A homage to the amazing musical talents that passed away this year.
By Jason M. Rubin
Gods though some may appear to be, musicians are as mortal as the rest of us. Every year we lose a slew of amazing musical talents; 2015 was no exception, though to our great misfortune, some truly exceptional musicians left us this year.
I’ll start this list with two true legends with local roots: composer, conductor, and musician Gunther Schuller; and percussionist and entrepreneur Vic Firth. New York-born Schuller was a president of New England Conservatory and served as artistic director of the Tanglewood Music Center. He died on June 21 of complications from leukemia. Firth was born in Winchester, Massachusetts, in 1930; graduated from the New England Conservatory; and was the principal timpanist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for nearly half a century. He succumbed to pancreatic cancer on July 26.
The world of jazz lost two of its most beloved performers, one a hot swing and bop player, the other a stone cold innovator. Clark Terry died on February 21 at the age of 94. His sad end in a hospice following amputations to both legs due to advanced diabetes was a marked contrast to the energy he exuded from his trumpet and his flugelhorn in a career than spanned more than 70 years and 900 recordings. Ornette Coleman, who was 85 when he died of cardiac arrest on June 11, changed the face—and shape—of jazz with his polarizing 1959 release, The Shape of Jazz to Come, which is now considered a flagship album of avant-garde jazz. Coleman’s influence didn’t stop there; his 1960 album, Free Jazz, gave a name to a new musical style.
The worlds of blues, soul, and R&B lost kings as well, including B.B. King, who died on May 14 at 89; and Ben E. King, who died on April 30 at 76. A defining blues player and personality, B.B. King had long been ill but continued performing until just seven months before he died. Ben E. King was a member of the Drifters, and had a successful solo career with hits like “Stand By Me.” In addition, Allen Toussaint left us just last month, on November 10. He suffered a heart attack following a concert in Spain. He was 77, and left a large legacy of compositions and productions that defined modern New Orleans R&B. Percy Sledge, Errol Brown (Hot Chocolate), and Louis Johnson (Brothers Johnson) also lost their lives this year.
Rock deaths typically involve musicians who fell victim to their own lifestyle. Just hours after this article was originally submitted, Stone Temple Pilots/Velvet Goldmine singer Scott Weiland, who struggled with heroin for years, was found dead on his tour bus, gone at age 48 on December 3; he joined his partner in the Wildabouts, guitarist Jeremy Brown, who died of a drug overdose on March 30 at age 34. But illness was the main culprit of some of the major talents who left us in 2015. As bassist for Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Joe B. Mauldin was a founding father of rock and roll; he died of cancer on February 7 at 74. Cancer also took the life of pop singer Lesley Gore on February 16. The singer of “It’s My Party” and “You Don’t Own Me” was 68. The band Three Dog Night took a major hit with the losses of singer Cory Wells to an infection related to multiple myeloma on October 20 at the age of 74, and keyboardist Jimmy Greenspoon of metastatic melanoma on March 11 at the age of 67. Mike Porcaro, bassist of Toto, was felled by ALS on March 15 at only 59.
Death took an unexpectedly large toll on the genre of progressive rock in 2015. Most notable was the death of Yes co-founder and bassist Chris Squire, the only member of the band to appear on every album to date, who died of leukemia on June 27. Other recently deceased proggers include Gong founder, guitarist, and vocalist Daevid Allen (cancer, March 13, age 77); Tangerine Dream founder and keyboardist Edgar Froese (pulmonary embolism, January 20, age 70); Renaissance pianist John Tout (lung failure, May 1, age unknown); Kim Fowley, who appeared on the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out!, produced the B-side of Soft Machine’s first single, and whose composition “The Nutrocker” was covered by Emerson, Lake & Palmer (bladder cancer, January 15, age 75); and Chris Rainbow, who sang on albums by the Alan Parsons Project, Camel, and Jon Anderson of Yes (Parkinson’s disease, February 22, age 68). I’ll also add to this list the extraordinary British folk guitarist John Renbourn (Pentangle and solo career), who died of a heart attack on March 26 at age 70.
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for 30 years, the last 15 of which has been as senior writer at Libretto, a Boston-based strategic communications agency. An award-winning copywriter, he holds a BA in journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, maintains a blog called Dove Nested Towers, and for four years served as communications director and board member of AIGA Boston, the local chapter of the national association for graphic arts. His first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. He regularly contributes feature articles and CD reviews to Progression magazine and for several years wrote for The Jewish Advocate.