It was the summer of 1988. I was 21, and was working three part-time jobs over the summer before starting my senior year in college. I was single (a rare moment in Val history as all my lifelong girlfriends will attest), mini-skirts were in again, and I was wearing out the cassette deck in my Datsun 710 station wagon with one tape that I listened to over and over again that whole summer.
George Michael. Faith.
Even today, every time I think of George Michael, the vision I have is my memory of driving that ugly little green car from one of my two radio station jobs to my shift waiting tables at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre in Ashland. I can even tell you what I was probably wearing. Sunglasses, a spandex tank and a black and white polka dotted mini-skirt with knee length leggings. That was the uniform of 1988. And – like almost every single car ride during that un-airconditioned summer – I had my window rolled down while I sang at the top of my lungs.
I loved every single song on that cassette tape. I still have it somewhere, packed away in a box of memorabilia from my youth. And now, with George Michael’s death on Christmas, that’s all he is now. A memory. But a really, really good one.
The list of iconic music figures that have passed away this past year is so extensive that it’s a little overwhelming. It may have ended with George Michael, but it started with David Bowie, and I was crushed. Then death took Glenn Frey, the man who wrote “Hotel California.” Early in the Spring we lost one of our own, Merle Haggard, and that same month Prince was gone. So many brilliant songwriters gone already, that it seemed like a slap in the face when Leonard Cohen, who wrote “Hallelujah,” passed away at 82. But death wasn’t finished. She finally claimed soul singer Sharon Jones, who told Rolling Stone earlier this year “I have Cancer; Cancer doesn’t have me.” And now, finally it does. I consider myself one of the lucky few who got to sit in the front row at the Cascade Theatre to experience her amazing death defying attitude just a little over a year ago. That woman danced like Tina Turner while belting out song after song. She kicked her heels off. Her earring flew off into the audience. And the whole time I was just floored, knowing that she had been told just six weeks earlier that her cancer had returned, and she was going through chemo. That woman never let Cancer define who she was.
Cancer took so many of the great artists we lost this year: Bowie, Joey Feek, Buckwheat Zydeco, Leonard Cohen (who actually died in his sleep after experiencing a fall, but cancer was a major contributing factor says the family), and Greg Lake. Lake was one third of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Another third, Keith Emerson, also passed away this year by self-inflicted gunshot, the only music icon known to intentionally end his life this year.
Rather than stretching for ways to wax on poetically about how so many talented musicians died, I offer this list, and an accompanying playlist of their amazing songs. I’m also including Sir George Martin, the iconic producer of The Beatles. He died this year at the age of 90, and contributed so much to the recorded sound of John, Paul, George & Ringo that I thought it would be a crime not to include his genius in this list of people we lost in 2016.
They’re calling 2016 “The Year The Music Died.” But it’s not. The musicians – amazing musicians, all of them – may have died, but their music is a legacy that lives on. We should all be so lucky to leave such a legacy.
Jan 10 – David Bowie, cancer, 69.
Jan 17 – Glenn Frey, The Eagles, complications from surgery to treat arthritis, 67.
Jan 28 – Paul Kantner, Jefferson Airplane & Jefferson Starship, heart attack, 74.
Feb 04 – Maurice White, Earth Wind & Fire, Parkinsons Disease, 74.
Mar 04 – Joey Feek, Joey & Rory, cervical cancer, 40.
Mar 08 – Sir George Martin, Beatles Producer, unknown, 90.
Mar 11 – Keith Emerson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, self-inflicted gunshot, 71.
Mar 23 – Phife Dawg, Tribe Called Quest, complications from Diabetes, 45.
Apr 06 – Merle Haggard, complications from Pneumonia, 79.
Apr 21 – Prince, Fentanyl overdose, 57.
Oct 23 – Pete Burns, Dead Or Alive, heart attack, 57.
Sep 24 – Buckwheat Zydeco,cancer, 68.
Nov 10 – Leonard Cohen, cancer & fall in home, 82.
Nov 13 – Leon Russell, complications from heart surgery, 74.
Nov 18 – Sharon Jones, cancer, 60.
Dec 07 – Greg Lake, Emerson Lake & Palmer, cancer, 69.
Dec 25 – George Michael, heart failure, 53.
I offer this playlist of songs from the musicians listed above, but if you can think of others worthy of this list, please let me know in the comments below, or list your own favorite songs from these incredible icons we lost this year.