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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 thedeadrockstarsclub.com 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.

PC: 7 , FC: 4, M: 1. Total: 12

Buck Owens, 76, heart attack. Country Music Hall of Famer and primary architect of the Bakersfield Sound. Scored hits with "Together Again," "Love's Gonna Live Here" and "Act Naturally," which was recorded by the Beatles in 1965. With Roy Clark, Owens was long a cohost of Hee Haw. Enjoyed a sunset renaissance in the '80s with the advent of young acolyte Dwight Yoakam, with whom he recorded a no. 1 country hit with their duet on Owens's "Streets of Bakersfield."

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

Ruth Brown, 78, stroke/heart attack. R&B/rock and roll pioneer. Member of Rock and Blues halls of fame. Worked, long ago, with Houston's own Texas Johnny Brown. Also known as "Miss Rhythm," her hits propelled the then-fledgling Atlantic Records on to lasting success, so much so that the label was later called "The house that Ruth built." Late in life, advocated for musicians' rights and starred on Broadway, where she won a Tony. Her "This Little Girl's Gone Rockin'" is featured in the current Hummer H3 ad campaign.

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

Syd Barrett, 61, pancreatic cancer. Eccentric psychedelic pioneer and founding member of Pink Floyd, which he named by combining the names of two now-totally-obscure bluesmen. Member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After parting with Pink Floyd, inspired both the song "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" and the album Wish You Were Here, on which "Shine" is the centerpiece. Cited as an influence by REM, Robyn Hitchcock, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, The Mars Volta, the entire Elephant 6 collective and too many other modern indie rockers to list here.

PC: 10, FC: 2, M: 1. Total: 13

Wilson "Wicked" Pickett, 64, heart attack. Among the funkiest of the soul men, the gruff-voiced Pickett's many hits included "634-5789," "Funky Broadway," "Land of 1000 Dances," "Mustang Sally" and "In the Midnight Hour." Once headlined a tour of American musicians to Ghana, a junket immortalized on the documentary Soul to Soul.

PC: 10, FC: 2, M: 1 Total: 13

Clifford Antone, 56, heart attack. Nightclub and record label owner, helped make Austin "The Live Music Capital of the World" and was instrumental in the early careers of Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

PC: 7*, FC: 5, M: 1. Total: 13

* a "10" in Austin.

Desmond Dekker,64, heart attack.Early popularizer of ska and reggae in Britain and America and author of the Jamaican classics "007 (Shanty Town)," "It Mek" and "Israelites," one of the catchiest songs of all time.

PC: 9, FC: 3, M: 1. Total: 13

Freddy Fender,69, lung cancer. Teary-voiced singer. Early on in his career, he was the Elvis Presley of the Valley, later a Corpus Christi/Houston-based country hitmaker responsible for swamp pop-tinged tunes like "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" and "Before the Next Teardrop Falls." Late-life renaissance with the Texas Tornados and Los Super Seven.

PC: 9, FC: 3, M: 1. Total: 13

Gene Pitney, 66, coronary artery atherosclerosis. Chameleon-like pop-rocker who counted "Town Without Pity," "Hello Mary Lou," "Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa," "He's a Rebel," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and "Only Love Can Break a Heart" among his hits. Once cut an album of duets with George Jones, and helped popularize the Rolling Stones in America. Was huge in Italy, and had a sideline in recording country music songs in Italian. Member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

PC: 10, FC: 3, M: 1. Total: 14

Ali "Farka" Toure, 66, bone cancer. Hypnotic Malian blues guitarist and singer, known as "the African John Lee Hooker." Won two Grammys and is up for a third next year.

PC: 9, FC: 5, M: 1. Total: 15

Vince Welnick, 55, suicide -- slit own throat. Former Tubes and Grateful Dead keyboardist. Member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

PC: 6, FC: 2, M: 8. Total: 16

Jesse "Guitar" Taylor, 55, hepatitis C and cirrhosis. Incredible Austin guitar slinger who worked with Joe Ely and Billy Joe Shaver, among many others.

PC: 7, FC: 4, M: 5. Total: 16

Jay Dee, a.k.a. J Dilla, 32, congenital liver disease. Ingenious underground hip-hop producer, multi-instrumentalist and M.C. -- founding member of Detroit rap group Slum Village and a member of the Ummah -- A Tribe Called Quest's production team. Produced for Common, Ghostface Killah, Busta Rhymes, Macy Gray, Brand New Heavies, the Roots and Erykah Badu, among others.

PC: 7, FC: 8, M: 1. Total: 16

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