dave, Bobby Byrd, and Miami R&B diva Betty Wright, but later adopted a garishly dressed alter ego known simply as Blowfly to spotlight a string of parodies and naughty send-ups of various ’70s soul songs (“Shitting on the Dock of the Bay,” “A Spermy Night in Georgia,” to name a couple). A number of X-rated albums followed, making him a hero to prominent rappers like Wu-Tang Clan, Big Daddy Kane, and DJ Shadow.

Dale Griffin AKA Buffin (January 17)
As the drummer for Mott the Hoople, Griffin found himself in a band on the brink of breaking up — until David Bowie swept in at the final moment and handed them his song “All the Young Dudes.” It gave Mott a much-needed hit and the necessary impetus to persevere. Even after the group splintered, Griffin remained one of Mott’s most dedicated devotees, writing articles for the band's fan-club newsletter and dreaming of the day when the band would reunite. When the group finally reconvened in October 2009 for a limited number of London shows, Griffin was already ill, suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's, but it didn’t keep him from making an entrance during the encores.

Paul Kantner (January 28)
Kantner’s passing garnered barely a glimpse from the media, perhaps due to the fact that it came in the wake of news about Bowie and Frey, a double-loss that was difficult enough to process without having to absorb any more. But as a founder of Jefferson Airplane and later, JeffersonStarship, Kantner played a significant role in establishing San Francisco’s psychedelic scene of the mid- to late-‘60s. His influence cannot be overestimated, as lingering as that of the Grateful Dead or any of the other bands that thrived alongside the Airplane during the so-called Summer of Love.

Signe Anderson (January 28)
Anderson was the Airplane’s originally vocalist, prefiguring the arrival of Grace Slick, who would later help drive the band on to greater glories. She helped launch the band’s first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, and melded their original folk flourish with the edgier embrace they fully assumed following her departure. Indeed, there was barely time to bid her goodbye. The day after she quit, Slick made her bow with the band for the very first time. Ironically, Anderson died on January 28, the same day as Kantner.

Denise Matthews AKA Vanity (February 15)
A Prince protege, Vanity used her affiliation with the Purple One to launch her own group, Vanity 6, and ascend the charts with a limited string of R&B hits. A former actress and model, she later turned her back on the entertainment industry and chose religion instead. Even so, her name is forever enshrined as part of Prince’s musical legacy. She was 57, the same age as Prince, on the day she died.

Frank Sinatra Jr. (March 16)
The younger Sinatra’s first brush with fame was a precipitous one. As a teenager, he was kidnapped and held for ransom, catapulting him into the national news. Later, he toured with his famous father and took on the role of his bandleader. Although he never attained a fraction of the fame or success of Frank Senior, he became a big draw later in life by carrying on his father’s legacy and covering his catalogue. His uncanny resemblance to his dad also helped affirm his affiliation.

Lonnie Mack (April 21)
An exceptional guitarist and champion of the blues, Mack influenced a legion of future guitar gods, among them Duane Allman, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Jimmy Page. He was adept at a variety of styles, also including R&B, country, gospel, and rockabilly in his repertoire. Many critics have credited him with laying the template for guitar’s prominence as a lead instrument. The fact that he died on the same day as Prince suggests that his passing may escape the notice he so definitely deserves. 
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Lee Zimmerman