You know, the Grim Reaper don't care if you're a multiplatinum music legend, a one-hit wonder or studio-only sideman - he's comin' for you someday! And in 2008, he seemed to like keyboardists and drummers most. A number of classic rockers left for "The Great Gig in the Sky," foremost of whom is the composer of that song...
Rick Wright, keyboardist, Pink Floyd (1943-2008): While David Gilmour and Roger Waters were locked in an often ugly head-to-head in battle for creative control and band leadership, and Nick Mason happily pounded skins and collected race cars, quiet keyboardist Wright seemed content to add his fills and solos where he could.
In the process, many argue that it's his instrument most responsible for the "Pink Floyd sound." Wright's best-known contributions to the bands lie in writing or co-writing the wordless "Gig," "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," and "Us and Them," as well as singing on "Time," "Echoes," and "Astronomy Domine."
He was nevertheless forced by Waters to resign during recording of The Wall, but hired back for the road shows as a salaried employee. When a Waters-less Floyd reformed in the late '80s, Wright was included. In 2005 he joined Gilmour, Waters, and Mason for a four-song set at the Live 8 concert, which - despite the fervent prayers of fans - did not lead to a full-fledged reunion record or tour.
In 2006, Gilmour tapped Wright to take part in his On an Island disc and subsequent tour, which resulted in the live CD/DVD, Live in Gdansk. Outside of Pink Floyd, Wright released a couple of solo albums and formed a short-lived group called Zee. He was reportedly at work on a new record when he succumbed to cancer.
After Wright's death, Gilmour offered this: "No one can replace Richard Wright. He was my musical partner and my friend. In the welter of arguments about who or what was Pink Floyd, Rick's enormous input was frequently forgotten. He was gentle, unassuming and private, but his soulful voice and playing were vital, magical components of our most recognized Pink Floyd sound. I have never played with anyone quite like him."
Danny Federici's last show, "4th of July, Asbury (Sandy)"
Danny Federici, organist/accordionist, E Street Band (1950-2008): Nicknamed "The Phantom" by the Bruce Springsteen for an incident in which he evaded police capture at a raucous early show by simply disappearing, Federici was in integral component to Springsteen and the E Street Band's sound for more than four decades.
In fact, it was actually Federici and drummer Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez who, on the hunt to find a singer for a band they were forming, invited Springsteen to join them. His organ and accordion, with its carnival-like sweep and fills, was the instrument which brought to life the sound and the rhythm of the Jersey boardwalk, most notably with solos on "Hungry Heart," "4th of July, Asbury (Sandy)" and "The Rising."
He also released some solo efforts in the soft-jazz genre, and guested on numerous others. Federici was suffering from melanoma when he took a leave of absence from the band's recent "Magic" tour to undergo intense treatment. And while he never returned permanently, he made a dramatic and (for fans) tear-filled last appearance (above).
Springsteen, in his eulogy at Federci's funeral, noted this: "He was the most intuitive player I've ever seen. His style was slippery and fluid, drawn to the spaces the other musicians in the E Street Band left. He wasn't an assertive player, he was a complementary player. A true accompanist. He naturally supplied the glue that bound the band's sound together. In doing so, he created for himself a very specific style."
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, "Purple Haze"
Mitch Mitchell, drummer, the Jimi Hendrix Experience (1946-2008): He was one of classic rock's first, foremost and most influential skin thumpers. Mitch Mitchell's inventive fills and power pounding on tracks like "Manic Depression," "Are You Experienced?," "Purple Haze," and "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" set the standard for rock drummers. He was also know for incorporating a lot of jazz influence, and playing drums as a lead instrument rather than simply offering a backing beat.
And though his short-lived relationship with Hendrix was often rocky, particularly when it came to matters of billing and finances (Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding were either let go or quit due to these disagreements), Mitchell continued his association with the guitarist after his death by helping fill out a number of unreleased tracks.
Mitchell would go on to play and record occasionally through the years, and had just finished up playing as part of the celebratory "Experinece Hendrix" Tour when he died in his sleep of natural causes in a Portland hotel room. He had reportedly been feeling ill, and played on only one song at his final show.
Buddy Miles, drummer, Band of Gypsys; Electric Flag (1947-2008): Oddly enough, the next drummer Hendrix worked with was Miles, who joined his shorted-lived Band of Gypsys from 1969-1970. Miles had known Hendrix early in his career, and the two kept in touch. Hendrix invited Miles to play on Electric Ladyland before asking him and bassist Billy Cox to become the Gypsys.
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Miles was reportedly fired at the behest of Hendrix's controlling manager, who felt that having three black men in a rock band would limit its marketability, especially at at a time when the star himself was spiraling out of control. But Miles was more than just a sideman. He fronted his own group, The Buddy Miles Express, was a co-founder (with guitarist Michael Bloomfield) of the pioneering blues-rock band The Electric Flag in 1967.
He also added his R&B-fueled drumming to many sessions. In a funny twist, Miles scored something of a late-career success as the lead vocalist for the animated "California Raisins" in a series of TV commercials. Miles died at his home in Austin of congestive heart failure. His most famous song, "Them Changes" (which he wrote), is often on Eric Clapton's setlists.
Jimmy Carl Black, vocalist/drummer, The Mothers of Invention (1938-2008): With his trademark line "Hi boys and girls, I'm Jimmy Carl Black, and I'm the Indian of the group," the Cheyenne-descended Black fit right into the carnival that was Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention on records like Freak Out!, We're Only In It For the Money, and Weasels Ripped My Flesh.
After leaving the Mothers, Black would tour with Captain Beefheart, take part in various Zappa tribute bands, and record solo projects. He relocated to Austin in the mid-'80s, where he fronted "Jimmy Carl Black and the Blues," who had regular gigs at the Hole in the Wall on Guadalupe St. He died of lung cancer while in Germany, where he had moved. Rocks Off's William Michael Smith paid tribute to Black here. - Bob Ruggiero