In Memoriam: Okayplayer Pays Tribute To The Stars We Lost In 2016
The end of the year brings the opportunity—someone might argue obligation—to reflect and try and make sense out of what has transpired during the preceding 12 months. Even without factoring in the election of Cheeto Jesus—whose presidency represents a sort of death in and of itself—it is safe to declare that when it came to the overall cultural and creative zeitgeist, 2016 was a full out annulus horribulous.
Yes, people die all the time—even the famous ones—but 2016 felt like a non-stop assault as one-by-one pretty much anyone who had ever meant anything to us was gone. David Bowie. Prince. Muhammad Ali. Phife Dawg. Maurice White. For many of us, 2016 was the year when our childhood and teenage years also shuffled off its mortal coil. In their own fashion, the men and women we pay tribute to represented something far bigger than a role, a verse, an image or a musical note. They represented artistry and achievement that in some cases were both immeasurable and irreplaceable. They represented times in our life that helped shape who we are (and were) and how we viewed others.
Ranking deaths feels wrong, but there is no getting around that the passing of David Bowie and Prince stunned us all. In a testimony to the depth of their importance and impact, the passing of both men was front-page news. Part of the visceral reaction to the news of Bowie and Prince stemmed from the circumstances surrounding their deaths. Outside of his inner circle, few knew that Bowie had cancer (Blackstar, his brilliant album, was released several days before he died and found him gripping with mortality). As for the Purple One, in hindsight, a bout with the flu and cancelled gigs might have been a signal, but no one was prepared. On paper, Bowie and Prince were, respectively, rock and R&B gawds—their sounds and visions redefined both genres. Bowie artfully shape-shifted from glam to electronica Philly soul to free jazz. Prince was a funked-up guitar hero trapped in a lilth body whose creative integrity—like Bowie’s—was unwavering.
Both were inspiring live and had spot on pop instincts. Their list of hits would take up the space allotted on any Billboard chart. The music David Bowie and Prince Rogers Nelson were making was more than the music we already loved in the world. To paraphrase Prince: nothing compares to them. Or will.
He was The Greatest. Handsome, brash, whip smart, funny and able to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Muhammad Ali made a brutal sport look like a thing of beauty. A convert to Islam, Ali refused to fight in Vietnam and his principled stance resulted in him being temporarily banned from the ring and much of white America labeling him a traitor. His return was triumphant and on his own terms. During his heyday he was one of the most recognizable figures in the world. Many of the tributes that followed Ali’s death dialed down the polarizing nature of his fame and unapologetic blackness. Make no mistake: he was a freedom fighter.
A keyboard and synth wizard Bernie Worrell concocted those space age squiggles (e.g. “Flashlight”) and bass drenched vamps that helped George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic tear the roof off the sucker. Off stage, Worrell was low-key and serious, letting his freak flag fly only when he was behind the keys. In addition to his years on the Mothership, Worrell, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, was an in-demand session and touring musician most famously with the mid-late ’80s band, The Talking Heads, where he helped them transition from artsy New Wavers to AfroPop funkateers.
If Rod Temperton had done nothing else in his life but write Heatwave’s disco-fied “Boogie Nights” and the ultimate prom/wedding song “Always and Forever,” then he would have been golden in many people’s books. But the Brit’s catalogue also included R&B/pop gems (“Give Me the Night,” “Baby Come to Me”) and some of Michael Jackson‘s best cuts, including “Off the Wall,” “Rock With You” and a little tune called, “Thriller”.
Doo-wop fans knew Lee Andrews from his quintet Lee Andrews & the Hearts. But closer to home, Andrews was Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s pops and as such a major influence on his son and by extension a whole generation of fans.
Like many a New York City kid, Kashif found his salvation through music. In his mid-teens he became the keyboardist /vocalist for B.T. Express whose hits included, “Here Comes the Express” and “Do It (‘Til You’re Satisfied”). Comfortable with electronic instrumentation, Kashif eventually became a session player / producer before landing a solo deal in the 1980s, a deal, it was said was his label’s response to Prince. Kashif continued to record, write and produce for others, most notably Whitney Houston‘s “You Give Good Love”.
The story goes that when Prince met Denise Matthews he renamed her Vanity because he viewed her as the female version of himself. As the lead singer of Vanity 6, she exuded a leather-and-lace sexiness that gave a female voice to Prince’s carnal manifesto. Her association with Prince was brief. Vanity enjoyed a modest solo career in the mid-80s and then established herself as an actor, most notably in cult fave Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon. In the ’90s, Vanity’s struggle with addiction lead to a religious conversion and rejection of her past although in an ironic twist, Vanity’s former lover and male counterpart died two months after her.
A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg was the understated yin to Q-Tip’s rock star yang. The self-described “Five Foot Assassin” and “Funky Diabetic” (sadly, the disease was the cause of his death, Phife was a hip-hop everyman, slipping in and out of patois, talking smack about sports and good-naturedly macking on girls, leaving the more esoteric verses to The Abstract). Relegate him to back up singer at your peril. Phife was an instantly identifiable voice—both sonically and thematically—and he ranks as one of, if not the greatest co-leads in hip-hop, who was always, as the song goes, on point. Phife was a hell of a nice guy, funny and as Tribe’s not-so-final effort, We Got It From Here, Thank You 4 Your Service (the title a favorite expression of Phife’s) proved, was still at the top of his game.
The breadth of Maurice White’s talent was inspiring. A singer-songwriter, bandleader, producer, arranger and a multi-instrumentalist, White was the founding and guiding force of the essential Earth, Wind & Fire. White was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the founding funk-and-soul band and was later inducted on his own and individually in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. Those songs, man: How many dance parties did they set off? “Mighty, Mighty,” “Keep Your Head to the Sky,” “Shining Star”… White fused African instrumentation, rock, soul, cosmology and a positive message that translated into multiple Grammys and legions of fans.
Celebrating these legends and continuing to champion their life + legacies, let’s pay tribute and honor the stars who have left us this year in 2016.
Amy Linden is a veteran music critic and culture writer. You can find the latest and greatest from her on Twitter @NotForNothin59.