Nick Bollinger and Yadana Saw pay tribute to all those who have died in the musical world during 2016. They a pay homage to the icons, but also some of the lesser-known ones whose loss will be felt in perhaps more subtle ways.
Kicking off their hour-long roll call is Elvis Presley's 'Mystery Train'
NB: One of the reasons this track is just so great is the lead guitarist, Scotty Moore - who died in June, age 84. He played on all Elvis’s classic Sun recordings, right from his first record ‘That’s All Right’, and on to some of his later ones for RCA like ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and ‘Jailhouse Rock’. Scotty had been an admirer of Chet Atkins’ sophisticated Nashville style of electric guitar picking, but Elvis brought something out of Moore that was more driving and primitive - yet still with beautifully articulated details as you’ll hear in this song.
YS: Another artist who isn't a household name is composer and keyboardist Bernie Worrell, a major contributor to the revolutionary p-funk sound as founding member of George Clinton’s Parliament and Funkadelic outfits. Cast your mind to those squelchy, squeaking keyboards and synths as your head nods to 'Flashlight' and 'Give Up The Funk'.
Former bandmate and collaborator Bootsy Collins described Worrell as “the Hendrix of keyboards”, but it was his guise as the “Wizard of Woo” where his signature funky grooves transformed the sound of Talking Heads’ on their 1983 LP Speaking in Tongues, and their Stop Making Sense albums and film.
NB: There would be a gaping musical hole on the record if these artists weren't there. And that’s what any great accompanying musician contributes to a record, whether they are the star or not. A case in point is the Jamaican trumpeter Bobby Ellis who also passed away this year. I don’t think his name is even credited on the cover of Burning Spear’s great Marcus Garvey album, yet it’s impossible to imagine a track like this one without the punctuation of his horn.
YS: Others notable instrumentalists joining the big bandstand in the sky were: Herb Hardesty, tenor sax player for Fats Domino from early 1950s; Bob Cranshaw, a veteran jazz bass player who visited here with Sonny Rollins just a few years ago. And in the final week of 2016, Alphonse Mouzon the founding drummer for jazz-rock fusion band Weather Report passed away. As well as playing drums with Roy Ayers, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Mouzon was name-checked by Robert Plant. In his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame acceptance speech, the Led Zepellin frontman cited Mouzon as a major influence on their sound, and favourite drummer of John Bonham's.
NB: 2016 saw the departure of pioneering folk-rock fiddler Dave Swarbrick who started out in the traditional English folk scene in the early 60s, but came to the attention of the rock audience when he joined Fairport Convention near the end of that decade. He was a guest on their 1969 album Unhalfbricking; a full member by time of their next album Liege and Lief, and by the early 70s was more or less leading the band.
And while we’re talking fiddle players, honorable mention must also go to Angus Grant – the hairy fiddle player for Scottish folk-rockers Shooglenifty, who played memorable sets at WOMAD in Taranaki just a few years ago.
YS: The late, great Merle Haggard died in April. He was one of the most acclaimed and authentic country singers. In a way he was very much like a character from one of his songs. Before he became a star he had spent several years in prison for burglary. He wrote songs about working men, fugitives and dustbowl refugees, as well as drinkin’, cheatin’ and fallin’ in and out of love-songs; he drew jazz, blues and old-time country music into a recognisable style of his own and his likes won’t be seen again.
Country music also lost a few other major figures this year: Veteran country singer Jean Shepard, who performed at the Grand Ol’ Opry for more than 50 years; Texan storyteller Guy Clark, and Alabama renegade Steve Young, both of whom paid memorable visits to NZ in the early 90s headed to the ranch in the afterlife.
NB: But a whole era ended with the death this year of Ralph Stanley. Veteran Appalachian mountain singer and pioneer of the music that would evolve into bluegrass (though he never called it that), he was introduced to a new audience through the popular film O Brother Where Art Thou? - with his chilling a cappella rendition of the ballad ‘O Death.’
From his first recordings, with his brother Carter in the 1940s, he left hundreds of great performances on record. But the one I always come back to is ‘The White Dove’. It’s another song about death, as so many of those old-time mountain ballads are, but there’s also a recent story that relates to this song.
A recent issue of the Oxford American magazine noted that the weekend Ralph Stanley died, punters at a mountain music festival in Kentucky noticed a white dove, flying down and landing nearby. The weird thing is that white doves are very rarely seen in that part of the country. The magazine ran a photo of the dove with the caption: The Ghost of Ralph Stanley.
NB: Another great American songwriter we lost this year was Mose Allison.Though he performed in his own right as a singer and pianist, he was probably most widely known as a songwriter. Many artists covered his songs, which were witty, literate and laced with social commentary. The Who’s ‘Young Man Blues’ was one of Mose’s. So was ‘Everybody’s Crying Mercy’, recorded by Bonnie Raitt and Elvis Costello among others.
But probably the most commercially successful songwriter we lost this year was Rod Temperton; and if you don’t know the name, chances are you’ll know the songs - Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' and 'Rock With You'. But I first heard him in Heatwave, his disco-funk incarnation.
YS: Sticking with the 70s soul funk, Maurice White - the founder of the seminal 70s soul-funk showband Earth Wind & Fire died in early 2016. Known for their extravagant stage sets, glittering costumes and string of elaborately arranged hits, many of which were written by White.
NB: Soul and funk wasn't all about disco dancing and sequins, though. Billy Paul one of the smoothest voices of early 70s soul with his famous anthem to infidelity (Me & Mrs Jones) was another soul man who died in 2016.
And sadly we also lost a Mrs Jones this year - Sharon Jones, one of the most authentic practitioners of classic soul to emerge this century. In the tradition of the great soul revue singers, you wouldn’t have experienced more energy from Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner in their prime.
YS: In October, A Tribe Called Quest released their first album in nearly two decades. It was made particularly poignant by the passing of Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor prior to the album’s completion. Entitled We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service, the track 'We The People' features Phife’s signature rhymes and flow - which is different in subject and style to the stereotypes associated to rap - you’ll hear rhymes about gender politics, gentrification and inequality. And that set Tribe apart from other hip hop acts alongside their astute use of jazz samples.
Another pioneer we lost in 2016 was Japanese synth explorer Isao Tomita, who died aged 84.Credited for introducing electronic music to his homeland, he was reported to have imported the first Moog synthesiser into Japan in the late 60s, and went on to release nearly 40 albums, compilations, soundtracks, and live albums worldwide.
NB: Another pioneering electronicist who died this year was Jean Jacques Perrey, who as part of the duo Perrey-Kingsley, made some of the first music you could describe as space pop. Born in France in 1929, by the early 60s he had moved to New York, where he met Robert Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesiser, and became one of its earliest practitioners. He also experimented with splicing tape to create loops of sound, which became the basis of his compositions. He kept recording right up until last year, but The 1966 Perrey-Kingsley album The In Sound From Way Out remains a cosmic pop classic.
YS: Another electro pioneer we lost this year was Alan Vega.Vega was the wordsmith and frontman for the duo Suicide, the original techno-punk group, who emerged in the 70s from the same fringe New York scene that produced the New York Dolls and Television.
NB: But the producer who arguably brought electronic music further into the mainstream than anyone else in the 60s was Sir George Martin, often referred to as the Fifth Beatle, who died in March.
He had already been involved in all kinds of music - from classical to comedy - before that day in 1962 when The Beatles walked into EMI’s Abbey Road studios, where Martin was house producer.
'Strawberry Fields Forever' is a perfect example of George Martin’s skills and willingness to experiment and interpret the Beatles’ increasingly wacky ideas. JL had said he wanted the song to feel like a dream, which Martin achieved partly by recording the vocal with the tape running fast so that when played back at normal speed the tonality was changed, giving the voice that slurry, dreamy feeling.
But perhaps Martin’s most brilliant contribution was in the editing. They actually recorded two different versions. John Lennon decided he liked the first half of one and second half of the other. Awkwardly they were in entirely different keys and tempos.
Lennon apparently just said, "You can fix it, George", leaving Martin with the seemingly impossible task of joining the two takes together. With only a pair of editing scissors, two tape machines and a vari-speed control. As you can hear it worked like magic.
While Beatlemania was sweeping the planet, New Zealand had it’s own beat sensation. In 1965 Ray Columbus and The Invaders were the biggest beat group in Australasia. No 1 hit with ‘She’s A Mod’ on both sides of the Tasman.
Ray was born to entertain - you could imagine him being a star in any era. As a child he’d been a tap dancer and if he’d been just a bit older he might have been a local answer to Fred Astaire. But as it was, he jumped on the R&B bandwagon at just the moment when the British invasion were bringing long-haired rock’n’roll to the world, and he was our version. He later went on to front That’s Country on television, to manage young groups such a Zed, and to become a generally significant figure in the local music industry. But he will be especially remembered as the irrepressible leader and frontman of one of NZ’s most powerful rock’n’roll bands of the era.
NB: Locally we also lost self-styled crooner Grant Chillcott - perhaps the closest thing New Zealand will ever have to our own rat-pack-style Vegas entertainer.
YS: Bill Sevesi passed away in April aged 92. His long career began the early 1950s in the Auckland inner city suburb of Newton. Where he and his band the Islanders, played a residency at the Orange Ballroom that lasted for 16 years. There he played some of NZ’s first tasters of rock n roll.
His recording output was extensive and he collaborated with vocalists such as Daphne Walker, and mentored many musicians, including The Yandall sisters and Annie Crummer.
Working with the Play It Strange programme, he fulfilled his dream of ukuleles being taught to kids in schools.
And late this year we lost Bunny Walters, one of the generation of local entertainers that was a ever-present fixture on Saturday night television through the 70s and into the 80s.
NB: Leon Russell passed away in 2016. His long music career began as a session pianist, from the early 60s he played on hundreds of records, particularly those produced by Phil Spector.
By the early 70s he had stepped into spotlight in his own right. The film Mad Dogs and Englishmen showed him as a bandleader in all his top-hatted glory, and he performed a similar role in George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh.
YS: Other rockers lost in 2016 included Status Quo guitarist Rick Parfitt; within two days of each other, founding members of Jefferson Airplane Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson; and two members of the great early 70s prog-rock trio Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Keith Emerson, the brilliant, flamboyant keyboard player, died in March, followed in December by singer, songwriter and bass player Greg Lake. Another loss to classic rock was Glenn Frey - founding member of Eagles and writer of many of their signature hits. And just before Christmas, boy-band-heart-throb turned respected and sophisticated pop star, George Michael.
But casting a shadow over the whole year were the deaths of three towering and culture-shifting artists.
It’s impossible to pick one song to speak for the richness and breadth of these artists’ work. But when it comes to Leonard Cohen I can’t think of any more appropriate song than 'Tower Of Song'. It’s a song of farewell, but it’s also a song about songwriters and what they leave us with after they have gone.
YS: In April Prince Rogers Nelson left us. We picked 'Sign O' The Times' because it’s sincere, it’s pointed, it’s prophetic - and it’s funky.
NB: And it was in early January that we learned of the completely unexpected death of David Bowie.
To end our mixtape here is a cover he made his own, which was the closing track on his Station to Station album. 'Wild is The Wind' was also memorably interpreted by Nina Simone, and Bowie’s was somewhat a tribute to that, and it is a fitting end to this mixtape as the late George Michael also covered this song that was originally written for Johnny Mathis.
Artist: Bill Sevesi
Composer: Hoffan, Manning
Album: Bill Sevesi: 25 Hawaiian Favourites
Artist: Elvis Presley
Song: Mystery Train
Composer: Parker, Phillips
Album: 7" Single
Label: Sun Records
Artist: Bernie Worrell
Song: How Does The Brain Wave
Composer: Worrell, Byrne
Artist: Burning Spear
Song: Marcus Garvey
Composer: Burning Spear
Album: Marcus Garvey / Garvey's Ghost
Artist: Fairport Convention
Song: A Sailor's Life
Artist: The Stanley Brothers
Song: The White Dove
Album: Hymn and Scared Songs
Label: King Records
Song: Boogie Nights
Composer: Johnson, Temperton
Album: Heatwave: Always and Forever
Artist: A Tribe Called Quest
Song: We The People
Composer: Fareed, White, Taylor
Album: We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service
Song: Clair de Lune
Album: Snowflakes are Dancing
Artist: The Beatles
Song: Strawberry fields
Composer: Lennon, McCartney
Album: Magical Mystery Tour
Artist: Ray Columbus
Song: Now You Shake
Composer: Columbus, Russell
Artist: Leon Russell
Song: Back to the Island
Album: Will O' The Wisp
Label: Shelter Records
Artist: Leonard Cohen
Song: Tower of Song
Composer: Cohen, Warnes
Album: I'm Your Man
Song: Sign o' the Times
Album: Sign O The Times
Label: Paisley Park
Artist: David Bowie
Song: Wild is the Wind
Composer: Tiomkin, Washington
Album: Station to Station