After the recent deaths of David Bowie and Glen Frey, I was going to write something about this disturbing surge in grim reaper visits that has occurred in the music world in the past couple of months. But just when I start to compose my thoughts and write something, yet another noted musician passes away and I have to revise what I’ve written.
A few months ago we lost Wilton Felder from the Crusaders (a band I like quite a lot), and then Lemmy from Motorhead (never was a fan, but I loved reading about the guy — what a character!), the great soul singer Otis Clay, the “unforgettable” Natalie Cole, P. F. Sloan (the underrated singer-songwriter who was perhaps better known for the song written about him than the actual songs he wrote!), and another fabulous singer-songwriter, Billy Joe Royal. Even one of Gladys Knight’s backup singers in the Pips passed away last month. In the past two weeks we’ve lost a couple of more notable musicians: Paul Kantner from Jefferson Airplane (and yes, Jefferson Starship too) and Maurice White from Earth, Wind and Fire. White and his group were one of the most popular acts in the business from the mid 1970s until the mid 1980s. Earth, Wind and Fire were also one of the few acts that could appeal to such a wide range of listeners: Black and White to Hispanic and Asian, they were a true crossover act.
I haven’t resorted to wearing black or gone into mourning as a result of all these deaths, and yet I feel a deep sense of sadness and sorrow lately. These are all singers and bands that I grew up with and listened to for many years. They’ve been a big part of my life. For some reason Bowie’s death really unsettled me, and I’m not even one of his diehard fans. Nevertheless, I do enjoy his music and own nearly ten of his albums, so maybe I’m a mid-range fan. Besides his considerable talents as a recording artist and performer, Bowie was one of those guys who aged so gracefully, almost as if he’d been sipping from that proverbial fountain of youth, that I could never fathom him getting old and dying. Hell, so much for that fantasy.
Of all the recent deaths, though, the one that hit my hardest was the passing of Allen Toussaint back in December. Toussaint was one of my musical heroes, a man that accomplished so much as a singer, songwriter, musician, and producer, but one who never received the mainstream recognition that he so justly deserved. I won’t rehash all his accomplishments on this page — if you are really curious, do an online search and read all about this amazing gentleman — but suffice to say that the words “genius” and “legend” both apply to Allen Toussaint.
Another death last month that didn’t receive a lot of headlines was that of Clarence Reid. Reid was a recording artist who recorded a few songs for Miami’s Deep City label in the 1960s, but he was mostly a very prolific songwriter for several decades. He wrote songs — some them actual hits — for the likes of Betty Wright, Sam and Dave, Irma Thomas, Dusty Springfield, Gwen McCrae, and even KC and the Sunshine Band. If you want to hear the evidence of what a talented singer and songwriter that Reid was, check out the Eccentric Soul: Outskirts of Deep City compilation that the Numero Group released a few years ago. It includes two songs by Reid, plus twelve other tunes that he wrote or co-wrote. Clarence Reid’s music qualifies as classic soul indeed. But Reid’s biggest claim to fame, if you want to call it that, was his musical alter-ego, Blowfly. To call Blowfly “outrageous” or even “nasty” would be an understatement. Not only was Blowfly a sight for sore eyes — dressed as some sort of wacked-out caped crusader — he was a shock to the ears as well thanks to his bawdy songs. As Blowfly, Reid recorded dozens of “party” albums, starting with The Weird World of Blowfly in 1971 and ending with Black in the Sack in 2014. These records, highlighted by sexually suggestive lyrics and plenty of profanity, punctuated by funky beats, escaped the attention — and wrath — of mainstream music listeners (no, he never made Casey’s Top 40), but among the black community in the United States, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s, Blowfly was an enormously popular recording artist.
And earlier this week I was stunned to hear about another sudden passing, that of Colin Vearncombe, the singer better known as Black. If that name still doesn’t ring bell, Black was the guy who sang “Wonderful Life,” one of the most glorious and captivating songs of the late 1980s. I have the 1987 album that includes that song, as well as his self-titled album from 1981. They are both excellent recordings, full of melodic songs with sharp hooks, all transported by Black’s effervescent vocals. It’s a shame that he wasn’t a bigger name.
Damn, the passing of all these musicians is making me feel very old, not to mention very much mortal all of a sudden.