Friday, 28 December 2012

In memory of those artists who took their final bows in 2012

I was born in the early Fifties, which means that my lifelong love affair with music began during the Sixties. It was arguably one of the most fertile periods ever in the development of postwar musical genres.

Many of those I loved and listened to at that time are now in their 60s and 70s, which unfortunately means that each passing year sees some of them take their final bows and leave their wonderful music behind them to be enjoyed by future generations. So here are five of the musicians who left us this year and who had a major influence on me in one way or another.

I was saddened to learn of the recent death of soul singer Fontella Bass. Born into a family of musicians (her mother was a gospel singer), her precocious talent persuaded her mother to take her on tour from the age of nine as a gospel singer and although she turned to soul music during her teens she never lost her love of gospel, to which she returned in later years.

Perhaps her best-known song, 'Rescue Me' was released in 1965 and became one of the best-selling singles that Chess Records ever issued. I was 12 at the time and that song opened my eyes to American soul and Tamla music, both of which I have loved ever since. She used her exceptionally agile voice to create some very complex and fast-moving triple and quadruple note combinations such as the first time she sings the word 'side' on the song, where she strings together four effortlessly-delivered notes in less than a second. 'Rescue Me' may well have been one of those cherished songs of mine which later led me to decide to become a singer. I owe her so much....

Another major Chess artist and gospel-blues-jazz (among other styles) singer to pass away this year, in January, was the enormously influential Etta James. Several of her ballads were major hits on both sides of the Atlantic and her immensely touching talent was rewarded by the industry on many occasions before she was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, and Rolling Stone put her in 22nd position in its 100 Greatest Singers of All Time list. Etta James' voice has inspired many fine singers over the years, including Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt and Christine Aguilera.

It is difficult to pick just one song to illustrate her powerful and emotion-charged style, but her 1960 cover of the Mack Gordon-Harry Warren 1941 classic 'At Last' is one of my favourites.

You know how it is when you're very young and bow easily to peer pressure. I used to idolise bands like the Stones, the Velvets and Pink Floyd back in the Sixties and Seventies, so (and I suspect I was far from being the only one) I had to hide my love of the Monkees from certain of my more musically-polarised friends.

I fell easily under the spell of Davy Jones' happily infectious and almost naively optimistic voice during the years he spent with the Monkees and their lusciously addictive pop arrangements (the harmonies!) would stick in my head for days on end. As was the case for 45s by The Beatles I was the first in the shop to pick up their latest single.

Davy Jones, who died in February, was perhaps the only 'Teen Idol' whose work I identified with, and I still listen to Monkees songs today. Ah, wonderful memories....

Bee Gees singer Robin Gibb, who died in May, was also - and like Davy Jones - a teen idol. But unlike Jones, Gibbs had one of the most original and inimitable voices that modern music has ever produced and some of the Bee Gees' songs are timeless classics.

His extraordinary career lasted almost sixty years, during which he and the group became one of the biggest-selling acts of all time. His versatile voice could handle everything from melancholy low-key ballads ('Massachusetts', 'I Started a Joke') to high-octane falsetto disco blockbusters like 'Stayin' Alive' and 'Tragedy'..

Did I buy any of their music? No, I didn't (you have to count your pennies when you're young and you can't afford to buy everything) and I rarely went to discos either, but I was transfixed by the awesome quality of his and the band's music every time a song of theirs came on the radio. Robin Gibbs was one of the greatest of all great singers and one of the few whose music was able to persuade me to look outside of my established genres. The same goes for Abba incidentally.

I was one of those millions of youngsters who discovered the music of Ravi Shankar after George Harrison became inspired by it, and Shankar went on to become an instrumental figure in the West's discovery of Indian music and the sitar.

Some scholars of Indian sitar music were (and still are) critical of what they saw as his oversimplification of the genre, and although I can understand why they would hold that opinion, he was nevertheless an important part of my musical education because he taught me and many others to open their eyes to the fact that there was more to musical creation than simple guitar chords and Western musical scales.

The early Seventies saw me using drugs on a regular basis and I would often listen to his music whilst doing so. I went to many music festivals where drugs were freely available and was present at the 1970 Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music (Zeppelin headlined that one.) I was wandering around, rather the worse for wear, on the Friday evening when I came across Ravi Shankar sat in a little clearing in the trees far from the stage area, playing his sitar with a group of fans around him. Or should I say I think I did. Did anyone reading this go to that festival and if so do you remember seeing this impromptu and informal appearance, or did I just imagine it?

Those are just five of the talented performers who left us this year, but there are others too, most notably Whitney Houston, Scott McKenzie, Donna Summers and Earl Scruggs.

All of them and many more have enriched the cultural lives of countless millions of people over the years. May their music and its legacy live on, never to be forgotten.

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