As we come to the end of 2023, we remember the people who have moved through the door of life and into our collective subconscious. Musicians, composers, and singers are among the many groups of people who deserve a moment of remembrance as they frequently put into feeling what we cannot express simply through words or pictures or hugs.
This is part one of a four-part series in which I will list some of the very popular musicians who passed away in 2023. The lists in this series are by no means exhaustive, and I would appreciate additional mentions in the comments, as well as any stories you may have related to the music-makers listed below.
Tina Turner: She was simply the best. Born Anna Mae Bullock in 1939, in Tennessee, she rose to prominence not once but twice. The Ike and Tina Turner Revue hit the ground running (and rolling) in the late 1960s. The music and live performances are legendary. Her struggles with a violent partner in Ike Turner brought about a rebirth for Tina in the 1980s, when she hit the pop charts as a solo act. From there, Tina rolled all the way into iconic status and beyond.
Enjoy Tina, forever.
Tony Bennett: He was a classic voice in a classy package, with a decades-long career that included performing with just about every musician and singer the 20th and 21st centuries produced during his lifetime. He was forward-thinking and used his position to be a champion for, and an ally to, the civil rights movement.
David Crosby: A legendary singer and songwriter, with legendary rock acts The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, & Nash, Crosby was a giant in American popular music. The use of harmonies, his songwriting and presence in the counterculture of the 1960s, and his enduring legacy and influence on younger generations is hard to match. Even Crosby’s personal struggles with addiction and volatile interpersonal relationships seemed to mirror the story of American popular culture for decades.
Rudolph Isley: The Isley Brothers have had hits in every decade since the 1950s. Rudolph was a founding member of the iconic group. He left the group to become a Baptist minister in 1989. The Isley Brothers wrote and performed “Shout,” which you might have heard 1 million times, as well as a song covered by an English group known as The Beatles, which was called “Twist and Shout.” Here they are performing their first big 1959 hit, “Shout,” with the original incarnation of the group.
Jeff Beck: Called “the guitar player’s guitar player,” or simply the best rock guitarist of all time, Beck’s place in rock history is undeniable. He first came to prominence as a replacement for Eric Clapton in The Yardbirds before creating his own The Jeff Beck Group, with rotating musicians such as Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart. Joe Perry, lead guitarist of Aerosmith, told The New York Times that Beck was “the best guitar player on the planet. He is head, hands and feet above all the rest of us, with the kind of talent that appears only once every generation or two.” Beck won all the awards and played with just about everybody but also distinguished himself by staying out of the limelight by minimizing the number of interviews and appearances he made outside of playing live.
Here’s Beck performing his 1967 classic, “Beck’s Bolero.”
Randy Meisner: He was a founding member of The Eagles whose “vocal range was astonishing.” You need only listen to his signature vocals on his “Take It to the Limit” smash hit to hear what he brought to the table.
Gordon Lightfoot: He came from Canada and made some of the most important music of the 1960s and 70s. Lightfoot was as well-respected a folk musician and songwriter as there ever was, with songs recorded by everyone from Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan to Jerry Lee Lewis and Harry Belafonte.
Jimmy Buffet: Buffet spun his 1977 hit song “Margaritaville” into a lucrative brand of music and lifestyle that can be described as tropical resort, frozen cocktails, on vacation, and hedonistic. Whether or not you enjoyed Buffet, a lot of people view the world of his music as a sort of American dream. Buffet sold the world a never-ending Mardi Gras, and politics aside, the escape was very seductive.
Shane MacGowan: He was something of a legendary drinker. Frequently a bit of a mess on stage and in interviews, MacGowan always had a unique gift: Most everyone still liked him. His Irish punk band, The Pogues, fused Irish folk music into punk and created something as unique as MacGowan.
Enjoy his biggest hit, “Fairytale Of New York,” by The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl. It is truly a Christmas classic.
Sinéad O’Connor: O’Connor was talented, uncompromising, and admired for her authenticity. Her public career began in 1987, with the debut of her first album, “The Lion and the Cobra.” It was her 1990 follow-up, “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” that propelled her into the stratosphere. She drew controversy with her progressive stance against the Catholic Church, police brutality, and child abuse. Her life was marred by tragedy, but that could not stymie the beauty of what she gave all of us.
David Jolicoeur: He rapped under the name Trugoy the Dove and was one-third of the culture-expanding hip-hop group De La Soul. De La Soul’s appeared in hippie floral designs, with a more bohemian style that contrasted with the popular styles of the hip-hop day. But they were undeniably good, in no small part due to the lyrical prowess of Trugoy, known as Plug Two.
Robbie Robertson: Along with The Band, the Canadian-born Robertson helped to create mythic Americana music with folk roots tinged with romanticism. Bruce Springsteen described The Band and Robertson’s music thusly: “It’s like you’d never heard them before and like they’d always been there.” When tributes came in, filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who was close friends with Robertson, said: “Long before we ever met, his music played a central role in my life—me and millions and millions of other people all over this world. The Band’s music, and Robbie’s own later solo music, seemed to come from the deepest place at the heart of this continent, its traditions and tragedies and joys. It goes without saying that he was a giant, that his effect on the art form was profound and lasting. There’s never enough time with anyone you love. And I loved Robbie.”
Burt Bacharach: Along with lyricist Hal David, Bacharach created pop hits from the 1960s all the way through into the 21st century. His creative relationship with Dionne Warwick, initially a backup singer Bacharach worked with during a recording session with The Drifters, yielded numerous hits, starting with songs like “Walk On By” and “I Say A Little Prayer.”
Harry Belafonte: Belafonte was a master of all trades and a jack of none. His career began in the middle of a segregated America, and he rose in defiance of it all. He became a superstar out of the gate and never relented, putting forward his Black and West Indian roots, and participating in protests and marches throughout his career.