We went into 2016 with a bunch of whopper deaths in the rock pantheon, and for a while it looked like they would continue unabated. As far as legends go, few of this month's casualties would qualify as that. But what we do have are a lot of journeyman players who did their jobs with little or no fanfare and moved on in much the same manner, which we hope to correct here. Included is one Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member, a guy who might've said "more cowbell" when it really mattered, some key cult figures, and a local singer-songwriter who is sadly the youngest of the fallen here.
Alan Vega, 78, American singer and musician (Suicide)
Suicide was among the first groups to use the phrase "punk music" to describe their sound. They were electronic, techno, ambient, industrial, and confrontational when none of those things existed. That they could emerge in the same scene as the Ramones, Blondie, Television, and Talking Heads shows that punk was once a form of self-expression before it got shoehorned into loud, fast rules, three chords, and leather jackets.
Sandy Pearlman, 72, American record producer and band manager (Blue Öyster Cult, the Clash, Black Sabbath), pneumonia as a complication from a stroke
Thanks to a beloved SNL skit in 2000, Pearlman went to his grave with most people believing it was Bruce Dickinson or Christopher Walken who produced Blue Oyster Cult's classic "Don't Fear the Reaper." But it was Pearlman, co-producing with David Lucas and Murray Krugman, although there are disputes to this day about who actually played the cowbell. And in 1978, after Epic Records refused to release the Clash's first album in the States, CBS strong-armed the British punks into using a Yankee as a producer. Some people thought Pearlman used too much reverb to bury what he thought was Strummer's sub-par voice. Regardless, he certainly toughened up the Clash's sound, making their U.K. debut sound puny and anemic in comparison.
Pat Upton , 75, lead singer of The Spiral Starecase ("More Today Than Yesterday")
What a voice! The first time I heard this song, I thought it was Eydie Gorme. These one-hit wonders have been a staple on oldies playlists since 1969, and Upton gained a macabre footnote in rock history as having played in Rick Nelson's band, including their final show. He declined Nelson's invitation to join the tour for the next gig, missing that ill-fated flight which killed Nelson, his fiancee, and the entire band. Upton sings the hell out of this song, but on this clip, the bass player steals the show for looking like Ron Burgundy with happy feet.
Bobby Ramirez aka DTTX (Don't Try To Xerox), 46, American rap artist (Lighter Shade of Brown), cardiac arrest from heatstroke
Back when old-school rap was still new, Lighter Shade of Brown's 1990 hit "On A Sunday Afternoon" sampled the Young Rascals' "Groovin'" and Tommy James and the Shondells' "Crystal Blue Persuasion" and went to number one for two weeks in New Zealand. He was reportedly in a coma for 11 days before passing.
Lewie Steinberg, 82, American Hall of Fame bassist (Booker T. & the M.G.s), cancer
Yes, there was another bass player in The M.G.s beside Duck Dunn, and it was Steinberg who not only played on "Green Onions" but suggested it be titled titled "Funky Onions," which Stax owner Estelle Axton shot down. Steinberg was inducted with Booker T. and the M.G.s into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, and later the Memphis Hall of Fame. They also received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.
Danny Smythe, 67, American drummer (The Box Tops)
Smythe was the original timekeeper for this blue-eyed soul group from Memphis led by a 17 year-old Alex Chilton, whose purposefully rough-hewn voice piloted the shortest song ever to hit number one and sell 4 million copies worldwide, "the Letter." Smythe played on that classic and its follow-up, "Neon Rainbow," before quitting in 1967. You can see a lot of YouTube clips of Chilton doing quite a lousy job lip-syncing this song (including a clip of Smythe inexplicably playing a guitar because there weren't any drums), but in this clip you can see and hear the Box Tops actually playing live at The Bitter End with Smythe pushing it harder than you might remember it after 4 million listens.