The year 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic have forced us all to say goodbye to many things; a stable routine, comfortably gathering with friends and family and of course, many beloved artists and pioneers in the music world.
Locally Houston has also said goodbye to some live music staples with the death of musician Steve Reno and Warehouse Live’s beloved doorman George Longoria. As COVID-19 has proved repeatedly, it does not discriminate.
The latest to succumb to COVID-19 was country music legend and trailblazer, Charley Pride. The 86-year-old Pride had performed just last month at the Country Music Awards show where he was honored for his work and legacy.
Pride, who broke onto the country music charts in 1967 with his recording of “Just Between You And Me,” was the first black musician to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In his early years, record execs would often mail out his press releases and promotional albums purposefully omitting his photo so listeners and promoters would be unaware of his race.
The son of a Mississippi sharecropper, a young Pride believed it would be major league baseball that would save him from a life of poverty and back breaking labor but it was his smooth baritone voice and winning personality that made him famous.
Pride topped the charts during the civil unrest of the ‘60s with his classic hits like “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” and though the country music community is mourning him, his death is also a time to reflect on the continued lack of inclusion in country music.
Songwriting giant John Prine also passed away from COVID-19 back in April. Prine’s death sent waves of sadness throughout the music world. His songs often dealt with the normal everyday interactions and underlying stories we all hold in our souls and his ability to tell the story of the human condition in a comical and catchy way made him a national treasure.
Prine was a mail carrier before he hit the stage in the late ‘60s, often writing and singing songs on his mail route. It was at an open mike he often visited as an audience member where he first performed and was subsequently offered a paying gig.
For decades Prine’s lyrical prowess gained him fans and admirers from within the music community. Just months before his death he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. When he passed away in April, the tributes and loving messages poured out.
Recently when the American Country Music Awards sadly did not include Prine, nor Jerry Jeff Walker or Billy Joe Shaver, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires were quick and public with their disappointment returning their lifelong membership cards to the Country Music Association.
It is sadly ironic that a man who wrote so deeply about the human connection passed away from the most isolating of diseases. Prine had his share of health scares in the past overcoming cancer. He thanked his medical team here in Houston at his 2012 concert, and as he said in his song “When I get to Heaven,” Prine had clearly thought about what he’d say and do when his time came.
Within the genre of country music, it felt like the hits just kept on coming when within a span of less than two weeks the world said goodbye to Johnny Bush, Jerry Jeff Walker and Billy Joe Shaver. All three men had a distinct yet undeniable influence on the evolution of country music worldwide but especially here in Texas.
Shaver’s song “Live Forever” sums up perfectly what happens when our honky tonk heroes die as they live on in the songs they leave behind.
We also lost Houstonian Kenny Rogers, famously known for his hit song “The Gambler.” Rogers' success crossed over multiple genres and he is one of the best selling artists of all time.
He performed up until 2017 where his final performance was a testament to the broad range of artists that he influenced in his long career with everyone from The Flaming Lips to longtime collaborator Dolly Parton performing. Rogers passed away at the age of 81 of natural causes.
Texas transplant and country singer Hal Ketchum passed away just before Thanksgiving at the age of 67. Originally from New York, Ketchum found a home and fan base in Texas playing frequently at Gruene Hall, the site of his final performance in 2018.
Best known for his hit song “Small Town Saturday Night,” Ketchum was loved and admired for his sincere storytelling ability and songwriting style.
Another Texas giant we lost this year was Mac Davis. Davis, originally from Lubbock, wrote a string of hits for other artists including Elvis Presley and Nancy Sinatra before gaining fame as a country and pop singer with his songs including his chart topping “Baby Don't Get Hooked On Me.”
Charlie Daniels, who also wrote for the King, passed away this year at the age of 83. Daniels, best known for his explosive fiddle playing in “The Devil Went Down To Georgia," was a rock and roller in his younger days and played bass on three Dylan albums including Nashville Skyline.
Country music wasn’t the only genre hard hit this year, rock and roll lost one of its founding fathers with the death of Little Richard. Little Richard was anything but little, his larger than life persona and playing style embodied the raw power of rock and roll with a splash of gospel.
Born in Macon, Georgia his religious upbringing never ceased to be a major influence in his life, despite his wild ways. Little Richard was briefly signed to Houston’s Peacock Records until financial disagreements with the infamous Don Robey saw him take his career elsewhere.
Breaking onto the scene with his 1955 hit “Tutti Frutti,” there had never been anyone quite like him, pounding away at his piano with a full face of makeup and hair done up to the sky. He topped the charts and merged white and black audiences at a time when that was no small feat.
Though he had a hot/cold relationship with his rock and roll music and life, often turning away from his more popular style to play religious and gospel music, his contributions to the genre are never ending and his death left a huge whole in the fabric of American music.
To a younger generation, Eddie Van Halen was the quintessential rock guitar god. His quick fingers and high energy compositions set the tone for popular rock in the '80s. Sadly, he died at the young age of 65 this October after suffering a stroke. Halen had been battling cancer for years.
This year we also said goodbye to blue-eyed soul legend and force of nature Roy Head. Head, best known for his song “Treat Her Right” had a stage presence and sense of showmanship like no other. He performed well into his late ‘70s and never abandoned his trademark stage moves and microphone tricks or lost his soulful voice.
Another soul voice that we lost this year was Bill Withers, who passed away in March at the age of 81. Withers is most known for his hit songs “Lean On Me,” “Grandma’s Hands” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Withers wrote and recorded his impressive song catalogue in the short span of 15 years while working as an assembler for various companies, walking away from his music career in the mid ‘80s.
The world said goodbye to Houstonian Johnny Nash best known for his hit song “I Can See Clearly Now.” Nash passed away in Houston at the age of 80 in October. Nash took a chance on his pop driven career in the ‘60s forming his own record label JAD and moving to Jamaica.
In Jamaica Nash wrote and recorded his own material but also became interested in a young Bob Marley at the time, attempting to bring reggae music to the United States.
COVID-19 claimed the life of Jamaican superstar Toots Hibbert, front man for Toots and the Maytals. He is considered to be the one who helped create the term and genre of Reggae music with his song “Do The Reegay.”
Hibbert’s influence bled into multiple genres from pop to punk rock and his infectious joy and musical talents led him out of the Jamaican spotlight and onto the world stage.
It is sad and strange to say goodbye to artists that we did not personally know but formed attachments to through their art. The best way to do right by them and their lives is to keep them in our hearts and their albums in rotation.
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