A popular bit of e-mail humor passed around earlier this year reported the death of Larry LaPrise, composer of the "Hokey Pokey." The obituary reported that the services were inexplicably delayed, because the funeral director had some trouble with the body. As soon as he put the left leg in, the right leg popped out, and ... well, you know the rest.
Johnny Cash, Nina Simone, Warren Zevon, Elliott Smith, Barry White, Benny Carter, Celia Cruz, Robert Palmer, Earl King, Johnny Paycheck, Gregory Hines, Al Hirschfeld, Donald O'Connor, Felice Bryant, Herbie Mann, Compay Segundo, Rubén González, June Carter Cash, Maurice Gibb, Mongo Santamaria
Leaving huge holes in the sonic fabric, these personalities threaded popular culture with a staggering array of sounds, from salsa and jazz to disco, R&B, country, rock, and all points in between. They are never to be replaced, hopefully not forgotten, and leave behind truly unique legacies.
Little Eva, Sheb Wooley, Dewey Terry, Noel Redding, Nell Carter, Skip Battin, Arthur Conley, Bobby Hatfield, Speedy West, Hank Ballard, Ethan James, Claude Pepper aka Jack Mack, Erik Braunn, Dave Rowberry, Don Gibson, Lonnie Donegan, Edwin Starr, Wesley Willis
Being a cult star, novelty singer, or a one-hit wonder is a curious skeleton in the closet. It's a kind of instant Neverland, where you're remembered for one song, like Hank Ballard and "The Twist," Little Eva and "The Loco-Motion," Arthur Conley and "Sweet Soul Music," and Sheb Wooley and "Purple People Eater."
Some were genuine heroes in their own country, like Ireland's Lonnie Donegan, who actually died on Nov. 3, 2002, and is doomed to footnote status in the U.S. for his novelty hit, "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour?" Not only is a song forever associated with an act, their look at the time is branded on the song. Forever young.
That tender glow of remembrance also happens to those who die too soon, like rising Welsh tunesmith Matthew Jay and singer-songwriter Elliott Smith: You're not just forever young, you're forever tragic. And for many musicians, their past is their prime. Dave Rowberry of the Animals; Erik Braunn of Iron Butterfly; and Ethan James, aka Ralph Burns Kellogg when he played with Blue Cheer, all made their mark in the Sixties and did little musically afterward. It's the same as being a one-hit wonder.
Death is a perennial theme in music, no less so in rock & roll where teen tragedy and lost love were constants in the Fifties and Sixties. By the late Seventies and Eighties, looking Mr. Bones in the eye almost became sport, as Jim Carroll's musical litany recalled in "People Who Died." When former Austinite and Velvet Underground founder Sterling Morrison died in 1995, he was remembered by bandmate John Cale with a reading of Dylan Thomas' "And Death Shall Have No Dominion," a more appropriate choice to the guitarist than, say, the VU's own "The Black Angel's Death Song."
Yet it's not necessary to have ever picked up a guitar to make your mark in music: Comic Bob Hope's lines are not known nearly as well as his theme song, "Thanks for the Memories." Donald O'Connor was one of Hollywood's great song-and-dance men in Singin' in the Rain, as was America's favorite hillbilly, Buddy Ebsen, who lost the part of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz to Jack Haley because of a silver-paint allergy. Gregory Hines was the uncontested king of modern tap dance.
Sam Phillips made his name with Sun Records and Elvis Presley, while Felice Bryant composed some of the Everly Brothers' most beloved songs. And what is famous caricaturist Al Hirschfeld doing here? You still have your copy of Aerosmith's Draw the Line, right?
What if you worked all your life in music and didn't "reach the top," but still paid the dues? John Brim was scarcely known outside Chicago, but was mourned deeply within. Nancy Whiskey was a Scot who'd played skiffle music all her life. Freddy Guerra played saxophonist for Glenn Miller. For James Carter, who recorded "Po Lazarus" as he worked on a chain gang at Parchman prison in Mississippi in 1959, the end of life brought mild fame and small fortune: His version of "Po Lazarus" opened the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.
That must have been a shock for the shipping clerk, whose humble life was otherwise undistinguished, for look at the things that stand out when you die: country stalwart Don Gibson was an elementary school dropout. Think about that for a moment, and ponder what his hardscrabble life must have been like as a young boy who not only left school, but entered life with no resources, education, or money. Success must have been very sweet for a man like Don Gibson.
Ty Longley, Mike Gonsalves, Keith Mancini, Steven and Andrea Mancini, Scott Griffith, Nicky O'Neill, Dale Latulippe, Jeff Rader, Thomas Marion
Ty Longley, performing with Great White at the Station nightclub in Rhode Island when pyrotechnics went awry, died in the ensuing fire. So did Mike Gonsalves, aka Dr. Metal, the radio deejay hosting the show, and Keith Mancini, the bassist whose band opened the show. His cousin Steven who was in the band died, too, along with wife Andrea. Scott Griffith was a member of Night Fall, Nicky O'Neill played in Shryne, Dale Latulippe was in Ball and Chain. Another local guitarist Thomas Marion and drummer/guitarist Jeff Rader also perished in the blaze. That's only 10 of the 97 people -- out for a carefree evening of Eighties nostalgia last February -- whose families will spend an unbearably sad holiday season this year.
The Grim Reaper was not kind to Texas, swinging his scythe at rockabilly's Ronnie Dawson, the Fever Tree's Michael Knust, Texas Playboy Tommy Perkins, Country Music Hall of Famer Floyd Tillman, Lucille Jenkins of the Melody Lasses, A.J. Murphy from Archie Bell & the Drells, and the great songwriter/performer Al "TNT" Braggs, among others.
Austin was heart-punched by the suicide of Kris Van Robbins, the death of scenester Handsome Joel Svatek, the loss of business veteran Al Ragle, and most recently, the passing of musician and musicologist Tary Owens.
What makes the deaths in the music world of 2003 different from any other year? Consider this: February 2004 marks the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the moment that changed music history. Before that year, rock & roll was the music of youth only. It came from the underground and backwoods of the Fifties, reviled by parents, denounced by schools and the media.
By the end of 1964, rock & roll was on its way out of the counterculture and into the mainstream. Sales of electric guitars skyrocketed, garage bands sprang up on every block, boys embraced the Beatles' shaggy haircuts, and a music industry that heretofore regarded youth as profitable but limited suddenly changed out of its business suit into bellbottoms. It never looked back.
Forty years after those tweens, teens, and twentysomethings took up instruments, held microphones, or fell in love with bands over a silly piece of music so hard it hurt, they're also beginning to die in numbers that will in a few years make 2003's roll call look like Great White's guest list.
Larry LaPrise actually died in 1996, yet the recirculation of that e-mail is a tribute not just to the enduring whimsy of "The Hokey Pokey," but to the willingness of the human spirit to counter sadness with levity. Seven years after his death, "The Hokey Pokey" continues to generate laughs.
We carry music in our savage breast, lifting our voices in song, in celebration, in sadness, in triumph, in loss, in pain, in joy. Music soothes and inspires, evokes and enhances. Music is the sound of life and the sound of death.
And that's what it's all about, clap clap.