By Howard T. Brody

For many, February 3, 1959, was the day the music died. It was on that fateful day that Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson (aka “The Big Bopper”) and Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. Its impact was so deep that 12 years later singer/songwriter Don McLean immortalized the event in the song “American Pie.”

But for a whole different generation, it seems 2016 was the year the music died as so many notable artists from the music industry were lost. 

Sadly, we wish we could isolate 2016 as an anomaly. But the fact is that during a three-year period from January 2014 to April 2017, there have been nearly 500 music industry people who have passed away: 483 to be exact. Let that number sink in for a moment: 483. 

Of course, we are talking about singers, songwriters, musicians, and producers. Some of these people were famous, some infamous, some obscure and unknown— from the biggest stars to the one-hit wonders, from studio musicians to touring band members. While some of these people changed the music industry, some had major influences on pop culture and society as a whole. Some had an impact on people of all walks of life.

While listing all those who have passed away during the past three years would be nearly impossible, we have painstakingly narrowed down the list below to those who we believe have been the most influential of the group based on various criteria.

Chuck Berry (October 18, 1926 – March 18, 2017): Often regarded as the Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Berry’s songs “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music” and “Johnny B. Goode,” transformed rhythm and blues into the major elements that made rock and roll unique. By writing lyrics that focused on teen life, he developed a music style that incorporated guitar solos and showmanship that had was a major influence on the rock music that came after him.

John Berry (May 31, 1963 – May 19, 2016): An original member of hip-hop group the Beastie Boys along with Mike Diamond, Adam Yauch, and Kate Schellenbach, Berry is credited with coming up with the name when the group formed in July 1981. When the Beastie Boys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012, Berry was recognized as a formative member of the band’s early years.

David Bowie (January 8, 1947 – January 10, 2016): Passing away two days after his 69th birthday and a quiet, 18-month battle with cancer, Bowie broke a lot of rules as a performer and became famous, if not infamous, for both his talent and gender-bending creativity. The iconic “Fame,” “Space Oddity” and “Ziggy Stardust” singer was a master of music as well as makeovers, as he often challenged stereotypes and labels while producing hits in a variety of genres including glam rock, funk and hip-hop. His final album, Blackstar, was released just a few days before his death. 

Bob Burns (November 24, 1950 – April 3, 2015): In 1964 Burns helped to form Lynyrd Skynyrd with Ronnie Van Zant, Gary Rossington, Allen Collins and Larry Junstrom. He remained with the band as its drummer until 1974 when life on the road became overwhelming. In 1996, he participated in a performance to promote Freebird: The Movie. On March 13, 2006, he rejoined Lynyrd Skynyrd for one performance as he played alongside Rossington, Billy Powell, Ed King, Artimus Pyle and the Honkettes at Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. Burns died shortly after leaving his home in Cartersville, Georgia from an automobile accident when he hit a mailbox and tree on a sharp curve.

Leonard Cohen (September 21, 1934 – November 10, 2016): Identified as a Canadian crooner, Cohen’s songwriting and poetry influenced countless musicians with its dark emotional response and satirical humor. During his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2008 it was said, “For six decades, Leonard Cohen revealed his soul to the world through poetry and song—his deep and timeless humanity touching our very core. Simply brilliant. His music and words will resonate forever.” His song “Hallelujah” is considered by many to be his finest work. Just before he died, he released the album, You Want It Darker, which explored big questions about mortality and the almighty.

Natalie Cole (February 6, 1950 – December 31, 2015): The daughter of Nat King Cole, Natalie ascended to musical stardom in the mid-1970s as a Rhythm and Blues singer with “This Will Be,” “Inseparable” and “Our Love.” After a cooling off period because of falling record sales and failed performances due to severe drug addiction, Cole bounced back strong on the pop music scene with her 1987 cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac.” By the 1990s, she was recording standards originally performed by her father which resulted in her biggest success. Unforgettable... with Love, which sold more than 7 million copies, and produced a haunting duet with her late father (and sold more than 30 million records worldwide), won Natalie seven Grammy Awards. Cole died due to congestive heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Keith Emerson (November 2, 1944 – March 11, 2016) and Greg Lake (November 10, 1947 – December 7, 2016): Together with Carl Palmer, who is the only surviving member of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Keith Emerson, and Greg Lake co-founded ELP in 1970. Billboard called Emerson, Lake & Palmer progressive rock’s first supergroup as the three Brits often delighted audiences with elaborate instrumentation and sophisticated stage shows, including pyrotechnics. Emerson died in Santa Monica, California, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound while Lake passed away after a battle with cancer.

Phil Everly (January 19, 1939 – January 3, 2014): Along with his brother Don, the Everly Brothers were country-influenced rock and roll singers, known for steel-string guitar and close harmony singing. In the late ‘50s, the Everly Brothers were the rock and roll youth movement’s addition to close harmony vocal groups, which were mostly family bands. They influenced a whole generation of rockers of the ‘60s including The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and Simon & Garfunkel, all of whom developed their early styles by performing Everly Brother songs. The Bee Gees, The Hollies, and other rock groups that featured harmony singing were also influenced. Some of their hits included “Bye Bye Love,” “Cathy’s Clown,” “Wake Up Little Susie” and “All I Have to Do Is Dream.” Phil died of lung disease at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California, 16 days before his 75th birthday. 

Glenn Frey (November 6, 1948 – January 18, 2016): A founding member of the Eagles known for his laid-back persona and country-tinged California sound, Frey was the group’s lead singer and front man which he shared with fellow member Don Henley. Together the two wrote most of the band’s iconic hits like “Best of My Love,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” “One of These Nights” and “Hotel California.” Frey played guitar and piano and sang lead vocals on such songs as “Take It Easy,” “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” “Tequila Sunrise,” “Already Gone,” “New Kid in Town” and “Heartache Tonight.” During a successful solo career in the ‘80s, Frey recorded such Top 40 hits as “The One You Love,” “The Heat Is On” and “You Belong to the City” among others.  The Eagles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. Frey died at the Columbia University Medical Center from complications of rheumatoid arthritis, acute ulcerative colitis, and pneumonia while recovering from gastrointestinal tract surgery.

Lesley Gore (May 2, 1946 – February 16, 2015):  In 1963 at the age of 16 she recorded the pop hit “It’s My Party” and followed it up with other hits including “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” “She’s a Fool,” “You Don’t Own Me,” “Maybe I Know” and “California Nights.” Gore worked as an actress and along with her brother Michael Gore, composed songs for the 1980 film Fame, for which they received an Academy Award nomination for “Out Here on My Own.” In the 2000s Gore hosted an LGBT-oriented show on PBS titled In the Life. She had been working on her memoir and a Broadway show based on her life when she died of lung cancer at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. At the time of her death, Gore and her partner Lois Sasson had been together for 33 years.

Merle Haggard (April 6, 1937 – April 6, 2016): A singer, songwriter, guitarist and fiddler, Haggard was a grizzled country music legend who became a voice for the working man with classics like “Okie from Muskogee” and “Fightin’ Side of Me.” Along with the legendary Buck Owens, Haggard and his band, the Strangers, helped create what was called the Bakersfield sound, which is characterized by the twang of Fender Telecaster and the unique mix with a traditional country steel guitar sound and new vocal harmony styles in which the words are minimal, and a rough edge that is not heard on the more polished Nashville sound recordings of the era. He received many honors and awards for his music, including a Kennedy Center Honor, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a BMI Icon Award and induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Country Music Hall of Fame and Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame. He died at his ranch in Northern California of complications from double pneumonia.

Al Jarreau (March 12, 1940 – February 12, 2017): Jarreau, who made his music mark in jazz, received a total of seven Grammy Awards during his career and was nominated for more than a dozen more. Jarreau is perhaps best known for his 1981 crossover album Breakin’ Away, which includes the hit song “We’re in This Love Together,” that scored him a Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. He is also noted for singing the theme song for the late-‘80s TV series Moonlighting and was among the many performers on the 1985 charity song “We Are the World.” He died of respiratory failure in Los Angeles just two days after announcing his retirement. 

Sharon Jones (May 4, 1956 – November 18, 2016): As a soul and funk singer, Jones spent decades in obscurity before she was discovered by audiences in the mid-2000s. With her backing band, the Dap-Kings, she became legendary for her fiery live performances, earning comparisons to her idol James Brown. Before she passed away, she rebelliously told Rolling Stone magazine, “I have cancer; cancer don’t have me.”

Paul Kanter (March 17, 1941 -- January 28, 2016): Kantner is best known for being the co-founder, rhythm guitarist and occasional vocalist of Jefferson Airplane, one of the leading psychedelic rock bands of the 1960s counterculture movement.  He continued in these roles as a member of Jefferson Starship, the band that succeeded Jefferson Airplane after it broke up in 1972. Kanter was considered by many to be the architect of what was to become known as the San Francisco sound, epitomized by such songs as Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”

Casey Kasem (April 27, 1932 – June 15, 2014): Although he was not a musician himself, in many ways his voice shaped generations of radio listeners over a nearly 40 year span as host of Casey’s Top 40, Casey’s Top 20 and Casey’s Countdown. Aside from influencing a generation of music listeners, Kasem is forever ingrained in pop culture. In 1969, he started one of his most famous roles, the voice of Shaggy on Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! He was inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame radio division in 1985 and the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1992. In 1997 he received the Radio Hall of Fame’s first Lifetime Achievement Award and in 2003 was given the Radio Icon award at the Radio Music Awards. Kasem died at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Gig Harbor, Washington. The immediate cause of death was reported as sepsis caused by an ulcerated bedsore.

B.B. King (September 16, 1925 – May 14, 2015): A revered blues singer, electric guitarist, songwriter, and music producer, King introduced the masses to a sophisticated style of soloing that was based on flowing string bending and shimmering vibrato; a style that would influence many electric blues guitarists. Considered one of the most influential blues musicians of all time, earning him the nickname “The King of the Blues,” he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. King was known for performing tirelessly – in 1956 he supposedly appeared at 342 shows— and well into his 70s he averaged more than 200 concerts a year. King died in Las Vegas from congestive heart failure and diabetic complications. 

Ben E. King (September 28, 1938 – April 30, 2015): a rhythm and blues singer and record producer, King is perhaps best known for singing and co-composing “Stand by Me,” in 1961 and again in 1986 when the song was used as the theme for the Rob Reiner film of the same name. In the ‘50s, King was one of the principal lead singers of the group the Drifters and was lead vocals on “There Goes My Baby,” “This Magic Moment” and perhaps their biggest hit, “Save the Last Dance for Me.” In 1988 King was inducted into the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame as a member of the Drifters. He died of coronary problems at the Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.

Lemmy (December 24, 1945 – December 28, 2015) and Phil Taylor (September 21, 1954 – November 11, 2015): Lemmy Kilmister and Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor were two of the most notable members of the British heavy metal band Motörhead. Lemmy was the singer and songwriter who founded and fronted the band as his music was one of the foundations of the heavy metal genre. Taylor replaced Lucas Fox six months after the band was formed and while several drummers have played in Motörhead, most of their best-selling albums and singles feature Taylor on drums. Lemmy was known for his appearance (think mutton chops), his distinctive gravelly voice and unique bass playing style. Motörhead released 23 studio albums, 10 live recordings, 12 compilation albums and five EPs over a 40-year period. Lemmy died four days after his 70th birthday in his Los Angeles apartment from prostate cancer, congestive heart failure, and cardiac arrhythmia. Taylor died of liver failure.

Sir George Martin (January 3, 1926 – March 8, 2016): Musician, arranger, composer, conductor and audio engineer were line items on his resume, but perhaps his greatest skill was that of record producer. Often referred to as the “Fifth Beatle” – including Paul McCartney himself who recognized Martin’s extensive involvement on each of the Beatles’ original albums – Martin produced 23 #1 hit singles in the U.S. and 30 #1 hits in the U.K. Aside from his work with the Beatles, Martin’s career spanned more than six decades with work in music, film, television and live performances. He started out producing comedy and novelty records in the early ‘50s, working with the likes of Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan and over the years held a number of senior executive roles at media companies.  In 1996 he was made a Knight Bachelor in recognition of his services to the music industry. Martin died in his sleep at his home in Wiltshire, England.

George Michael (June 25, 1953 – December 25, 2016): A singer, songwriter, record producer and philanthropist, Michael burst onto the scene and rose to fame as a member of the ‘80s pop duo Wham! He was best known for such hit singles such as “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “Last Christmas” and albums like Faith and Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. As a charismatic and often controversial artist, Michael blended danceable pop with progressive social observations that engrained him forever in pop culture. Before his death, he had sold more than 115 million records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling musical artists of all time. In 1998 Michael came out as gay and remained active as an LGBT rights advocate, raising funds and awareness to combat HIV/AIDS. Found dead in bed at his Oxfordshire, England home, a coroner’s report attributed his death to natural causes.

Tommy Ramone (January 29, 1949 – July 11, 2014): Credited with writing “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” and “Blitzkrieg Bop” for the influential punk rock band the Ramones with bassist Dee Dee Ramone (Doug Colvin), guitarist Tommy Erdelyi was supposed to be the band’s manager, but when drummer Joey Ramone (Jeff Hyman) couldn’t keep up with their increasingly fast tempos, Joey became the lead singer and as they say, the rest is history. While guitarist Johnny Ramone (John Cummings) rounded out the group, Tommy remained as the band’s drummer for four years, playing on and co-producing their first three albums, Ramones, Leave Home and Rocket to Russia, as well as the live album, It’s Alive. It was said of the Ramones during their 2002 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “the Ramones revitalized rock and roll at one of its lowest ebbs, infusing it with punk energy, brash attitude, and a loud, fast new sound.” Before his death, Tommy was the last surviving original member. He died at his home in Ridgewood, Queens, New York following unsuccessful treatment for bile duct cancer.

Gary Richrath (October 18, 1949 – September 13, 2015): As the lead guitarist and songwriter for the band R.E.O. Speedwagon from 1970 to 1989, Richrath is best known for writing, performing and singing on some of the band’s early hits, including “Golden Country,” “(Only A) Summer Love,” “Only the Strong Survive” and “Take It On the Run” among others. In 1977, he and the other band members took over their production, which resulted in the band’s first platinum album.

Leon Russell (April 2, 1942 – November 13, 2016): As an acclaimed session pianist before finding fame in the ‘70s, Russell was involved with a myriad of best-selling pop music artists spanning his 60-year career. His distinctive look and stage presence earned him the nickname, “The Master of Time and Space.” He wrote in various genres included pop, rock, blues, country, bluegrass, standards, gospel and surf. He was awarded six gold records. His collaborations are considered some of the most successful in music history, and as a touring musician, he has performed with hundreds of notable acts. Russell recorded 33 albums and more than 400 songs. He wrote “Delta Lady” for Joe Cocker, and in 1970 he organized and performed on Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. Russell’s most famous, if not prolific song might be “A Song for You,” as it has been recorded by more than 200 artists. His song “This Masquerade” has been recorded by more than 75 artists. Russell produced and played in recording sessions for Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Ike & Tina Turner and many others. He wrote and recorded the hits “Tight Rope” and “Lady Blue” and he performed at the Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden in 1971 along with Dylan and Eric Clapton. In 2011, Russell was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He died in his sleep at his Mt. Juliet, Tennessee home four months after suffering a heart attack.

Pete Seeger (May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014): A folk singer and social activist, Seeger was a national fixture on nationwide radio in the ‘40s. In the early ‘50s, he had a run of hit records as a member of the Weavers including their recording of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene,” which stood at #1 for 13 weeks in 1950. When members of the Weavers were blacklisted during the McCarthy era Red Scare, Seeger fell into obscurity but re-emerged on the public scene in the ‘60s as a prominent protester in support of international disarmament, civil rights, counterculture and environmental causes. A prolific songwriter, some of his best-known songs include: “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)” with Lee Hays of the Weavers, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” with Joe Hickerson and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” with lyrics adapted from Ecclesiastes, which have been recorded by many artists, most notably the Byrds. Seeger was one of the folk singers responsible for popularizing the spiritual “We Shall Overcome” that became the recognized anthem of the ‘60s Civil Rights Movement. In 1972 Seeger was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and in 1996 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He died at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.  

Percy Sledge (November 25, 1940 – April 14, 2015): A rhythm and blues, soul and gospel singer, Sledge is perhaps best known for the iconic song “When a Man Loves a Woman” from 1966. It was awarded a million-selling, Gold-certified disc from the Recording Industry Association of America. Sledge achieved his greatest success in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with a string of emotional soul songs. In his later years, Sledge received the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s Career Achievement Award. In 2005 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sledge died of liver cancer at his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Robert Stigwood (April 16, 1934 – January 4, 2016): One of the entertainment industry’s most powerful tycoons, Stigwood was an Australian-born British-resident who became a fruitful music entrepreneur, film producer, and impresario. He was best known for managing the band Cream (Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce, and Eric Clapton) and turning the Bee Gees into international stars. During his career, Stigwood backed theatrical productions like Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita and film productions including the adaptation of the Who’s Tommy and the tremendously successful film version of Grease as well as Saturday Night Fever

Prince (June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016): Although he once changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, Prince Rogers Nelson’s music rose above genres and transcended generations as a dazzling mix of pop, rock and downright funk. In addition to writing and performing songs for himself such as “When Doves Cry,” “Purple Rain,” “Kiss,” “Raspberry Beret” and many others, he wrote songs for such performers as: The Bangles (“Manic Monday”), Sheena Easton (“Sugar Walls”), Sinead O’Connor (“Nothing Compares 2 U”), Alicia Keys (“How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore”) and Cyndi Lauper’s cover of (“When You Were Mine”) to name a few. Prince was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. His shocking death last year drew an international outpouring of grief and admiration from around the world, showing just how influential he was to the masses as well as the reach and impact he had on pop culture in general. In a strange twist of fate, Prince’s protégé, Vanity, also passed away in 2016, just two months before her mentor.

Scott Weiland (October 27, 1967 – December 3, 2015): During a career that spanned three decades, Weiland was best known as the lead singer for Stone Temple Pilots from 1989 to 2002 and again from 2008 to 2013. He was also a member of the supergroup Velvet Revolver from 2003 to 2008 and recorded one album with Art of Anarchy. His onstage presence was considered both chaotic and flamboyant as he was not only known for frequently changing his appearance but his vocal style (he sometimes used a megaphone during concerts for vocal effects). While touring in Minnesota for his album Blaster, Weiland died of a drug overdose on his tour bus. Upon his death, The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan called Weiland one of three “voices of the generation” along with Layne Staley and Kurt Cobain.

Cory Wells (February 5, 1941 – October 20, 2015): In 1968 Wells and Danny Hutton – a former songwriter and performer for Hanna-Barbera Productions – formed the band Three Dog Night. They added a third lead singer, Chuck Negron, whom Hutton had met at a Hollywood party. Wells sang the lead vocal on the band’s #1 hit “Mama Told Me (Not to Come).” He once said that Randy Newman, who wrote the song, called him on the phone to thank him for “putting my kids through college.” Wells died suddenly in his sleep in Dunkirk, New York from an infection related to multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer.

Maurice White (December 19, 1941 – February 4, 2016): A singer-songwriter, musician, record producer, arranger and bandleader, White was the founder and leader of the band Earth, Wind & Fire. Leaving behind a legacy of funky, spiritually uplifting songs that were loved by audiences of all colors and creeds, White was nominated for 20 Grammy Awards and won 7. Some of his hits were “Shining Star,” “Sing a Song” and “September.” He worked with several famous recording artists, including Deniece Williams, the Emotions, Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond. White was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the late ‘80s, which led him to stop touring with the band in 1994. He retained executive control of Earth, Wind & Fire and remained active in the music business. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame as a member of Earth, Wind & Fire. White died in his sleep from the effects of Parkinson’s disease at his home in Los Angeles.

John Geils (February 20, 1946 – April 11, 2017): Between 1970 and 1985, The J. Geils Band release 11 albums. For their first few years, the group was mostly influenced by rhythm and blues and soul music before moving toward rock and pop. In 1980 Geils and his band breakthrough with the album and title track “Love Stinks” which they followed up with 1982’s Freeze Frame which produced the song of the same name and the hit “Centerfold,” which sat at #1 for six weeks. When the band broke up in 1985, Geils put down the guitar and began concentrating on auto racing. In 1992 he got back into music producing an album for Danny Klein and formed the band Bluestime with Magic Dick. He also played in the New Guitar Summit and the acoustic trio Kings of Strings. In 2005, he released his first solo jazz album. In 2009 the town of Groton, Massachusetts proclaimed December 1st as “J. Geils Day” and in 2015 Geils was named to the Wall of Honor at his high school alma mater in Bernardsville, New Jersey. He passed of natural causes at his home in Groton.

Header photo by Lenscap Photography


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