Black Music Sunday: Remembering musicians who left us in 2023, part 1

As we transition into 2024, let’s look back and remember the long list of musicians who shared their gifts with us for a lifetime, and who passed on to join the ancestors in 2023. They represented every Black musical genre, with some excelling in multiple styles.

According to my editor, we lost far too many musical artists this year to cover in one piece (Editor’s note: We all know she tried it, right?), so this week’s “Black Music Sunday” is coming to you in two helpings. 

Rather than list the 2023 passings chronologically, let’s instead group them loosely by genre. Part 1 explores those we lost from the genres of folk, reggae-Caribbean-dub, and R&B-soul; Part 2 will focus on jazz and pop.

RELATED STORY:  Black Music Sunday: They joined the ancestors in 2022, but left behind the gifts of their music

”Black Music Sunday” is a weekly series highlighting all things Black music. With over 190 stories covering performers, genres, history, and more, each featuring its own vibrant soundtrack. I hope you’ll find some familiar tunes and perhaps an introduction to something new.

On April 25, the world mourned the passing of the folk singer, actor, and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte.

Harry Belafonte

We here at BMS of course paid tribute to the King of Calypso, born Harold George Belafonte Jr. in Harlem to West Indian parents on March 1, 1927.

Isaac Rosen’s biography of Belafonte for Musicians Guide delivers details of Belafonte’s early life—including years he spent in his mother’s native Jamaica—and his transition into life as an entertainer.

In the five years he spent on the island he not only absorbed the music that was such a vital part of the culture but also observed the effects of colonialism, the political oppression that native Jamaicans had to endure under British rule. “That environment gave me much of my sense of the world at large and what I wanted to do with it,” Belafonte was quoted as saying in the Paul Masson Summer Series. “It helped me carve out a tremendous link to other nations that reflect a similar temperament or character.”

Once back in Harlem, another culturally and artistically rich environment, Belafonte became street smart, learning the hard lessons of survival in the big city. When the United States entered World War II, he ended his high school education and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After an honorable discharge he returned to New York City, where he bounced between odd jobs. His first foray into the world of entertainment came in the late 1940s when he was given two tickets to a production of the American Negro Theater. He was hooked after one performance. “I was absolutely mesmerized by that experience,” he told the Ottawa Citizen in 1990. “It was really a spiritual, mystical feeling I had that night. I went backstage to see if there was anything I could do.” His first leading role with the company was in Irish playwright Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. Impressed by the power and message of O’Casey’s words, and by the promise of theater in general, Belafonte enrolled in the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research, studying under famous German director Erwin Piscator, whose other students included Rod Steiger and Bea Arthur.

Belafonte was concerned about the scarcity of work for black actors but got a break when, as a class project, he sang an original composition called “Recognition.” His audience was spellbound. Among the listeners was the owner of the Royal Roost Nightclub, a well-known Broadway jazz center. Belafonte was offered a two-week stint that, due to such positive reception, blossomed into a twenty-week engagement.

Enjoy this clip of Belafonte performing “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” recorded live in Japan in 1960. 

Belafonte, of course, was not beloved by adults alone—kids who grew up with The Muppets also knew his “Day-O” by heart!

RELATED STORY: Black Music Sunday: Celebrating Harry Belafonte

Keeping in the folk vein, we lost musician, and songwriter Len Chandler on Aug. 28.

Chandler’s obituary in The New York Times was written by Neil Genzlinger.

Len Chandler, an Early Fixture of the Folk Revival, Dies at 88

Mr. Chandler, as John Christy of The Atlanta Journal once put it, “possesses a sharply honed guitar-vocal arsenal of ‘message’ songs, blues songs, jazz songs, country songs, and just songs.” But he was especially known for songs he wrote inspired by the news of the day. The first, Mr. Chandler said, was written in 1962 about a disastrous school bus accident the year before in Greeley, Colo.

“Then I started writing many songs about the Freedom Riders and sit-ins,” he was quoted as saying in the “Folk Music” book. At the March on Washington in 1963, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech, Mr. Chandler sang the traditional song “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize (Hold On)” with some updated lyrics. Ms. Baez and Mr. Dylan were among the backing singers.

The next year he toured with Dick Gregory, the comedian known for sharp-edged material involving race. In the summer of 1969 Mr. Chandler was on the maiden voyage of the Clearwater, the sloop Mr. Seeger used to raise awareness of Hudson River pollution and other environmental causes, sailing from Maine to New York and staging concerts at stops along the way.

NBC News’ “Sunday TODAY” covered his life, music, and impact in a concise video.

Here’s a wonderful “Rainbow Quest” episode Pete Seeger did with Chandler:

From the YouTube notes:

Rainbow Quest was a television program produced for one series run in 1965 and 1966 by the Advertisers Broadcasting Company for UHF station WNJU-TV in the New York City market. Throughout the show’s 39-episode run, writer and curator of American folk songs Pete Seeger hosted many guest musicians. He also himself presented the histories of diverse American and international folk music traditions through spoken and musical segments.

Chandler offers his updated lyrics to “John Brown’s Body” in this clip with Seeger:

Consider his powerful opening lyrics to the new version, which he called “Move On Over or I’ll Move On Over You”—and their relevance today.

Mine eyes have seen injustice in each city, town and state

Your jails are filled with Black men and your courts are white with hate

And with every bid for freedom someone whispers to us: wait  

But the movement’s moving on.

Move on over or we’ll move on over you

Move on over or we’ll move on over you

Move on over or we’ll move on over you

O the movement’s moving on    

It is you who are subversive, you’re the killers of the dream

In a savage world of bandits it is you who are extreme.

And you never take your earmuffs off nor listen when we scream   O the movement’s moving on.

Let’s move on to reggae and dub, which grew out of Jamaican folk music. On April 12, Jah Shaka’s death was announced by his family.  

Liam James wrote the announcement of his death for The Independent:

Jah Shaka dead: Dub and reggae pioneer dies as music fans pay tribute to ‘true legend’ Shaka was at the helm of sound system culture in London, releasing some of the scene’s most seminal records and spearheading the influential Jah Shaka Sound System, which he began operating and touring in the 1970s.

[…]

Shaka moved to London from Jamaica as a child in the late 1950s as part of the Windrush generation. In a 2014 Red Bull Music Academy lecture, he spoke about the importance of music to his contemporaries as they tried to settle in a new, and often hostile, place

“When people left Africa for the Caribbean, all they could bring with them was their music, their songs and their memories from home. So, over the years, this is all that people had to keep them together,” he said.

“In the 1950s and 1960s in London, there were house parties – 50, 60 people with only record players. It helped families know other families, which was important at that time because the people were so forced to be segregated.”

Here’s a 40-minute journey through Shaka’s music:

We also lost British dub poet, writer, and actor Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah this year. Zephaniah was born in April 1958, and died Dec. 7; he told his own story in this Channel 4 story and video.

From Steven McIntosh for the BBC:

Zephaniah was born and raised in Handsworth, Birmingham, the son of a Barbadian postman and a Jamaican nurse. He was dyslexic and left school aged 13, unable to read or write.

He moved to London aged 22 and published his first book, Pen Rhythm.

His early work used dub poetry, a Jamaican style of work that has evolved into the music genre of the same name, and he would also perform with the group The Benjamin Zephaniah Band.

As Zephaniah’s profile grew, he became a familiar face on television and was credited with bringing dub poetry into British living rooms.

Here’s one of his famous pieces.

Shifting genres, the worlds of soul, funk, and R&B lost far too many people in 2023. One of those musicians was Amp Fiddler, born May 1958 in Detroit; he died of cancer there on Dec. 17.

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Ben Beaumont-Thomas wrote his obituary for The Guardian.

Amp Fiddler, funk musician with all-star collaborations, dies aged 65

Joseph Fiddler performed and recorded with Prince, Seal and Maxwell, and mentored hip-hop producer J Dilla

Born and raised in Detroit, Fiddler began playing keyboards and making demos of his own work. One of these found its way to George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic, who in 1984 invited Fiddler to work with him. Fiddler toured with the band for over a decade, and appeared with the group on Prince song We Can Funk. In the 1980s he also played on sessions with Warren Zevon and Was (Not Was).

Moving into the 1990s, Fiddler played on early demo recordings by neosoul singer Maxwell, and contributed to his double platinum debut album Urban Hang Suite. He played on Seal’s second album (including the hit Kiss From a Rose), on Primal Scream’s Give Out But Don’t Give Up, and on Would I Lie To You?, the global hit by Charles & Eddie.

[…]

Another Detroit great who Fiddler crossed paths with was the young J Dilla – Fiddler mentored the hip-hop producer on the MPC sampler that would become a key part of his creativity, and introduced him to Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, who took his work to a wider audience. Dilla and Fiddler were also creative partners, the producer contributing a number of tracks on Fiddler’s most commercially successful solo album, his 2004 Amp Fiddler debut Waltz of a Ghetto Fly (he had previously released an album as Mr Fiddler in 1990).

Here’s “Waltz of a Ghetto Fly.”

Check out Fiddler’s 75-minute “Live at Montreux Jazz Festival” concert from 2004!

Going back to the very beginning of 2023, on Jan. 1 we lost Earth, Wind, & Fire’s drummer, Fred White.

Rock-solid drummer with Earth, Wind & Fire who played on their biggest hits including Boogie Wonderland and September

Exuding joy, imagination and unity, EW&F, as their fans called them, made music that emphasised good times both on the dancefloor and off. A blend of soul, funk, jazz, Latin, Afro and pop, with smooth vocals, dynamic brass arrangements, dance-club friendly rhythms and catchy choruses, the records still sound fresh today and remain a staple at weddings, sports events and celebratory occasions.

The band was the brainchild of Fred’s elder half-brother, Maurice White. Fred – who changed his surname to White, as did his bassist brother, Verdine Jr, to emphasise his fraternal relationship with Maurice – joined EW&F in 1974, after the band’s breakthrough album – their fifth – Head to the Sky (1973). A professional since the age of 15, White – described as a ‘“musical prodigy” by Maurice – had previously played on Donny Hathaway’s superlative Live album (1972), and with the rock band Little Feat, appearing on their 1974 album Feats Don’t Fail Me Now.

[…]

Born in Chicago, Fred was the youngest of three sons of Edna (nee Parker) and Verdine Adams, a doctor and amateur saxophone player. Maurice was Edna’s son from a previous marriage. Fred took up the drums aged nine, soon following his older brothers into the music industry. As the youngest member of EW&F, White was both its jester and troublemaker, his energy and arrogance firing up the band. He initially drummed alongside Johnson but, by 1977, insisted that he be the band’s sole drummer, so Johnson was shifted to percussion.

Glem Glenallan’s YouTube channel has a rare clip of a joyful White drum solo, captured in London in 1979.

Here’s the whole group, with a medley of their hits in 1981.

Sticking with iconic groups, we also lost Rudolph Isley, a founding member of the famed Isley Brothers, on Oct. 11.

Jim Farber wrote Isley’s New York Times obituary.

Rudolph Isley, an Original and Enduring Isley Brother, Dies at 84

He provided harmony vocals and the occasional lead. He also helped write some of the group’s biggest hits, including “Shout,” “Fight the Power” and “That Lady.”

Rudolph Bernard Isley was born on April 1, 1939, in Cincinnati, the second of six sons of Sallye (Bell) and O’Kelly Isley. He began singing in church as a child, and during his teen years he and three of the other older Isleys performed together and toured locally.

“I have some very special memories of listening to music with my brothers when we were young,” Mr. Isley told the music journalist Leo Sacks for the liner notes to a 1999 boxed set that Mr. Sacks produced, “It’s Your Thing: The Story of the Isley Brothers.” He added: “Billy Ward and the Dominoes, now that was a group. We idolized them. We got our own thing together because we never lost that harmony group dynamic.”

In the group’s early days, the eldest brother, Vernon, sang lead. He was killed at age 13 when the bicycle he was riding was struck by a car, and Ronald became the lead singer.

The Isleys were still quite young when Rudolph, O’Kelly and Ronald moved to New York to pursue a record deal. Contracts with small labels led to one with RCA, one of the biggest in the business, in 1959, and shortly after that the Isleys wrote and recorded “Shout.” It sold over a million copies and came to be acknowledged as a rock ’n’ roll classic, spawning covers by Dion, Bruce Springsteen, Garth Brooks and many others. (It was also heard in “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and other movies.)

NBC News’ “Sunday TODAY” covered Isley’s passing.

Everyone who’s heard their music has a favorite Isley Brothers tune. Here’s mine. I wore out three copies of this album!

We also lost Chuck Jackson, a heart-throbbing solo R&B/soul artist, on Feb. 16. I’ll never forget meeting him backstage at the Apollo Theater when I was working for soul chanteuse Maxine Brown, who recorded the duet “Something You’ve Got” with him in 1965.

He was my first teenage fangirl crush. That man was super fine.

Terence McArdle wrote his obituary for The Washington Post.

Charles Benjamin Jackson was born in Winston-Salem, N.C., on July 22, 1937. He said he never knew his father and, when his mother moved to Pittsburgh to work, he stayed with a grandmother in Latta, S.C.

He appeared on the radio singing gospel music by age 6 and was singing lead in a choir by 11. He briefly attended the historically Black South Carolina State College (now university) on a music scholarship but then left for Pittsburgh in the mid-1950s because of civil rights unrest near campus.

In 1957, he recorded with the Pittsburgh doo-wop act the Del-Vikings — or at least, one version of the group, which had split into two competing units with the same name. (The group with Mr. Jackson eventually rebranded as the Versatiles.) While on tour, he befriended singer Jackie Wilson, who pushed him to go solo and become Wilson’s support act.

Have a listen to “I Don’t Wanna Cry.”

Richard Williams references it in The Guardian’s obituary:

Behind the jaunty rhythm and rapturous strings of I Don’t Want to Cry (1961), Jackson’s first release on the Wand label, a kind of dignified melancholy was already evident. He and Dixon had written the song together, its lyric based on the singer’s memories of an unfaithful girlfriend. It reached No 5 on Billboard’s R&B chart, followed later in the year by the more explicitly doleful I Wake Up Crying, written by Bacharach and Hal David, which made No 13 on the same chart.

A few months later Bacharach teamed with Hilliard, his other regular collaborator at the time, to write Any Day Now, in which a piping organ introduced Jackson’s sombre reading of a lyric containing strikingly poetic images: “Any day now, when your restless eyes meet someone new / Oh, to my sad surprise / Then the blue shadows will fall all over town / Any day now, love will let me down.” In the background of Bacharach’s dramatic arrangement, built on an ominous rhythm tapped out on a broken ashtray and a muffled tom-tom, could be heard the voices of the sisters Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick and their aunt, Cissy Houston.

It gave Jackson his biggest hit, nibbling the edges of the pop Top 20 while making No 2 on the R&B chart, and attracted many cover versions. Bacharach always included the song in his own concerts, but it never sounded as good as in its original incarnation, when Jackson evoked those blue shadows falling all over town.

And here’s “Any Day Now.”

From the YouTube notes:

In his book, Always Magic in the Air, author Ken Emerson describes the song. “Kicking off with a baion beat straight out of the Leiber-Stoller songbook, the song introduces itself with a shrill figure played on the Hammond organ that is as indelible as the vocal melody and as nagging as the singer’s dread that his wild, beautiful bird of a lover will desert him. Shifting from major to minor chords, doubling and halving the tempo, leaping an octave, the music embodies both the singers agitation and the flightiness he fears in his lover.”

I’m going to close here because I’m sure my editor Jessica is exhausted and welcomes a break. (Editor’s note: No lie detected.) Sadly, we still have so many other musicians to pay tribute to in Part 2, and in the comments here.

Please join me, and share some of your favorite tunes by these artists, whose musical “acquaintance shall never be forgot.”

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