While 2015 may be remembered musically as the year of Kendrick Lamar, Adele and Drake, for me it’ll be more wistfully recalled for the 12 rock legends we lost.
Undeniably, a musical world without B. B. King, Lesley Gore and Ben E. King is a much less lyrical one in many ways. So, as we draw the final curtain on 2015, let’s give one last round of applause to some of the more memorable rock ‘n’ roll artists who passed away this year. As with all lists, this one is highly personal and subjective, reflecting my own musical roots, idols and instincts.
Best Known For: Pretty Little Angel Eyes (1961)
Angel Eyes made it to No. 7 on the pop charts and almost singlehandedly inspired my older brother to hone his doo-wop chops. But longstanding fame eluded Lee. Phil Spector abruptly dropped the singer from his label, relegating him to a lifetime of construction work in Arizona.
Best Known For: Shout! Shout! (Knock Yourself Out) (1962)
In addition to his one and only hit, Maresca was connected to three songs I loved during my youth: Barbara Ann (he was a member of the Regents), Runaround Sue and The Wanderer (he co-wrote two of Dion’s biggest hits).
Best Known For: See Saw (1966)
One of the more underrated singer/songwriters of his era, Covay worked with both Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix and his songs have been recorded by Aretha Franklin (Chain Of Fools), Steppenwolf (Sookie Sookie), Gladys Knight & The Pips, Jerry Butler, Solomon Burke and The Rolling Stones, among others.
Best Known For: It’s My Party (1963)
Gore transcended pop pablum, not only because of feminist songs like You Don’t Own Me but also for her active support of gay rights. Gore hosted the PBS television series In the Life, which focused on LGBT issues. At the time of her death, she and her partner had been together for 33 years.
Best Known For: The Letter (1967)
This Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee was also a producer, percussionist, pianist, guitarist and bassist. Carson co-wrote The Letter by The Box Tops — a favorite of those like me serving in Vietnam — and his songs have been recorded by Elvis, Brenda Lee, Willie Nelson, The Pet Shop Boys, Ike & Tina Turner, Conway Twitty, Glen Campbell and Joe Cocker.
Best Known For: Soul Finger (1967)
Cauley, who played trumpet and sang, was the sole survivor of the December 1967 plane crash that took the lives of Otis Redding and four members of his band, The Bar-Kays. Their plane went down in Lake Monona, not too far from my home in Madison, Wis. I stop by to pay my respects at the Otis Redding Memorial plaque every year.
Best Known For: Dance to the Music (1968)
As a member of Sly and the Family Stone, Robinson is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee. I still get shivers when I recall seeing her blasting away on her trumpet and singing with Sly and his polyglot band. What a sound! Robinson was the only member of the original Family Stone to continue working with the irascible Sly after the band fell apart in the mid 1970s.
P. F. Sloan
Best Known For: Eve of Destruction (1965)
While he wrote songs for The Turtles (You Baby), Herman’s Hermits (A Must To Avoid), Johnny Rivers (Secret Agent Man) and others, Sloan will always be remembered for the iconic, often banned, protest song Eve of Destruction delivered by a seemingly angry Barry McGuire. My musicologist friend Hugo Keesing says the U. S. Army wouldn’t let him play this song on his military radio show in the late 1970s.
Peggy Jones (aka Lady Bo)
Best Known For: Road Runner (with Bo Diddley) (1960)
I saw the little-known yet extraordinary Lady Bo perform once with the late great Bo Diddley and she matched him guitar lick for guitar lick. She also worked with Les Cooper (Wiggle Wobble), Eric Burdon and the Animals (San Franciscan Nights), James Brown and Sam and Dave. That’s some resumé.
Best Known For: When a Man Loves a Woman (1966)
If you’re going to be remembered for just one song, let this be the one. Nearly 50 years later, Sledge’s biggest hit still tugs at the heart and takes me back to being a hopeless college freshman pining after a coed who wouldn’t give me the time of day.
B. B. King
Best Known For: The Thrill Is Gone (1969)
Like many in my generation, I’ve got a treasured B. B. King concert memory or two. What a “thrill” to have had this great bluesman around for almost 90 years. Not surprisingly, B. B. King achieved the trifecta: Blues Foundation Hall of Fame Inductee, Memphis Music Hall of Fame Inductee and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee. Encore!
Ben E. King
Best Known For: Stand by Me (1961)
Few songs grab you by the throat — and the heart — as much as this one. I have so many powerful, poignant memories associated with it, and perhaps the very best was when King sang this song for me and thousands of other Vietnam veterans and our family members during a Wisconsin Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Event at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. in 2010. Thank you, Ben E., for honoring those days spent at war.