Death Race

George Michael, Greg Lake and All The Musicians Who Died in December 2016

Alan Thicke
Alan Thicke © Glenn Francis, BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
And so we say goodbye to the Year of the Fire Monkey and take consolation that a year this turbulent and full of calamity and political upheaval only comes once every 60 years. And if you're reading this column with first-hand knowledge about The Singing Nun, "Behind the Green Door," or The Four Coins, you definitely won't be around for the next Fire Monkey blowout.

It was a year so riddled with celebrity deaths that we made 2016 a social media punching bag. Everywhere you looked it was a memes neck-and-neck about how much we hated Trump and 2016. You'd almost think 2016 could have been Person of the Year. You couldn't turn your back on 2016 — it's like how The Mamas and The Papas couldn't trust Mondays but on much, much worse sliding scale. Three-fourths of that band have long since turned to dust, but at least none of them died in 2016.

And December kept death watchers busy to the very last day, when it killed off Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H*, the Beatles' first manager, and Pan Pan, the Chinese-born giant panda. To bookend the year we said goodbye to Major Tom, we lost a real astronaut, John Glenn. Then we lost a mother and daughter of Hollywood royalty, who both died a day apart. Especially crushing to the music world was how December, determined to ruin Christmas, killed off two British rock juggernauts who should have been enjoying the boost in royalty payments for their perennial Christmas classics. Yeah, 2016, Year of The Fire Monkey, whatever, you were kind of a dick but I fear your successor even more.

Greg Lake, 69, English singer and musician (King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer), cancer

Some little-known Greg Lake facts that will raise your estimation of this talented prog rock pioneer:

He wrote the Emerson, Lake, and Palmer song “Lucky Man” when he was 12 years old. He was in a band called the Gods with Kevin Hensley of Uriah Heep. He not only sang and wrote material for King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King, he co-produced the album. King Crimson’s live debut was opening for The Rolling Stones at the Hyde Park memorial concert for Brian Jones. Lake played bass with Ringo’s All-Star Band in 2001 and provided bottom cover for The Who on a 2003 tour. He has a posthumous autobiography set for release in September 2017. Man, I should have known something was up when I heard “Karn Evil 9” blasting in a Goodwill store.

George Michael, 53, British singer (Wham!) and songwriter ("Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," "Careless Whisper," "Last Christmas"), suspected heart failure
Death did not take a holiday this year, taking out the Wham! man on Christmas morning, right when "Last Christmas" and "Do They Know It's Christmas" assumed their annual position of yuletide songs most likely to depress mall shoppers and egg nog lushes. It was the worst December 25 checkout since 2006, when death went straight to the ghetto instead of Santa Claus and claimed James Brown.

In recent years, Michael's multiple arrests for anonymous sex cruising and driving impaired under the influence of cannabis overshadowed his slim but substantive volume of solo albums. Incredibly,  it has been 12 years since his last one, ironically named Patience. Michael's lover, Fadi Fawaz, discovered his lifeless body and the British tabloids have dutifully reported Fawaz' Twitter tidbits claiming that Michael had a heroin habit and tried suicide several times.  Fawaz claims his Twitter account was hacked into and that he never sent those tweets. True or not, we're bound to hear more sad stories about Michaels, a guy who was so bummed out by the success of his first solo album that Frank Sinatra had to send him an open letter to slap some sense into him. "Now that he’s a smash performer and songwriter at 27 he wants to quit doing what tons of gifted youngsters all over the world would shoot grandma for — just one crack at what he’s complaining about.” Who really wrote this—Joe Piscopo?

What is irrefutable is Michael's philanthropy, which he managed to keep under wraps in life like genuinely generous people do (yeah, I'm looking at you, Trump Foundation founder). And he created a lot of seriously compelling music that people frightened off by Wham!'s exclamation points will now have time and cause to investigate. Michaels, not really known for his humor, had the good cheek to send up his own lavatory travails for soliciting sex from an undercover cop in the music video for "Outside." Although that song was a top three Billboard dance hit, it should've been made the Hot 100. If that song or "Flawless," "Fastlove" or "Amazing," were to come out today, they would be effortless chart toppers.

Debbie Reynolds, 84, American actress, dancer (Singin' in the Rain, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Irene) and singer, stroke
Although we primarily remember her as an actress, we can't forget that in 1957, a year dominated by Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, Sam Cooke, Tab Hunter, Guy Mitchell and Paul Anka,  Debbie was the only female artist to have a number-one hit with "Tammy," from her movie Tammy and the Bachelor. And we can't forget that she played The Singing Nun. OK, we can probably forget that one. That Reynolds died a day after daughter Carrie Fisher's stroke tells you all you need to know about how irreparably a heart can be broken after the loss of a child.

Rick Parfitt, 68, British singer, songwriter and guitarist (Status Quo), infection

In America, Status Quo were a psychedelic one-hit wonder with the 1968 classic "Pictures of Matchstick Men." In England, they had more than 60 chart hits. Their actual status as boogie purveyors in the Mother Country was amply demonstrated when they opened Live Aid at Wembley Stadium with their hit version of John Fogerty's "Rockin' All Over the World."

Alan Thicke
© Glenn Francis, BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Alan Thicke, 69, Canadian actor (Growing Pains, Not Quite Human), talk show host (The Alan Thicke Show, Thicke of the Night), and songwriter, ruptured aorta
The real-life dad of Marvin Gaye-rewriter Robin Thicke and the pretend TV dad of homophobic Christian-entrepreneur Kirk Cameron, Thicke's contribution to music should not be overlooked. He wrote more than a dozen TV themes, including those for the popular sitcoms Growing Pains, Diff'rent Strokes, and The Facts of Life, plus memorable themes to loads of forgotten game shows like The Wizard of Odds, The Joker's Wild, Celebrity Sweepstakes, The Diamond Head Game, Animal Crack-Ups, Blank Check, Stumpers!, Whew!  and the original theme to Wheel of Fortune. Here's a medley of Thicke themes. Be sure to slog through it to hear 5:55 for The Wizards of Odds — "The odds are that you'll be a winner today!"

Big Syke, 48, American rapper
Tyruss Himes outgrew childhood nickname "Little Psycho" and became, well, you can guess the rest. Syke was affiliated with the Imperial Village Crips in California and started a rap group called Evil Minded Gangstas in 1990. From there he joined 2Pac's group Thug Life and became a collaborator. For those who still believe that Pac is alive and churning out posthumous albums from some undisclosed location, consider that this tribute to the fallen Pac actually includes an appearance by Tupac Amaru Shakur himself!

George Mantalis, 81, American pop singer (The Four Coins), lung cancer

Back when every male group had to spell out the number of members in the name for those who failed to count the obvious, The Four Keys changed their name to The Four Coins and enjoyed their biggest hit in 1957, the million-selling "Shangri-La." Of greater interest to me was the three early Burt Bacharach compositions they recorded, including "Wendy Wendy." This quartet of Grecian descent never forgot their roots, as displayed on a 1965 album Greek Songs Mama Never Taught Me.

Palani Vaughan, 72, American Hawaiian music singer

Inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame in 2008, Vaughan is best known for albums honoring Hawaii's King David Kalakaua, recording four albums of tribute to Hawaii’s monarchy in the '70s and early '80s. Such slavish devotion to one subject had not been seen in the pop world since the '60s, when The Royal Guardsmen devoted five albums to songs about Snoopy.

Alphonse Mouzon, 68, American jazz drummer (Weather Report, The Eleventh House) and record label owner (Tenacious Records), neuroendocrine carcinoma

Give the drummer some. Here's a solo from a Berlin concert in 1976 with Jaco Pastorius and Albert Mangelsdorff. He was diagnosed in September with neuroendocrine carcinoma, a rare form of cancer. Wouldn't a rare form of cancer would be one that doesn't kill you?

Sam Leach, 81, British concert promoter and talent agent (The Beatles), Allan Williams, 86 first Beatles manager

The Beatles' inner circle continues to shrink ever smaller. These two men were in the earliest and smallest circles, at a time when no one wanted the group. Williams opened a coffee bar in Liverpool called the Jacaranda in September 1958, which became a frequent Beatle hangout. John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliff painted a mural in the ladies room, which is still there today. When no one would book them, Williams got them work, including an early stint backing a stripper. More importantly, Williams got them to Hamburg, where the group put in the 1,000 hours that made them come back The Beatles. Well, at least three of them did. The Beatles, unaware that it was the band manager's job to rip off his groups, ripped Williams off instead and refused to pay him his 10 percent commission for their return Hamburg stint. When Brian Epstein came sniffing around wanting to manage the Beatles, Wiliams told him he wouldn't touch them with "a fucking barge pole." Williams wrote one of the best Beatle books ever, The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away, which Lennon wrote an approving blurb for. Whether the Beatles actually did some of the things Williams writes about, like rolling a drunken sailor for his billfold and pissing on nuns from a balcony, no one can know for sure. But if it were a dirty lie would McCartney call him "a great guy" now?

Sam Leach was also an early champion of the Beatles and between 1961 and 1962. Taking over from Williams, Leach promoted over 40 shows with them, including the notorious Palais Ballroom show in Aldershot on December 9, 1961 where only 18 people showed up to a Beatles gig because of a mixup with the newspaper ad. Epstein became their manager not long after that mishap but Leach remained a friend to the group and was asked by Epstein to be a business partner for the band. Yet another man who gave the Beatles away.
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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic