With Halloween and Day of the Dead behind us, we turn now to our Month of the Dead tally and see if there were any October surprises.
Of course, there were.
Like the nine months before it, we lost some great underrated musicians, many of them songwriters whose names may not be familiar to you even if their words and music are indelibly stamped in your memory. Having heard "Thriller" as many times as "White Christmas" in December, I was sad to learn the man who wrote that song and even Vincent Price's recitation is gone, along with another Halloween luminary who was a graveyard smash years before the "Monster Mash," a singer who had more plastic surgery than Michael Jackson and Joan Rivers combined, an early-'60s teen idol who was the recipient of some of the best Brill Building pop ever scribed, some R&B movers and shakers, and a man whose death made us all
Bobby Vee, 73, American pop singer, Alzheimer's disease
Vee's career began as three pioneering rock 'n' rollers' careers dovetailed into an Iowa cornfield. When the plane carrying Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper crashed in Clear Lake, the Winter Dance Party was short of three acts for the next show on the itinerary in Moorhead, Minnesota. Vee and his band the Strangers performed that memorial concert, and 15-year-old Robert Velline's vocal similarities to Holly didn't go unnoticed that night. That performance led to a recording contract four months later and his first release, "Suzie Baby." Bob Dylan briefly played piano with Vee at this early juncture under his nom-de-plume Elster Gunn.
In the early '60s, when every teen idol seemed to be named Bobby, Vee distinguished himself by being the singer of human doormat songs where he always plays the good sport, the guy who nobly steps aside so someone else can experience true love. This sad dynamic is embodied over and over in superlative Brill Building songs like "Sharing You," "Run to Him," and his only chart-topper, "Take Good Care of My Baby." These string-laden Snuff Garrett productions embodied the orchestrated pop direction Holly was recording just before his death and the path he may have further pursued had he lived. Vee eventually recorded two albums with the original Crickets, whose Sonny Curtis and Jerry Allison also penned the Vee hit "More Than I Can Say." Vee announced in 2012 that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and capped his career with one last album, The Adobe Sessions, recorded with family members in his garage in Tucson, Arizona. This career marker was released, fittingly enough, on February 3, 2014, the 55th anniversary of Holly's death.
Pete Burns, 57, English singer-songwriter (Dead or Alive), cardiac arrest
Admit it, you already have "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)" stuck in your head. Burns rocked the eyepatch in the music video for his lone U.S. '80s hit better than anyone since "The Man in the Hathaway Shirt." Sadly, with the success of that record, Burns became addicted to changing his appearance with plastic surgery, which resulted in a botched procedure that he wound up going under the knife more than 200 times to correct. Google him, and you'll see a catalog of faces that could rival Lon Chaney — you cannot distinguish the man who first won fame in Dead or Alive from the UK reality TV star seen on Celebrity Wife Swap and Celebrity Big Brother 4. On the latter show, in which he finished in fifth place, he enraged animal-rights activists when he wore a coat made from the fur of endangered monkeys. Although he once accused Boy George of ripping off his androgynous look, it is the Culture Club singer who is paying the penniless pop star's funeral expenses. George tweeted "Tearful about the passing of Pete Burns. He was one of our great eccentrics and such a big part of my life!"
Curly Putman, 85, American songwriter, congestive heart failure and kidney failure
Some song scribes in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame are there on the strength of one or two country cry-in-your-beer classics. When Putnam was inducted in 1976, he had at least four bona fide tearjerkers, and it'd be impossible to imagine country music as we know it without them. There's "The Green Green Grass of Home"(cut by Tom Jones, Elvis Presley, Gram Parsons, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard), "My Elusive Dreams" (co-written with Billy Sherrill and popularized by David Houston and Tammy Wynette), and two songs Putman recorded with Bobby Braddock, Wynette's "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" and George Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today." If I could find the clip of the first time I heard the song, performed by Jones at some music awards show, I could watch in real time the moment I fell in love with country music. It was an affecting moment, seeing the whole country music establishment on their feet and shedding tears as if they, too, were hearing for the first time this tale about a man literally taking his love for a woman to his grave. No wonder the Country Music Association named it Song of the Year for 1980 and 1981! One year wasn't enough to contain this much heartbreak.
Don Ciccone, 70, American singer-songwriter and musician (the Critters, the Four Seasons, Tommy James and the Shondells-1980s)
Ciccione fronted the Critters and sang on their first two hits in 1966, a cover of the Lovin' Spoonful's "Younger Girl" and the soothing ballad "Mr. Dieingly Sad," which he also wrote. It's one of those exquisite oldies that earworms its way into your head for days. By the time of its release,
Rod Temperton, 66, English keyboardist (Heatwave) and songwriter, cancer
Not only did Temperton write his own band's big hits "Boogie Nights" and "Always and Forever," he also wrote George Benson's hit "Give Me the Night," the Brothers Johnson's "Stomp!," and the Patti Austin and James Ingram's U.S. number-one duet "Baby, Come to Me." Mostly, he'll be remembered for penning three of Michael Jackson's biggest hits, including "Thriller," "Off the Wall," and "Rock with You." When Jackson began to write more on his own, you lost the illusion of maturity that outside writers like Temperton brought to Off the Wall and Thriller. When the music got more juvenile, it's no coincidence Jackson's music lost the adult pop market and sold in far lesser quantities.
John Zacherle, 98, American television and radio personality and voice actor
Christened "The Cool Ghost" by Dick Clark (for whom he sometimes filled in for on American Bandstand), Zacherle achieved fame hosting local horror movie shows in New York and Philadelphia like Shock Theater, Chiller Theater, and Zacherley at Large. He also cut some novelty monster rockers, the most successful being "Dinner with Drac," released in 1958. Clark, who instigated the whole idea, made Zacherle re-record a sanitized version of the song that removed any trace of cannibalism before he would let it be performed for his national audience of impressionable Clearasil-splotched teens.
Phil Chess, 95, Polish-born American record producer and company executive (Chess Records)
Along with his brother Leonard, they founded Chess Records in 1950, and built their R&B catalog with legends like Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, Etta James, Willie Dixon, Howlin Wolf, and Chuck Berry. Chess retired in 1972 and ran an Appaloosa horse ranch in Tucson. Both Chess brothers were inducted as nonperformers to the Blues Hall of Fame in 1995, but are still absent from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where such oversights are an ongoing way of life.
Robert Edwards, 74, American singer (the Intruders), heart attack
This vocal quartet's career spanned from doo-wop to disco and continues today on the oldies circuit, with none of its founding members. As one of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's earliest production credits, the Intruders enjoyed their biggest hit (number one on the R&B charts and number six on Billboard's pop chart) in 1968, a preschool primer on misreading females' wants and needs called "Cowboys to Girls." The Intruders amassed more than a dozen hits on both charts, most notably "Love is Like a Baseball Game," Sad Girl," "(We'll Be) United," and "I'll Always Love My Mama."
Robert Bateman, 80, American songwriter and record producer ("Please Mr. Postman"), heart attack
Sonny Sanders, 77, American songwriter, arranger and record producer
A key figure in early Motown history, Bateman was the bass singer and founding member of early Motown recording artists the Satintones. He also sang backup and engineered on many of their early recordings, and is credited with procuring Motown's first recording deck, equipment discarded by radio station WJLB. Bateman was one of four names credited with the company's first number one, the Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman," which also holds the distinction of being the first Motown song to be played on the BBC, although it was the Beatles' version that got the needle time. No matter: It opened the doors for Motown internationally. Bateman also co-wrote the Marvelettes'"Twistin' Postman" and "Playboy," and was instrumental in Motown's signing of Mary Wells. His other lucrative copyright was "If You Need Me," recorded by Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, and the Rolling Stones. It was co-written by his Satintones bandmate Sonny Sanders, who, in a weird twist of fate, also died on October 12, 2016.
Bored Nothing, 26, Australian musician, suicide
The critical comparisons of this soft-spoken singer-songwriter to Elliot Smith certainly underlined the brooding depression and tragedy that lay just below the surface. Fergus Miller played every instrument on most of his recordings, including this one, "We Lied," the music video for which features a less-than-professional attempt at lipsyncing from Miller and his lady friend. Sadly, in this video taken on a European tour, you can almost see the disinterest in living.
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