Final note: Influential musicians who passed in 2023

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.

In part two of this four-part series, I will list some influential musicians who passed away in 2023. These musicians made big impressions on the world of music, even if they aren’t a household name. The lists in this series are by no means exhaustive, and I would appreciate mentions in the comments, or stories you may have related to any of the music-makers listed below.

DJ Mark the 45 King: His name was Mark Howard James, and he was from the Bronx, New York City, but The 45 King was how hip-hop heads knew him. He was iconic, producing classic songs for people like Queen Latifah, Jay-Z, and Eminem. He created Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” and Eminem’s “Stan.” James’ first big hit, 1987’s “The 900 Number,” is one of the foundational sounds of hip-hop to this day.

Alan Rankine: He was a co-founder of the influential Scottish pop band The Associates. His influence was felt both in the post-punk scene as well as during his time as a producer working with groups like Belle and Sebastian and the Cocteau Twins.

Huey “Piano” Smith: An early pioneer of rock and roll, Smith the boogie-woogie New Orleans pianist had a big life, influencing many and making music that would be covered by the likes of Johnny Rivers and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Scott Kempner: Kempner was one-third of the influential proto-punk/proto-pop-punk band The Dictators, and when they broke up, the Del-Lords.

Irish Grinstead: She was one-third of the R&B trio 702, hitting the charts with 1999’s “Where  My Girls At?” While 702 didn’t hit as big as some other female R&B acts that would follow, they made up the sound for many of those groups’ formative years.

Gary Young: Young was the original drummer for the influential indie-rock group Pavement. He produced and ran the studio (which he called “Louder Than You Think”) where the band wrote their debut album, the classic “Slanted and Enchanted.”

John Gosling: Gosling was the keyboardist for the legendary Kinks. Guitarist Dave Davies, along with the other members of the band, paid tribute to Gosling, saying, “I’m dismayed deeply upset by John Gosling’s passing. He has been a friend and important contributor to the Kinks music during his time with us. Deepest sympathies to his wife and family. I will hold deep affection and love for him in my heart always. Great musician and a great man.”

Monte Cazazza: He was an artist-provocateur based in San Francisco. Cazazza has the distinction of coining the phrase “industrial music.” The genre would birth acts like Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode. He released eight albums and created a ton of art, with the seeds of his influence planted during the experimental period of the 1970s.

Ruth W. Greenfield: Eight years before Miami-Dade County began desegregating its schools, Greenfield founded her Fine Arts Conservatory. It was one of the first racially integrated theater and art schools in the South and included children (both white and Black) learning music, dance, drama, and the visual arts. The Miami Herald reports that it was this kind of progressivism that got Greenfield labeled a “communist sympathizer.” As time went on, she moved to teaching at Miami Dade College, where she became the music chair.

Barrett Strong: When Strong was 19 years old, he recorded “Money (That’s What I Want)” and helped solidify Motown records. The 1959 track made its way across the pond and a particularly famous group of young Liverpudlians found the song drove crowds wild. A few years later, the Beatles would record the song as well, which would be followed by another version done by The Rolling Stones.

André Watts: A piano virtuoso, Watts’ career began in earnest after he won an audition to appear with Leonard Bernstein on the nationally televised Young People’s Concerts series. At 16 years old, Watts impressed Bernstein and the rest of America.

Andy Rourke: Being the bassist for The Smiths made Rourke one of the most influential rock bassists around. His sound and rhythm, along with guitarist Johnny Marr, was integral to the sound. The Guardian quotes Rourke as saying, “I only wanted to play music. Eventually the Smiths arrived. We knew we had something special. The rest is history.”

Billy “The Kid” Emerson: He inspired Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley and was one of the first Sun Records recording artists. He was known for his humor and inventive lyrics. “Just like the buzzard flying high in the sky / Can’t kill nothing if nothing won’t die / Ain’t nothing boiling but the water in the pot / And it wouldn’t be boiling if the fire wasn’t hot.” You might know Emerson’s bluesy “Red Hot.”

Wayne Shorter: He was one of the most influential musicians of modern jazz, playing tenor saxophone for more than 50 years. He played with everyone from Miles Davis to Art Blakey, Joni Mitchell to Steely Dan. He was an important part of the fusion movement. Here’s the good stuff.


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