Don't Fear the Reaper

The annual return of the Greil Marcus Rock Death Meter

A few years ago, we started jacking the Greil Marcus Rock Death Meter, the one he invented in his 1979 essay "Rock Death in the 1970s: A Sweepstakes." Fed up with the overuse of the word "survivor" in many of the music articles of the time, Marcus rated the rockers who died in the '70s on their past contribution, future contribution and manner of death, with more points going to those who died young and spectacularly. An exception: Marcus doled out low scores to rockers who overdosed on heroin -- by that point, he believed that demise had become as much of a clichŽ as Pete Doherty arrests and gunned-down rappers are today.

But on the whole, and thankfully, 2006 was one of the Grim Reaper's weaker years. While a normal number of aging legends passed away, relatively few prominent musicians were cut down in their prime.

The key word there is "prominent" -- Web site features plenty of examples of obscure musicians who checked out in a spectacular manner. There was Richard Gribble, the singer-guitarist in a band called Dot, who was stabbed to death in a brawl after shooting dice in China. Gerald Georgettis, a tour manager and sound engineer for the likes of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane's Addiction and Pink Floyd, hung himself in the bathroom of a United Airlines plane while he was out on bond for allegedly torching a Miami SUV dealership -- while it was still open. Norwegian blueswoman Kristin Berglund accidentally burned herself to death after spilling gasoline on her clothes. Metal drummer Shawn Kettlewell gets the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time Award -- he was struck and killed by a car battery hurled from a car that crashed on the other side of the freeway. Hawaiian singer Thane Leialoha takes the Rock-Est Death of the Year for 2006 -- he was shot by police as he tried to escape from a paddy wagon.

But none of those guys get high overall scores, because none of them are famous in America. Here's the roll of the famous ones we lost, not including those who were from Houston. (We covered them in last week's Racket.)

Gene McFadden, 56, cancer. R&B singer, songwriter, producer and architect of "the Philadelphia sound" of the '70s. Sang backup on Arthur Conley's "Sweet Soul Music" and later, as half of the duo McFadden & Whitehead, he scored a huge hit in 1979 with "Ain't No Stopping Us Now."

Past Contribution: 7, Future Contribution: 1, Manner of Death: 1, Total: 9

Robert Lockwood Jr. , 91, respiratory failure. First-generation Delta bluesman, friend and traveling companion of Robert Johnson and later, Johnny Shines. Member of the Blues Hall of Fame.

PC: 7, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 9

Don Walser, 72, natural causes. Rotund, West Texas-bred country singer and yodeler whose soaring tenor won him the sobriquet "The Pavarotti of the Plains."

PC: 6, FC: 2, M: 1. Total: 9

Henry Townsend, 96, pulmonary edema. St. Louis-bred blues patriarch who worked with Robert Johnson, Robert Nighthawk, Sonny Boy Williamson and Roosevelt "The Honeydripper" Sykes. The only man known to have recorded in each of the past nine decades.

PC: 8 , FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 10

Cindy Walker, 87, natural causes. Country songwriter, author of the Bob Wills hits "Bubbles In My Beer" and "You're From Texas," Roy Orbison's "Dream Baby," and the oft-recorded "You Don't Know Me." Member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

PC: 8, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 10

Arif Mardin, 74, pancreatic cancer. Legendary arranger and producer who lent his skills to everyone from Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin to Culture Club, Rod Stewart and Norah Jones.

PC: 7, FC: 2, M: 1. Total: 10

Jay "Hootie" McShann, 90, respiratory problems. Bluesy jazz pianist who played with everyone from Count Basie to Charlie Parker to Duke Robillard. Member of the Blues Hall of Fame.

PC: 8 , FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 10

Arthur Lee, 61, leukemia. Psychedelic rock deity, leader of the band Love, whose Forever Changes is a '60s cult classic. A primary influence on both Pink Floyd and some of the early '80s neo-psychedelic bands from Britain such as Echo and the Bunnymen

PC: 8, FC: 2, M: 1. Total: 11

Lou Rawls, 72, cancer. Golden-throated baritone who performed soul, jazz, blues, pop and gospel. Scored numerous R&B hits and had pop smashes like "Love Is a Hurtin' Thing," "A Natural Man" and "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine." Voiced most of the Budweiser ads in the '70s (and even cut an album called When You Hear Lou, You've Heard It All) and lent his vocal talents to the Garfield TV specials.

PC: 9 , FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 11

Billy Preston, 59, kidney failure. Houston-born, L.A.-bred keyboardist and singer who became known as "The Fifth Beatle." As a sideman, performed with everyone from Mahalia Jackson to Ray Charles to Little Richard to Bob Dylan and Sly and the Family Stone; under his own name, scored hits with "Nothing from Nothing," "Outa-Space," "Space Race," "Will It Go Round in Circles" and "With You I'm Born Again." Wrote "You Are So Beautiful," Joe Cocker's biggest hit.

PC: 10 , FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 12

Gerald Levert, 40, heart attack. R&B singer best known for "Casanova." Son of Eddie Levert of the O'Jays, with whom he scored the hit "Baby Hold On to Me" in 1992.

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