Ah, that nasty Grim Reaper took a lot of great musicians this year, and his scythe cut a wide swath across all genres, including many heavyweights in the blues and R&B world. The greatest loss comes in the form of someone who was a man, a song, and a beat all in one...
Bo Diddley, singer-songwriter, guitarist, co-founder of rock and roll, all-around Bad Ass (1928-2008): If we ever get around to blasting a Mt. Rushmore to the founders of rock and roll, the faces on rock would be Chuck Berry, Little Richard, a rotating white guy (Elvis, Buddy, Jerry Lee...depending on the season, I guess) and "the Originator," Bo Diddley.
Yes, this is the blues/R&B list, but Diddley's wide stance encompassed many genres, starting with his early days at Chess. He had the attitude, the songs ("Bo Diddley," "Who Do You Love?" "Pretty Thing," "You Can't Judge a Book by the Cover") and - most importantly - the beat.
Bo Diddley didn't invent the "shave and a haircut" rhythm (Bomp-ba-bomp-ba-bomp-ba-BOMP-BOMP), but with it, he drew the blueprint of ground zero of rock and roll. Just listen to "Not Fade Away" by Buddy Holly, "Magic Bus" by the Who, "She's the One" by Bruce Springsteen, and "Desire" by U2 - Bo's beat is in them all and so many more.
Though he never stopped bemoaning slights - both real and imagined - in his place in history (locally, a shocked Rockefeller's crowed in the early '90s squirmed while he beat up on Elvis from the mike), his legacy was always secure. Diddley suffered a stroke in 2007 and suffered from hypertension and diabetes, finally dying of heart failure. At his funeral, it seemed wholly appropriate that mourners broke out into a spontaneous chant of "HEY, Bo Diddley!" as a way to send him home. Perhaps it was more of a warning to St. Peter.
Isaac Hayes, singer/songwriter, keyboardist, Truck Turner (1942-2008): Hayes started out with partner David Porter as strictly a songwriter for the incredible Stax label ("Soul Man," "Hold On, I'm Comin'"), but broke through as an electric and super-cool performer in his own right, becoming one of the '70s biggest superstars, black or white.
The chain vests, the gold Cadillacs and the smooth-shaved dome are what people remember visually, of course. But through albums like Hot Buttered Soul, Black Moses and the soundtrack to the film Shaft, he brought a smooth, calm delivery fronting lush orchestration and created music to be experienced with your groin and your mind, rather than just listened to.
In later years, Hayes' career would wax and wane while he dabbled in running his own record label and had bit parts in films. But he would have a huge resurgence among Generation X and Y (who only knew Shaft as blaxploitation irony) as the voice of the libidinous culinary master "Chef" on the South Park animated series.
Hayes, a dedicated Scientologist, would leave the show in a highly-publicized (and testy) departure when the show made fun of the religion during an episode that spoofed Tom Cruise. It was somewhat of an ingenuous move, according to creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, since the series had pretty much made fun of everything else already, but Hayes stuck to his guns.
Hayes suffered a stroke in 2006, and another one led to his death - his body found at his home on the floor by a still-running treadmill. His last film appearance was in a brief role in the film Soul Men, which ironically starred Bernie Mac, another 2008 celebrity death.
Levi Stubbs, lead singer, the Four Tops (1936-2008): The Supremes may have scored the crossover hits and the Temptations got their own TV movie, but the story of Motown Records would be wildly bereft of heft if you forgot the Four Tops. And the driving force - not to mention one of the most powerful voices in music of any genre - belonged to Levi Stubbs.
"Reach Out, I'll Be There," "Standing in the Shadows of Love," "Bernadette," "Baby I Need Your Loving," "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)"...that quartet of songs alone would secure his place in music history. And thanks to movie soundtracks, endless Motown compilations and Betty Crocker commercials, the music and Stubbs' forceful, take-no-prisoners-nor-their-mamas vocal style survives, though he could also be romantic on occasion - "Ain't No Woman (Like the One I've Got)" being exhibit A.
Stubbs had many opportunities to break off from the group and go solo, but he steadfastly refused to leave fellow Tops Duke Fakir, Obie Benson and Lawrence Payton. Even when he found a measure of popularity as the voice of carnivorous plant Audrey II in 1986's Little Shop of Horrors, he split his fee with the band.
The Four Tops would stay together longer than any other vocal group with their original lineup (until Payton's death in 1997; Benson passed away in 2005). Stubbs was diagnosed with cancer in the '90s, and a later stroke ended is career with the group. He died in his sleep at his Detroit home.
Jerry Wexler, Jewish Guru of the Blues, superproducer (1917-2008): He didn't play, write, or sing, but without Gerald Wexler, we probably be without (or at least lacking) the incredible work of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and others. Oh, and let's not forget the very term "rhythm and blues," which he suggested as a moniker to replace heading "race records" on the Billboard charts.
Wexler was a rare executive (mostly with Atlantic Records) who lived, breathed, fucked and thought about music. It's partly because of his efforts and gentle studio direction that Aretha went from timid gospel singer to the Queen of Soul, and Ray Charles a Nat King Cole imitator to the Genius.
Wexler was also responsible for convincing Atlantic to distribute on a national scale the incredible body of work at Stax Records, and in helping to sign Led Zeppelin, Cream, and the Allman Brothers Band to the label. His work with Willie Nelson on his Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages records helped lay the groundwork for Outlaw Country.
He also produced the first (and best) of Bob Dylan's three religious records, Slow Train Coming, once famously telling the Bard of Hibbing after attempted proselytizing that as a Jew-turned-atheist, he was wasting his time and they should just worry about laying down some great songs. His now out-of-print autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues, is worth searching out (though a used copy on Amazon will set you back $165).
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Wexler died at his Florida home of natural causes. When asked some years ago what he wanted written on his tombstone, his response was two simple words: "More bass."
Pete Mayes, bluesman (1938-2008)/Calvin Owens, composer, trumpeter, bandleader (1929-2008): While other performers who have more prominent national profiles could round out this list, we'd like to give some props to two cherished local performers who thrilled audiences all over, but made their homes and main stages in Houston, Pete Mayes (above)and Calvin Owens (right).
Rocks Off scribes Chris Gray has already memorialized Mayes here. And John Nova Lomax did the same for Calvin Owens here, and I certainly can't improve on their words. Plus, they control or have controlled my paychecks in the past. - Bob Ruggiero