Musician obituaries from The Guardian, for use in the Resurrection Jukebox challenge
|All obituaries are from The Guardian (links provided).
Ronald Bell from Kool & The Gang ▼
Kool & the Gang were one of the first fully fledged funk ensembles – taking the influence of Sly Stone and James Brown’s pioneering recordings and blending it with strong jazz leanings, their distinctive sound emphasised by bright horns, percussive congas and cowbells. Where Stone and Brown were highly charismatic band leaders, Kool & the Gang were an anonymous ensemble, with few fans even being able to identify which of the 10 musicians was “Kool”. Ronald Bell, who has died suddenly aged 68, wasn’t Kool – that was his older brother Robert’s nickname – but he co-founded the band with Robert in 1964 and remained a pivotal member for more than 50 years, playing multiple instruments, co-writing all their hits and producing much of their material.
Kool & the Gang’s hits from 1973 to 1985 are still favourites on radio and in clubs, regularly played at sports events and weddings. Their US chart-topper Celebration (1980) – a UK No 7 – became the victory anthem of the early 1980s: it greeted American hostages as they arrived home from Iran in 1981 and also served as the theme song for that year’s Super Bowl. Their songs appeared on the soundtracks of such films as Rocky (1976), Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Pulp Fiction (1994).
Ronald was born in Youngstown, Ohio, to Aminah Bayyan and Robert “Bobby” Bell. The family lived an impoverished existence in an apartment above a dry cleaners. When Ronald was still a boy, Bobby, determined to further his career as a professional boxer, shifted the family to Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1961. Bobby was a jazz devotee and the pianist Thelonious Monk became his close friend, while the trumpeter Miles Davis would drop by at the family home to discuss boxing.
Attending Lincoln high school, Ronald and Robert formed their first band, the Jazziacs, with fellow pupils (most of whom would remain band mates for the following decades), playing jazz clubs and bars. Their sound began to change when, in 1968, they became part of the Soul Town Band, learning recent soul hits to accompany singers. Deciding to perform under Robert’s nickname, they settled on Kool & the Gang. “I wanted to be like John Coltrane and the trumpet player wanted to be Miles Davis,” Bell told the Citizen newspaper in 2018, noting, “We transitioned to Kool & the Gang when we found we could make some money doing this.”
Releasing their debut single, Kool and the Gang – a fast-paced, jazz-inflected dance instrumental – in 1969 on the tiny Redd Coach Records, led to De-Lite Records signing the band and reissuing the 45. It reached No 19 in the US R&B charts. They were on their way, and the album Wild and Peaceful (1973) showcased their dynamic blend of jazz and funk mixed with heavy percussion and vocal chants. Jungle Boogie and Hollywood Swinging broke the band into the US Top 10 R&B and pop charts.
Although their 1976 song Open Sesame featured on Saturday Night Fever’s bestselling soundtrack, the band struggled to adapt to disco, with the albums The Force (1977) and Everybody’s Dancin’ (1978) failing to find favour. They hired the club singer James “JT” Taylor and, with the Brazilian musician Eumir Deodato as producer, the album Ladies’ Night (1979), and its hit title track, gave the band their greatest success so far (and broke them in the UK). This was a new Kool & the Gang, black pop rather than funk/disco.
It was a wise move: as disco’s popularity dived, Kool & the Gang went on to even greater success with Celebration. Bell wrote the basis of the composition – although publishing credits tended to be shared among the entire band – noting he was inspired both by the creation story in the Qur’an and the last line of Ladies’ Night, where the band sing “let’s all celebrate”. Ronald and Robert had both joined Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam in 1972. Ronald was given his Muslim name, Khalis Bayyan, by Elijah Muhammad’s son, Warith Deen Mohammed, and followed Mohammed when he shifted the NOI into a mainstream Islamic organisation.
Kool & the Gang were among the few Americans on Band Aid’s 1984 charity single Do They Know It’s Christmas?, as the band happened to be in the UK when its recording took place. Their single Cherish was a Top 5 US and UK hit in 1985. But, as the band continued to make their sound ever poppier, it cost them their core fanbase. Taylor left the band in 1988 for a sporadically successful solo career, often produced by Bell, who freelanced as a producer in the US.
The band continued with new lead vocalists, yet never troubled the charts again. Having sold upwards of 70m records, they remained a very popular live attraction, notably getting tens of thousands of Glastonbury festival revellers dancing in 2011. Rappers found their early albums fertile ground for samples and the band embraced this on the album Gangland (2001), for which they re-recorded 17 of their earlier tracks with rappers reinterpreting them. Alongside their many music awards, the band were given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a stretch of Jersey City road was renamed Kool & the Gang Way.
Bell is survived by his third wife, Tia Sinclair Bell, 10 children and Robert.
Ronald Bell (Khalis Bayyan), musician and songwriter, born 1 November 1951; died 9 September 2020
Trini Lopez ▼
“From the barrio to Beverly Hills,” was how the American entertainer Trini Lopez liked to describe his life’s journey. Lopez, who has died aged 83 from Covid-19, achieved international success as a singer in the early 1960s and is best known in the UK for his 1963 hit If I Had a Hammer.
Lopez scored a dozen more US hit singles, including La Bamba (1966), which paid tribute to his Mexican roots. He was proud of his family’s origins, and his achievements opened doors for other Latino entertainers in the US. A versatile performer, he sang all manner of songs in his breezy manner on more than 60 albums: during the 1960s he regularly released three LPs a year.
He was popular across Europe – a superstar in Holland – and his 1967 live LP Trini Lopez in London saw him tackling songs made famous by Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones, among others. Sinatra had given Lopez his big break as a recording artist, and in 1965 got him a cameo alongside himself and Dean Martin in the film Marriage on the Rocks. Lopez was then cast as one of the leads in Robert Aldrich’s 1967 war film The Dirty Dozen. Sinatra – who disliked Aldrich – insisted Lopez should quit during filming, and although he remained in the finished movie, it was in a diminished role.
Lopez was born in Dallas, Texas, to Mexican immigrant parents, Trinidad Lopez II and Petra Gonzalez, who had entered the US illegally, poverty forcing them across the border. In Dallas they and their six children lived in a “barrio” made up almost entirely of Mexican migrants and known as Little Mexico. Lopez would later recall poverty and racism blighting his childhood. “You cannot imagine how hard it was,” he recalled. “I grew up in a very prejudiced part of the country. My father would take us to a little hamburger place – they wouldn’t serve us. Then, when we would get in a bus to go to school, they would tell us to sit in the back of the bus.”
His parents worked in the fields by day, his mother also taking in laundry while his father played music in bars. When Lopez was 11 his father spanked him for “hanging around with the wrong kind of kids”, but subsequently felt bad about it and purchased a $12 guitar for his son. Taught to play by his father, Lopez initially performed Mexican folk songs, busking and singing in Little Mexico bars. After leaving high school aged 16, determined to help support the family, he learned popular blues songs and began performing in Dallas bars and clubs, several of which were owned by Jack Ruby, the mob-connected impresario who would gain infamy by shooting Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963.
In 1957 Buddy Holly, then a rising Texan star, befriended Lopez and invited him to Clovis, New Mexico, where his producer Norman Petty had a recording studio. But, according to Lopez, Petty disliked Hispanics and contemptuously insisted his band play only instrumentals. Lopez returned to Dallas where, in 1958, Volk Records, a tiny local label, took him into the studio to record two songs he had written, The Right to Rock and I’m a Sinner Not a Saint. Volk then told Lopez they wanted to change his surname to Roper but relented when he threatened to walk out, and his debut 45 did well in the Dallas area. For King Records, a Cincinnati label, he recorded singles ranging from country ballads to doo-wop, but failed to score a hit.
After Holly’s death in a plane crash in 1959 his backing band, the Crickets, invited Lopez to join them in Los Angeles as vocalist. He found the Crickets more intent on partying than performing and, having promised his family he would send money, began singing in bars. Sinatra saw him perform at PJ’s, a Beverly Hills nightclub, and signed the Texan to his Reprise record label.
Sinatra and his producer Don Costa decided to use a live performance for his debut album, Trini Lopez at PJ’s (1963), which was a huge success. The album’s version of the folk standard If I Had a Hammer reached No 3 on the US charts and then became an international hit. Finally, after almost a decade’s hard work, Lopez was a star: by the end of that year he was reportedly earning $25,000 a week.
Rapid changes in popular music relegated Lopez to playing the “oldies” circuit while he was still in his 30s. Not that he complained – the casinos, cruise ships and international hotel dates proved extremely lucrative, and he continued to record. A disco LP, Transformed By Time (1978), failed, but Legacy: My Texas Roots (2002) celebrated the songs that had inspired him. Into the Future (2011) proved Lopez still capable of strong interpretations of pop and rock standards, and in the same year the London label Ace Records gathered his 1950s-era recordings as Sinner Not a Saint. He released his first album of new tracks, All Original Songs, in 2016. That year he also wrote, with Joe Chavira, Coachella Valley Song, a celebration of Palm Springs, the Californian desert city to which he retired.
Lopez is survived by a brother and two sisters.
• Trinidad Lopez III, singer, born 13 May 1937; died 11 August 2020
Peter Green from Fleetwood Mac ▼
Peter Green, who has died aged 73, was one of the guitar-playing greats of 1960s blues-rock as well as a gifted songwriter. He was a founder of Fleetwood Mac and although he was with the band for less than three years they became one of Britain’s leading acts during that time.
Their singles of that period, including the Green compositions Black Magic Woman, Albatross, Man of the World, Oh Well and The Green Manalishi, remain some of the most cherished releases of the era and the band was beginning to display major international potential by the time he quit in May 1970.
Then, apart from a burst of activity in the first half of the 80s, Green went missing from action until the late 90s as he struggled with psychological problems seemingly caused by his use of psychedelic drugs. Some considered him a guitarist superior even to such rock’n’roll deities as Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page.
Noel Gallagher described him as “without question the best British blues guitarist ever”, while BB King said Green was “the only one who gave me the cold sweats”. John Mayall, leader of the Bluesbreakers, whom Green played for before leaving to found Fleetwood Mac, said: “Peter in his prime in the 60s was just without equal.”
It was a track from the Bluesbreakers album A Hard Road (1967) that alerted Mayall to the breadth of Green’s abilities. The Supernatural was an instrumental piece written by Green on which he exploited various guitar tones and studio overdubbing techniques to create an atmosphere of mystery.
Green left later that year. Fleetwood Mac was named after a track he had recorded with the Bluesbreakers’ drummer Mick Fleetwood and bass player John McVie during some studio time Mayall had donated to Green. With a lineup of Green, Fleetwood, the guitarist Jeremy Spencer and bass player Bob Brunning, they made their debut at the Windsor festival in August 1967. McVie replaced Brunning after their first few gigs.
Once up and running, Fleetwood Mac were soon enjoying success. Their eponymous debut album was released in February 1968 and rose as high as No 4 in the course of spending 37 weeks on the UK album chart. It would eventually sell more than a million copies. Black Magic Woman reached the UK Top 40, but would become better known when Santana had a hit with it in 1970.
They released their second album, Mr Wonderful, in August 1968 and went on their first American tour; while hanging out with the Grateful Dead in San Francisco they declined to sample the LSD manufactured by the Dead’s supplier of bespoke psychedelics, Owsley Stanley. In December they were in New York at the start of a 30-date tour, and this time succumbed to Stanley’s product, which left them huddled in a hotel room enduring a collective bad trip.
In the same month, Albatross topped the British charts. The song was remarkable for its lilting, oceanic quality, largely created by Green’s dreamy arrangement of contrasting guitar parts, including those of the band’s recently added third guitarist, Danny Kirwan. An inspiration for the Beatles’ track Sun King and much admired by Pink Floyd’s guitarist David Gilmour, it sold a million copies, and added another 900,000 when reissued in 1973.
However, Green was in a troubled state of mind. He had begun to discuss his feelings of guilt at the band’s burgeoning earnings and he wanted to give their money away (a sentiment not shared by his bandmates). Their single Man of the World was a thing of melancholy beauty, but its lyrics seemed to express Green’s desperate feelings – “there’s no one I’d rather be / But I just wish that I’d never been born.”
Man of the World went to No 2 in the UK, while Oh Well was their first single to reach the US Hot 100. Growing success only seemed to worsen Green’s condition. Further touring in the US had seen his consumption of LSD increase, and he sampled more of Stanley’s concoctions when Fleetwood Mac supported the Grateful Dead in New Orleans. Green adopted a form of Buddhism-influenced Christianity, and began wearing white robes and a crucifix on stage.
He became obsessed with giving away money and on one occasion donated £12,000 to Save the Children after watching a TV news report about the famine in Biafra. The crunch came when Fleetwood Mac reached Munich on a European tour in March 1970. Some wealthy German hippies took Green to their commune at a mansion outside the city, where he was plied with drugs and spent hours playing improvised music. He had to be extricated by Fleetwood and the band’s road crew. His bandmates and manager Clifford Davis felt that he was never the same afterwards.
Green left that May as his last single with them, The Green Manalishi, climbed to No 10 in the UK. Green had written the song after waking from a nightmare not long after the Munich experience, and its menacing, horror-movie tone seemed to speak vividly of his state of mind. The “Green Manalishi” was, he claimed, a metaphor for money: “The Green Manalishi is the wad of notes, the devil is green and he was after me.”
Born in Bethnal Green, east London, Peter was the son of Joe Greenbaum, a postman, and his wife, Anne. When Peter was 10, his brother Len gave him a guitar and taught him the chords of E, A and B7. He made rapid progress and became fixated on skiffle before gravitating to rock’n’roll and the blues of Muddy Waters and King. Hank Marvin of the Shadows became one of his favourite guitarists.
By the age of 15 he had dropped the “baum” from his surname, having been taunted for his Jewishness at school. His first job was as a bassist in a covers band, Bobby Dennis and the Dominoes, after which he joined the R&B band the Muskrats and then the Tridents. In the autumn of 1965 he played a few dates with the Bluesbreakers when he deputised for their guitarist Clapton, who had abruptly taken a holiday.
In 1966, Green was recruited as lead guitarist by Peter B’s Looners, whose drummer was Fleetwood. Then Clapton quit the Bluesbreakers permanently to form Cream, whereupon Green took over. He overcame early hostility from Clapton fans by the expressiveness of his playing, and earned the nickname “the Green God”.
After leaving Fleetwood Mac, whose rebuilt lineup featuring Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Bucking- ham would become one of the biggest acts in rock history, Green spent most of the 70s in a confused state, living on a kibbutz near Tel Aviv, then back in Britain taking such jobs as a hospital orderly and a cemetery gardener. He had no permanent home, but often stayed with friends or family.
Diagnosed as suffering from drug-induced schizophrenia, he underwent electroconvulsive therapy. In 1977, during a row over money with Davis, he made threats about using a shotgun. He was committed for treatment at a psychiatric hospital, and spent several months at the Priory clinic in south-west London.
He recovered sufficiently to get himself a record deal with PVK Records, where his brother Mike worked, and met the American fiddle player Jane Samuels, whom he married in 1978. They had a daughter, Rosebud, but divorced in 1979. Solo albums followed, with most of the songs written by Mike, and there was further sporadic work for the rest of the decade.
In the 90s, Green was taken under the wing of Mich Reynolds, who had been married to Davis. With her brother Nigel Watson and the drummer Cozy Powell he formed the Peter Green Splinter Group, which released eight albums between 1997 and 2003. They played live regularly, Green intermittently showing flashes of his old brilliance. In 2009 he formed Peter Green and Friends.
Green was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 with Fleetwood Mac; at the ceremony he played Black Magic Woman with a fellow-inductee, Carlos Santana. In February this year, Fleetwood organised a tribute to Green at the London Palladium, where stars including Pete Townshend, Mayall, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Gilmour, Gallagher, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Bill Wyman performed songs from Green’s career.
He is survived by Rosebud and by Liam Firlej, his son from another relationship.
• Peter Green (Peter Allen Greenbaum), guitarist, singer and songwriter, born 29 October 1946; died 25 July 2020
Steve Priest from the Sweet ▼
‘There was one gig we did in Scotland where the girls were screaming so loud that I couldn’t hear us – and we were not a quiet band,” said Steve Priest in 2017, recalling a typical gig with the Sweet in their 1970s pomp. He might have added that a good few of the screams were directed at him personally.
Priest, who has died aged 72, was not just the group’s bassist; he was the member who most enthusiastically explored the presentational possibilities of glam rock, creating a persona that would have served as well in a Christmas panto as it did on Top of the Pops.
He made free with makeup, wore floor-length capes and hot pants and effected lash-fluttering camp; Sweet songs were written to include Priest’s vocal interludes, delivered in a maddened falsetto. Chided by David Bowie himself for over-egging things, Priest was amused by his failure to get the point: “It isn’t supposed to be subtle. I’m supposed to look like an old tart.”
Priest took to his role as the band peacock with great relish. “Everyone thought I was gay anyway, so I went, ‘OK, you think I’m gay, I’m going to act gay,’” he said in 2000, but it was often the case that his musicianship was overlooked. A rock bass player at heart, he and the Sweet’s drummer Mick Tucker were a compact, unshowy rhythm section who foreshadowed punk’s minimalism; his playing, said the Megadeth bassist Dave Ellefson, was “without parallel”.
That cut little ice with the Sweet’s many disparagers, who saw only a quartet of men in makeup, with a bassist who took it that little bit further. More audaciously still, they sold 50m records looking that way. Decades after he wore a “gay Nazi” get-up on a 1973 edition of Top of the Pops, Priest was still asked if he had been serious. “It’s amazing how everyone still talks about the Nazi uniform. I mean, a gay Hitler. Hello?” It bears noting that the black and red jacket of his 1994 memoir, Are You Ready, Steve? – the title was the first line of the magnificently unhinged single Ballroom Blitz - uses a typeface similar to Third Reich typography.
Though he came to rue the image, he viewed the Sweet’s success as the reward for the years of slog that preceded it. Born in Hayes, Middlesex, he grew up encouraged to pursue music by his father, who had played in a Hawaiian band in the 30s.
After a spell singing in a choir, he became a fan of the Shadows bass player Jet Harris. Accordingly, he made his own bass guitar and spent the early 60s playing in local bands. In 1968, he was invited to join a group led by the singer Brian Connolly and Tucker. Changing their name from Wainwright’s Gentlemen to Sweetshop, then the Sweet – by this point, the guitarist Andy Scott had arrived – they served what Priest described as a hard apprenticeship.
Inspired by Deep Purple and the Who, the Sweet were then a nondescript rock band, touring the clubs and releasing a series of singles. Simply making a living at it was fine with Priest, who had become a father during that time.
Had it not been for his friend the record producer Phil Wainman introducing the Sweet to the fledgling songwriters Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, it is probable that the band would have ended up as no more than a pop footnote. They proved an ideal testing ground for Chinn and Chapman, with the lightweight 1971 single Funny Funny becoming the first of the duo’s 11 Top 40 hits for the Sweet. Together with the band’s self-written songs, the Sweet had 16 UK hits. (They included Block Buster, Little Willy and Hell Raiser, by anyone’s measure among the best singles of their era.)
As “Chinnichap” moved on from lukewarm popsmithery to raw, magisterial pop-rock, the Sweet, and especially Priest, took note of glam rock’s increasing hold on the charts. It was the visual aspect that most captivated him and he quickly saw the point of dressing to outrage, especially during their many Top of the Pops appearances. “You had to outdo everyone else. So you saw what so-and-so was wearing, and then you were going to do Top of the Pops next week and had to come up with something else. Otherwise, you’d just fall into the ‘I have no idea who that was [category]’.”
When Connolly left, after the band’s last big hit, Love Is Like Oxygen, in 1978, Priest took over lead vocals until 1982, when the group disbanded. He had moved to New York during that period and married Maureen O’Connor, a publicity executive at the Sweet’s American label, Capitol. Attempts at a solo career, and as a member of a US band called the Allies, were unsuccessful, as was a tilt at reforming the Sweet. He had more success as a property dealer in Los Angeles, where he moved with his family.
Like many other former groups with much-loved back catalogues and a fractious ex-membership, three versions of the Sweet began to tour, headed by Connolly, Scott and Priest. The bassist’s group, spurred by observing that Eric Clapton was still on the road (“He is a lot older than I am and [I was] wondering why I’m not up there”), did not form until 2008. Connolly had died in 1997, but Scott had the rights to the Sweet name in the UK and Australia, and Priest secured them only for North America. In other places, he was compelled to call his edition, comprised mainly of American rock players, Steve Priest’s Sweet.
Though he and Scott spent years refusing to speak to each other, when Priest’s death was announced, Scott wrote, “I am in bits right now.”
Priest’s first marriage, to Pat, ended in divorce. He is survived by Maureen, three daughters and three grandchildren.
• Stephen Norman Priest, musician, born 23 February 1948; died 4 June 2020
Phil May from Pretty Things ▼
As the singer and chief songwriter of the Pretty Things, Phil May, who has died aged 75 from complications following hip surgery after a cycling accident, achieved a status in pop history out of all proportion to his group’s record sales. The Pretty Things were outlandish and endlessly inventive, and inspired any number of punk, indie and glam-rock bands.
Their admirers have included David Bowie, David Gilmour, Jimmy Page, the Sex Pistols, Iggy Pop and Nirvana, while their 1966 single Midnight to Six Man supplied the opening line of the Clash’s (White Man) in Hammersmith Palais. Mick Jagger wanted to stop them from appearing on the TV pop show Ready Steady Go! because they were the one band who could challenge the delinquent-outlaw status of the Rolling Stones.
They started out playing raucous blues and R&B, but evolved speedily through soul, hard rock and psychedelia. In 1968 May delivered his tour de force in the shape of the album S. F. Sorrow. It is now considered to have been the first rock opera, but a botched release meant the album was overshadowed by the Who’s Tommy.
They signed to Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song label and enjoyed some US success with the albums Silk Torpedo (1974) and Savage Eye (1975). Only the Rolling Stones can match their achievement in surviving from the early 1960s until the present day.
Born in Dartford, south-east London, Phil was the son of Dennis and Daphne Kattner. However, his parents entrusted his upbringing to Daphne’s sister Flo and her husband, Charlie, whom May considered to be his real parents and whose surname he adopted. When he was 10 his birth parents decided they wanted him to return and a solicitor was sent to bring him back to their home.
He studied graphic design at Sidcup Art College, and formed the Pretty Things in 1963 with the guitarist Dick Taylor, who had previously been in an embryonic version of the Rolling Stones. The Pretty Things were completed by the bass player John Stax, the rhythm guitarist Brian Pendleton and the drummer Pete Kitley. The last of these was soon replaced by Viv Andrews and then Viv Prince, who would star in most of the group’s drink-and-drugs escapades.
They signed to Fontana Records in 1964, and made a rapid start with Rosalyn. Powered by a furious beat and May’s yowling vocal, it went to No 43 on the singles chart. Don’t Bring Me Down and Honey I Need reached the Top 20, while Cry to Me reached No 28. Meanwhile their eponymous debut album (1965) reached No 6.
However, the band were hampered by bad luck and poor choices. Offered an American tour by the New York-based promoter Sid Bernstein, who had introduced the Beatles to the US, their manager Bryan Morrison turned it down because the fee was too low and sent the band to New Zealand instead.
This reinforced their image as pop’s hairiest wild men (May boasted that his hair “reached down to my arse”) and they were deported for lighting a fire on an aircraft and sundry outrages, but a priceless opportunity to storm the American market was lost.
Sustained chart success also eluded them, and a No 50 placing for their 1966 single A House in the Country was their final appearance on the UK singles chart. Their late 1965 second album Get the Picture? found them moving in a more soulful direction, though it flopped in the charts. Their third album, Emotions, did not appear until April 1967. Unhappy with the band’s poor chart placings, Fontana had assigned them the producer Steve Rowland, creator of pop hits with Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich.
The results found the Pretty Things playing some mainstream pop songs with strings and brass, though with hints of the more psychedelic music they were now playing. “It was almost like paying off a debt before you can move on, but in the meantime we were evolving in the stuff we were doing; more experimental stuff,” said May.
A new deal with EMI’s subsidiary Columbia brought the single Defecting Grey in November 1967. Its teasing lyrics, acoustic singalongs and raving acid-rock pointed the way towards the milestone of S.F. Sorrow, based on a story by May detailing the life of the titular S. F. Sorrow from birth through childhood, love, war, loneliness and old age. “I thought it was a great idea to have a story,” May reflected later. “There seemed no reason that the music we were writing was not for a whole 40-minute piece.”
During nine months of recording at Abbey Road studios, London, the group raised extra funds by acting alongside – and smoking marijuana with – Norman Wisdom in the sex comedy What’s Good for the Goose (1969), and recorded pieces for the De Wolfe music library, calling themselves the Electric Banana.
S.F. Sorrow stands now as a landmark of British psychedelia, but EMI did little to promote its release in December 1968. By the time it appeared in the US on the Motown subsidiary Rare Earth in mid-1969, Tommy had already arrived and reviewers dismissed the Pretty Things as copyists. A disillusioned Taylor quit the band, to be replaced by Victor Unitt and later Pete Tolson.
Parachute (1970) was a successful mix of rock, pop and psychedelia and won enthusiastic reviews, reaching No 43 on the UK chart. In 1974 came the offer of a deal with Swan Song, along with management by Led Zeppelin’s own manager, Peter Grant. Mark St John, their manager since 1984, recalled: “Peter said ‘I’d rather manage anybody than the Pretty Things, they pushed their advance up their nose, I had to pay for another record and then they fuckin’ split up.’ But they loved him and he got on really well with Phil.”
Silk Torpedo was one of their most accessible efforts, with Bowie-like glam – Bowie had covered a couple of Pretty Things songs on his album Pin Ups (1973) – and reached No 104 on the US chart. Savage Eye also made a minor dent in the US, reaching No 163. However, May was fired from his own band after failing to turn up for a gig, the Pretty Things disintegrated and the Swan Song deal lapsed.
During the 80s, May reunited with Taylor and toured in Europe with a varying cast of bandmates. In 1993 they won a legal battle against EMI, who gave them back their master tapes as well as paying them a lump sum. The band’s 1967 incarnation reunited and they began reissuing remastered versions of their albums through Snapper Music. New recordings became increasingly rare, though they released … Rage Before Beauty in 1999 and Balboa Island in 2007. The Sweet Pretty Things (Are in Bed Now, of Course) – the title came from Bob Dylan’s Tombstone Blues – followed in 2015.
In December 2018 the Pretty Things played their Final Bow concert at the Indigo, O2, in London, featuring guest appearances by Gilmour and Van Morrison. A heavy drinker and smoker, and also notoriously insecure despite his extrovert performances, May was suffering from lung disease and St John urged them to do the show before his condition made it impossible.
“Phil was wholly trustworthy, absolutely honest in a way that didn’t help him, and completely honourable,” said St John. “That’s rare in rock’n’roll because it’s so full of overpaid nincompoops who believe their own bullshit.”
The Pretty Things completed a new acoustic album before May’s death. He is survived by his son, Paris, and daughter, Sorrel, from his marriage to Electra Nemon, which ended in divorce, and by his partner from the mid-90s, Colin Graham.
• Phil May (Philip Dennis Arthur Kattner), singer and songwriter, born 9 November 1944; died 15 May 2020
Brian Howe from Bad Company ▼
The vocalist and songwriter Brian Howe, who has died of a heart attack aged 66, became best known for his work with the British hard rock group Bad Company, which he joined in 1986 as the replacement for the departed singer Paul Rodgers, formerly vocalist with Free. Howe had been thrust into the rock’n’roll limelight a couple of years previously when he put in a stint as lead vocalist with the US guitarist Ted Nugent’s band, touring the US with them and appearing on the album Penetrator.
He made four studio albums with Bad Company. After a slow start with Fame and Fortune (1986), their fortunes improved steadily with Dangerous Age (1988), then reached a peak with Holy Water (1990), a million-selling album in the US which produced the major hits If You Needed Somebody and Walk Through Fire. Though Rodgers, one of the great rock vocalists, was a difficult act to follow, Howe’s powerful voice and commanding stage presence enabled him to stamp his authority on the group.
As the music industry analyst Bob Lefsetz wrote: “Brian Howe emoted. It had that special sauce, the je ne sais quoi, you know, the sound that penetrates your gut and hooks you, that you want to turn up as you bounce around the house with that guitar shaking the walls, this is the power of rock and roll.”
Howe was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, to Sheila (nee Kaye) and Laurence, a welder and a semi-professional singer who performed pop hits in local clubs at night. Brian’s first public performance was singing the Perry Como hit Catch a Falling Star at a talent show when he was three.
As a teenager, he sang with a glam-rock band, Mighty Glad, and later joined the local bands Flyin’ High and Shy. Moving to London, he joined the hard rockers White Spirit in 1981, though they split up the same year. Howe’s sole recorded legacy with White Spirit was the track Watch Out, which appeared on a reissue of their eponymous 1980 album in 2005. Over the years, he was involved in several attempts to take over Portsmouth FC, though none of them came to fruition
Howe had been regularly sending tapes of his own work to Atlantic Records. After countless rejections, this paid off in 1983 when the Atlantic A&R executive Richard Steinberg and record producer Ashley Howe (no relation) played one of Howe’s tapes – he had recorded it in a DJ booth at a local Portsmouth radio station – and thought he could make a suitable vocalist for Ted Nugent’s band. Howe was flown to New York and auditioned successfully for Nugent, though not before he had made a detour to Bud Prager’s office.
Prager co-managed Bad Company but also managed the hugely successful group Foreigner, whose co-founder Mick Jones was a fellow Portsmouth native and a friend of Howe’s. Howe’s bid to become Foreigner’s vocalist came to nothing, but the audition for Nugent led to him singing lead vocals on what would become the Penetrator album before setting out on tour with him. The Nugent band sustained a hectic schedule of six shows a week with some additional matinees thrown in, for which Howe had rashly offered to accept a wage of £300 a week.
But Howe wanted to write as well as sing, and jumped at the chance to join Mick Ralphs and Simon Kirke from Bad Company, who planned to form a new band after the departure of Rodgers. They wanted to give the band a different name, but were pressured by Atlantic and their management into keeping Bad Company because of its prior commercial success, the band’s previous six albums having reached the US Top 30. Their first attempt, Fame and Fortune, was co-produced by Jones and Foreigner’s producer Keith Olsen, and moved away from the previous hard rock sound while adding additional keyboards and saxophone. It failed to make the US Top 100.
They fared better with Dangerous Age. The band now included the multi-instrumentalist, producer and songwriter Terry Thomas, who put the emphasis back on guitars and gave the band a hard-rock strut for which Howe’s hoarse, dynamic vocals were the perfect match. Howe and Thomas were also becoming the band’s dominant songwriters. The album reached the US Top 60.
Their big breakthrough was Holy Water (1990), which reached No 35 on the Billboard album chart. As well as the chart hits If You Needed Somebody and Walk Through Fire, several other tracks received heavy radio play. However, tension was mounting between Howe and the other members. The guitarist Mick Ralphs commented later that “it was like a producer [Terry Thomas] working with a singer, and they basically commandeered the songwriting, and the producer decided how he was going to make the record sound.”
Problems were exacerbated when they made their last album together, Here Comes Trouble (1992). This saw a dramatic drop in sales from its predecessor, despite the Top 40 hit How About That. Howe’s last recordings with the band were on the What You Hear Is What You Get live album, recorded on their 1992 US tour. “We finished the Here Comes Trouble tour in Orlando,” Howe said in 2001. “I looked about the stage and said, ‘This is the last time I’m ever gonna have to work with you jerks.’” He left the band in 1994.
From his home in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, he embarked on a solo career, releasing his first album, Tangled in Blue, in 1997. The follow-up, Touch, appeared in 2003, and in 2010 he released Circus Bar. In 2017 he released the single Hot Tin Roof on his own label, Howe’s Business. He had been touring with his own band this year until the Covid-19 pandemic prompted the shutdown of concert venues.
In September 2017 he suffered a near-fatal heart attack while driving his car, after which he had two stents fitted. On 30 April he broke several ribs in a motorcycle accident, but discharged himself from hospital.
Reflecting on his career last year, he said: “Basically, it was a lovely ride. It’s fantastic to be accepted as a guy who can write songs that people actually like… It’s a very strange, surreal life. But it’s incredible… I’ve loved my life.”
He was married twice, to Debbie and Carla, but was divorced from both. He is survived by his son, Michael, and daughters, Victoria and Ella, his grandchildren Kira, Alexandria and Aurora, and a sister, Sandie.
• Brian Anthony Howe, singer and songwriter, born 22 July 1953; died 6 May 2020
Little Richard ▼
Little Richard, who has died aged 87, was the self-proclaimed king of rock’n’roll. Such was his explosive impact that many of the baby boom generation will vividly recall the moment when they first encountered his assault on melody.
Awopbopaloobop alopbamboom! That first hit, Tutti Frutti, released in October 1955, was wild, delicious gibberish from a human voice as no other, roaring and blathering above a band like a fire-engine run amok in the night. We glimpsed a new universe. The Sinatra-sophisticats were slain with a shout. Enter glorious barbarity, chaos and sex. With a few others – Fats Domino, Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly – Little Richard laid down what rock’n’roll was to be like, and he was the loudest, hottest and most exhibitionist of them all.
Richard Wayne Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia, one of 12 children of Charles, a bricklayer, and his wife Leva Mae Stewart. His family were Seventh-day Adventists and Richard learned the piano and sang gospel in the local church choir, but was thrown out of the family home at 13. He performed in medicine shows - with “miracle cures” promoted between entertainment acts – before hitching to Atlanta, where he signed to RCA Records in 1951, using the name Little Richard.
He recorded several undistinguished singles for them, including Every Hour (1951), but none had much impact. His optimism undimmed but his style still unformed, he tried the independent Peacock label in Houston, recording sides on which he began to reveal a delicate, elaborately filigreed vocal style that would resurface years later on slow gospel numbers. This same style would sometimes ornament his rock sides too, as on She’s Got It (1957), where that “got” is twiddled into 10 syllables.
These Peacock sides brought no success, and at the beginning of 1955 – the year that was to end in triumph for him – he returned to Macon and to washing dishes. He sent a demo to another indie label, Specialty, whose owner, Art Rupe, soon became so sure that Little Richard defined the future that he rejected Sam Cooke as too pallid.
Brought to New Orleans in September and given almost the same band as Fats Domino, Penniman went into the studio with the producer Bumps Blackwell, and came out with Tutti Frutti. The single was a hit with black and white audiences and sold 500,000 copies – despite the popularity of Pat Boone’s cover version released shortly afterwards – and reached 17 in the US pop charts and No 2 on the R&B list.
A cascade of frantic but tight hits followed, establishing Little Richard as a prime force in rock’n’roll. His piano work, crucial to his sound, was limited to hammered chords and skitterish riffing (he did not even play it himself on Tutti Frutti) but with that megaphone voice, falsetto squeal, bursting energy and powerhouse band, his records became classics: songs every local group played every weekend for years to come; songs the other rock greats covered; songs that fired the ambition of those artists who would change the 1960s, the Beatles and Bob Dylan.
Long Tall Sally, Slippin’ and Slidin’, Rip It Up, Ready Teddy, She’s Got It and The Girl Can’t Help It were all released in 1956. The following year, Little Richard recorded Lucille, Send Me Some Lovin’, Jenny, Jenny, Miss Ann, and the awesome Keep A-Knockin’. And 1958 produced the last great batch: Good Golly Miss Molly, True Fine Mama and a glorious pillage of the music-hall oldie Baby Face.
It is obvious now from the titles alone that a formula soon set in with these records. Back then though, it was just how Little Richard was: an unstoppable force. Within the flailing combustion of True Fine Mama we now recognise a conventional 12-bar blues; at the time we heard formless galactic meltdown. Similarly, we now see that his presentation was partly “outrageous queen”, his catchphrase “Ooh ma soul” pure camp. But these were cliches from the future. When rock’n’roll and Little Richard were new, his preening, boasting and benign lasciviousness seemed highly individual.
He was an inspiration to younger black musicians with white audiences. The young guitarist Jimi Hendrix learned a lot from backing Little Richard on tour; and as Richard once observed of Prince, “the little moustache, the moves, the physicality – he’s a genius but he learnt it from me. I was wearing purple before he was born; I was wearing make-up before anyone else.”
His sexuality was no simple thing. As he revealed in his candid autobiography, The Life and Times of Little Richard (1984, as told to Charles White), he fancied men and women, but most of all he fancied himself.
However, touring Australia in 1957, he threw his rings off Sydney Harbour bridge, renouncing the devil’s music for God. The performer who had once said of gospel that “I knew there had to be something louder, and I found it was me” now divided his time between bible school in Alabama and the Seventh-day Adventist church in Times Square, New York. He met his wife, Ernestine Campbell, at an evangelical rally in October of that year. They married in 1959 but divorced four years later.
Specialty kept the hits coming until 1959, when the long line ended with a game By the Light of the Silvery Moon. An era was over. Elvis had been drafted, Holly was dead. With God on his side, and Quincy Jones producing, Little Richard made the religious album It’s Real, for Mercury Records, billing himself “king of the gospel singers”. A 1962 single, He Got What He Wanted (But He Lost What He Had), fused old and new, its parables sung in vintage style: a steaming, raging, funny tour de force to equal Long Tall Sally. It was a minor hit.
He returned to rock’n’roll and Specialty, recorded Bama Lama Bama Loo (1964), and played Britain with the Rolling Stones, Bo Diddley and the Everlys. As the rock critic Nik Cohn testified, “he cut them all to shreds”. While in the UK he also made a TV special with the Shirelles (It’s Little Richard, 1964) – one of the rare times when rock was truly exciting on television.
I saw him live in this period, backed by the instrumental group Sounds Incorporated. He never paid them a moment’s attention, and was magnificent. When he stood on top of the piano, took off a ring and threw it into the audience, even those of us at the back with no chance of getting within a 100ft dived forward, hypnotised by this consummate artist.
But while the debut record from the 60s soul king Otis Redding was titled Shout Bamalama, Little Richard himself slid through failed comebacks, vainglorious live theatrics and indifferent re-recordings.
Exceptions included fine versions of Lawdy Miss Clawdy (1964) and Bring It on Home to Me (1966), while 70s covers of the Beatles’ I Saw Her Standing There and the Stones’ Brown Sugar emphasised how much he had inspired those bands in the first place. Attempts to update himself brought small success and in 1976 he retreated back to religion. By the decade’s end he was a late but rapacious convert to drug abuse.
In the 80s, however, the world and Little Richard were ready for each other again, and in 1986 he appeared, smiling with Hollywood good health, in the hit film Down and Out in Beverly Hills. It says much for his unquenchable charm that so soon after his upfront autobiography he could remake himself as a Disney favourite, with an album of children’s songs and a TV series, on which a revisited Keep A-Knockin’ incorporated knock-knock jokes swapped with his new young audience.
In 1993, the 60-year-old gospeller had supposedly found Judaism but was also rock’n’rolling again. In 1996, wavy hair down his back, he was to be seen playing on a truck at the closing ceremony of the Atlanta Olympics, and, as gloriously incongruous as ever, in an episode of Baywatch, performing on the boardwalk, his eerily plastic-smooth face that of a 35-year-old.
Little Richard became embedded in showbiz, appearing frequently on American television, in roles and as himself, including as a judge on Simon Cowell’s Celebrity Duets in 2006. He voiced a Disney World pineapple, saw his hits recycled in ads and films, was the subject of a 2000 biopic, and recorded anew with partners from Bon Jovi to Elton John. As a preacher, he conducted weddings for celebrities including Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, and spoke at the funerals of Wilson Pickett and Ike Turner.
Gaining multiple awards for his pioneering early work, he was among the first to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1986, and received a lifetime achievement Grammy in 1993. Little Richard needed none of these awards or hall of fame citations to tell him who he was or what he had achieved. He knew that all along. He was one of the gods, and almost the last among them.
His health declined in the 2000s, and he had heart surgery in 2008, cancelling a planned European tour with Berry. In 2009 he had hip replacement surgery, after which he still performed, yet giving audiences the novelty of seeing him seated at the keyboards.
In 2013 he announced his retirement. His last appearance was while attending the ceremony at which he received the Distinguished Artist award at the 2019 Tennessee Governor’s Arts Awards in Nashville.
He is survived by a son, Danny.
• Little Richard (Richard Wayne Penniman), singer-songwriter, born 5 December 1932; died 9 May 2020
Terry Clarke ▼
My husband Terry Clarke, who has died aged 72, was a singer-songwriter of great poetic powers. He released 14 albums across a fruitful career that revealed his love of country, rockabilly, blues, folk and Irish laments.
Among his fans (and champions) was the great Johnny Cash. Cash wrote the sleeve notes for the 1993 album he made with Jesse “Guitar” Taylor and Michael Messer, Rhythm Oil, a concoction of driving blues, rock’n’roll and Tex Mex.
Terry was born in Reading, Berkshire, to Joseph Clarke, an Irish labourer who had emigrated to England as a 14-year-old, and his wife, Florence (nee Edmonds), who worked in the local Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory.
In the 1950s Terry grew up in thrall to Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Conway Twitty, and in the 60s, after attending Blessed Hugh Faringdon Catholic school, he moved on to Robert Palmer, Sam & Dave and Geno Washington, working as a shop assistant in the Harry Fenton fashion store in Reading, kitting out the mods and turning heads with his tonic suits and Terence Stamp cheekbones.
He began his musical career as a young teenager playing guitar in local country music groups, including the Statesmen, and moved on to be a singer and guitarist in various reggae and soul bands, until in the late 70s and early 80s he fronted and was a co-writer in the soul/funk/pop band Domino Effect, who released three singles. His first album as Terry Clarke was Call Up a Hurricane (1988), which featured his compositions of Texas rock’n’roll and classic country balladry.
Alongside his musical adventures Terry ran a window cleaning business in Reading and could often be found “on the shine” in the town centre during the early mornings. Picking up the stories of the streets, hanging out in cafes and observing the town’s characters was a part of his creative process, as was spending time by the Thames river at nearby Mapledurham, exercising his keen eye for nature, light and beauty.
Terry’s 1991 album, The Shelly River, featured a number of songs inspired by his father’s emigration experiences, and on the back of its success he toured Ireland with Henry McCullough, a former member of Spooky Tooth, Wings and the Grease Band who became a great friend.
During the 90s and early 2000s Terry also cut a handful of warm, breezy albums in Austin, Texas, a place that he loved like a native son. He spent a lot of time recording and performing in the city, including, on one occasion, opening a show for one of his heroes, Merle Haggard, alongside Taylor.
I was a fan of Terry’s: we met at a gig in 2004, fell in love, moved together to Llanelli in Carmarthenshire, and got married in 2008.
In Wales he continued to record music, and his final album, Atomic 10, issued in 2015, revealed a songwriter whose skills had matured and grown with the passing years.
He is survived by me and his daughter, Amy, from his earlier marriage to Sheila Prescott, which ended in divorce. His son by that marriage, Joseph, predeceased him.
Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne ▼
Adam Schlesinger, who has died aged 52 from complications of Covid-19 infection, found critical kudos and a dedicated following with his band Fountains of Wayne, released a string of albums of airy and wistful pop with the band Ivy, and achieved some of his highest-profile success with his work for theatre, films and TV.
His first big breakthrough came with writing the title song to Tom Hanks’s film That Thing You Do! (1996), the story of an American pop group trying to cope with Beatlemania. Schlesinger’s title song, the solitary hit of the film’s fictional band the Wonders, was not only zingingly catchy, but perfectly captured the sound and feel of pop music in 1964.
“I was definitely a Beatles freak as a kid, and for a long time I only listened to the Beatles,” Schlesinger recalled. “[The film’s producers] said it should sound like an American band that was blown away by the Beatles and was trying to imitate them.” Life imitated art, and That Thing You Do! reached No 41 on the Billboard chart and 22 in the UK. Schlesinger was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for best original song.
This coincided with the early days of Fountains of Wayne. Schlesinger, playing bass, formed the band with the singer and guitarist Chris Collingwood, whom he had first met when they both attended Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. They were named after a lawn ornament store in Wayne, New Jersey, a clue to Schlesinger’s keen eye for the banal minutiae of American life. His songs would take in black humour (“he was killed by a cellular phone explosion”), the love lives of TV news anchors, the glamour of Hollywood as viewed from lowly Hackensack, New Jersey, and the American dream of social climbing (“Seth Shapiro got his law degree / He moved to Brooklyn from Schenectady, ’93”).
The group signed to Atlantic and released their self-titled debut album in 1996. The sleek and infectious single Radiation Vibe reached the Top 20 on the US alternative chart, but major sales eluded them. After their second album, Utopia Parkway (1999), also flopped, despite enthusiastic reviews, Atlantic dropped them.
It was not until 2003 that they made a new album, now with S-Curve records. This was Welcome Interstate Managers, which gave the group their most successful single, Stacy’s Mom, sung from the viewpoint of a teenage boy infatuated with his girlfriend’s mother. A deliberate homage to the Boston band the Cars, it made No 21 on the US pop chart and 11 in the UK, but made its biggest impact with its video for MTV, which referenced the teen movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High and featured a titillating performance as “Mom” by the model Rachel Hunter. The song earned two Grammy nominations.
This was the peak of the group’s visibility, even though Traffic and Weather (2007) found them breaching the US Top 100 album chart for the first time, and their last outing, Sky Full of Holes (2011), reached 37. The album was a struggle to make, owing to friction between Schlesinger and Collingwood, and spelled the end of the group.
Born in New York City, Adam was the son of Barbara (known as Bobbi, nee Bernthal), a publicist, and Stephen Schlesinger, an executive at the grant-making John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He grew up in Manhattan and then Montclair, New Jersey, where he attended Montclair high school. At Williams College, he earned a BA in philosophy.
He played in several bands with Collingwood before they split up after graduation, Schlesinger moving back to New York. He first met up with Andy Chase in 1991 after answering his newspaper ad for a songwriting partner, which paved the way for the formation in 1994 of the trio Ivy, which ran in parallel with Fountains of Wayne. The band’s third member was the Parisian Dominique Durand, who had never sung before but slotted in perfectly on vocals.
Ivy released six albums between 1994 and 2011, building a committed following with their mix of alluring indie-pop with a distinctly British influence, as well as a hint of French exotica. They developed a habit of making cover versions of songs by their favourite artists, who included Edwyn Collins, the Cure, Steely Dan and Serge Gainsbourg. They also struck up a rapport with the film-makers the Farrelly Brothers, who used their music in There’s Something About Mary (1998) and Me, Myself & Irene (2000).
Schlesinger managed to slip in a quick stint with Tinted Windows, a band which included the former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, Hanson’s Taylor Hanson and Cheap Trick’s drummer Bun E Carlos and released an album in 2009.
He enjoyed more film-related success with his contributions to the soundtrack of Josie and the Pussycats (2001) and the Hugh Grant-Drew Barrymore vehicle Music and Lyrics (2007), for which he wrote the masterly Way Back Into Love.
With David Javerbaum, he wrote the music for the musical Cry-Baby (also 2007). The same pair wrote the music for the satirist Stephen Colbert’s Grammy-winning A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All! (2008), and they were embraced by the theatrical and TV communities, writing songs for the Tony awards (2011 and 2012) and the Emmys (2011 and 2013.) The duo won a 2012 Emmy for their song It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore, from the 2011 Tonys telecast, and a 2013 Emmy for If I Had Time, from the 2012 Tonys ceremony.
For the TV musical-comedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Schlesinger was a major contributor to most of the 157 songs featured in its four-season run (2015-19). He won an Emmy for his song from the fourth season, Antidepressants Are So Not a Big Deal. At the time of his death, he was working on stage adaptations of Sarah Silverman’s The Bedwetter and of the TV show The Nanny.
Schlesinger married Katherine Michel, a graphic designer, in 1999, and they had two daughters, Sadie and Claire, before divorcing in 2013. He is survived by his partner, Alexis Morley, his daughters, his parents and his sister, Laurie Rose.
• Adam Lyons Schlesinger, musician, songwriter and singer, born 31 October 1967; died 1 April 2020
Bill Withers ▼
The career of Bill Withers, who has died aged 81 of heart complications, followed an unusual trajectory. He did not try to enter the music industry until after he had spent nine years in the US Navy, leaving the service in 1965 and moving to Los Angeles two years later. By the time he released his debut album, Just As I Am, in 1971 he was 33, an age at which many pop careers have already been and gone.
But Withers made up for lost time. His album was packed with memorable songs, including Harlem and Grandma’s Hands, and entered the US Top 40. Ain’t No Sunshine, his first single, reached No 3 and became one of the landmark songs in his career, despite lasting a scant two minutes. Inspired by Blake Edwards’ gruelling 1962 film about alcoholism, Days of Wine and Roses, it has become an enduring anthem of loneliness and heartbreak.
His second album, Still Bill (1972), was another formidable collection (Rolling Stone called it “a stone-soul masterpiece”). It reached No 4 on the US album chart and gave Withers a No 2 hit with Use Me, as well as his sole chart-topping single, Lean on Me. This was an ode to the power of friendship conceived with the simplicity of a gospel classic, apparently the work of an artist in complete control of his music and his destiny. In October 1974 he performed in Zaire with James Brown, Etta James and BB King, in the run-up to the fabled Rumble in the Jungle world heavyweight fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
However, what looked like incipient megastardom never came to fruition. After the demise of his original record label, Sussex, Withers was signed to Columbia, where he was never comfortable and felt nothing but contempt for what he considered to be the company’s narrow-minded executives. Though he notched up two more definitive hit singles, the serene and mantra-like Lovely Day (1977) and the hook-up with the saxophonist Grover Washington Jr on Just the Two of Us (1981), his sales tailed off.
However, it was to Withers’ advantage that he had never considered music his sole purpose in life. “The business came to me in my 30s,” he later reflected. “I was socialised as a regular guy. I never felt like I owned it or it owned me.”
His naval experience had given him self-confidence as well as the skills required of an aircraft mechanic. Before he signed a recording deal he supported himself by working at a variety of aircraft factories in California, paying to make his own demo recordings at night. Emerging from the other end of his music career, he never looked back. He focused on building a property portfolio in partnership with his second wife, Marcia, whom he married in 1976, while raising their children, Todd and Kori. Marcia also supervised the running of his music publishing company – “I’m lucky I married a woman with an MBA,” he pointed out.
Born in Slab Fork, West Virginia, Bill was the youngest of six children of William Harrison Withers Sr, a coal miner, and his wife, Mattie. They divorced when Bill was three, and William Sr died when he was 13. Growing up in poverty, Withers heard whatever music happened to catch his attention. “Mostly country music,” he recalled. “And there was music in church, and whatever they taught you at school. And then there was the old Frank Sinatra – Nat King Cole genre type music. So whatever I could stand to listen to, I listened to.” He remembered singing a capella gospel music, “because that’s something we could do without owning any instruments.”He had been born with a severe stutter: “People laughed right in my face when I was trying to say something.” At 17 he joined the navy and a speech therapy course organised by one of his commanding officers helped him to overcome it. The training perhaps also helped to give his singing voice its strength and emotional authority.
He had no involvement in music while in the navy, but back in the US he visited nightclubs – “I was only trying to meet girls, I wasn’t looking for any music” – and saw artists such as Lou Rawls. It occurred to Withers that music might be something he could do. “I probably had some kind of hidden poet buried in my soul somewhere,” he reflected. “Sort of a casual interest turned into a pursuit.”
He took some of his demo recordings to Ray Jackson, a member of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, which led to them being heard by Clarence Avant, the head of the Sussex label. He liked what he heard, commenting that “Bill Withers is a genius storyteller.” He recruited Booker T Jones, of Booker T & the MGs, to produce an album, and with the aid of musicians including members of the MGs and Stephen Stills on lead guitar, Just As I Am was recorded. “His voice and guitar was all he had, and that was almost all that was necessary,” said Jones. “So I just tried to be minimalistic.”
Despite the huge attention brought by his first two albums, Withers was not happy. He did not enjoy touring, and his marriage to the TV star Denise Nicholas in 1973 brought mostly conflict. They divorced after barely a year and his album +’Justments (1974) was released in the aftermath. In 1975 Sussex went bankrupt, and Withers signed his ill-fated deal with Columbia. His final album for them, Watching You Watching Me, only reached 143 on the US chart. Withers launched a lawsuit to get out of his Columbia contract.
He did not release any new recordings after 1985, but Lovely Day, which reached No 7 in the UK in 1977, hit No 4 when it was reissued in 1988. The tune has been sampled by numerous artists including Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, R Kelly and Maroon 5. Withers won Grammy Awards for Ain’t No Sunshine, Just The Two of Us and Lean on Me, and his songs have been used in major films including Looking for Mr Goodbar, Jerry Maguire, Jackie Brown, Notting Hill, The Bodyguard and American Beauty. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005 and in 2006 received ASCAP’s Rhythm and Soul Heritage award. In 2015 he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by Stevie Wonder. In 2017 he was given an honorary degree from West Virginia University.
In 2009 Withers was profiled in the documentary Still Bill, which depicted a satisfied man experiencing no regrets about walking away from the music business. “When somebody asks ‘what have you been doing?’ the answer is ‘living’,” he said in 2003. “I have no bitterness. I just live and whatever happens, happens.”
He is survived by Marcia and their children.
• Bill Withers (William Harrison Withers Jr) singer and songwriter, born 4 July 1938; died 30 March 2020
Kenny Rogers ▼
Kenny Rogers, who has died aged 81, was a prolific hit-maker from the late 1960s into the 80s, and with songs such as Lucille, The Gambler and Coward of the County helped to create a bestselling crossover of pop and country material. “I did songs that were not country but were more pop,” he said in 2016. “If the country audience doesn’t buy it, they’ll kick it out. And if they do, then it becomes country music.”
Rogers’s knack for finding a popular song – he was modest about his own writing skills and preferred to pick songs from other writers – was unerring, bringing him huge hits with Don Schlitz’s The Gambler (1978), Lionel Richie’s Lady (1980), and, with Dolly Parton, the Bee Gees’ Islands in the Stream (1983) among many others. Though his record sales waned in the late 80s, he bounced back in his last years with three successful albums, The Love of God (2011), You Can’t Make Old Friends (2013) and Once Again It’s Christmas (2015). Altogether he recorded 65 albums and sold more than 165m records.
Born in Houston, Texas, Kenny was the fourth of eight children of Lucille (nee Hester), a nursing assistant, and Edward Rogers, a carpenter, and grew up in the San Felipe Courts housing project. He attended Jefferson Davis high school, where he formed his first band, a doo-wop group called the Scholars, in which he sang and played guitar.
In 1956 he left school and within two years had scored a solo hit with That Crazy Feeling, which earned him an appearance on the TV show American Bandstand. He then played bass in the jazz trio the Bobby Doyle Three before moving to Los Angeles and joining the folk group the New Christy Minstrels.
In 1967 Rogers formed the First Edition (which also included New Christy Minstrels songwriter Mike Settle), and they proceeded to notch up seven Top 40 pop hits, including Mickey Newbury’s Just Dropped in to See What Condition My Condition Was In (1967, and later used for a memorable dream sequence in the 1998 film The Big Lebowski). Their most prominent hit was their version of Mel Tillis’s Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town, written from the viewpoint of a paralysed Vietnam veteran. Featuring the pained, sandpapery vocal delivery that would become Rogers’s trademark, in 1969 it reached No 2 in the UK and 6 on the Billboard pop chart.
The First Edition also made a couple of movie appearances, and in 1971 began hosting their own TV show, Rollin’ on the River. But by 1975 the group were in commercial decline, prompting Rogers to start a solo career with the United Artists label.
In 1977 he topped the US country chart for the first time with Lucille (also a No 1 hit in the UK and several other countries), another storytelling song, which sold 5m copies worldwide. It paved the way for further Rogers classics including The Gambler (1978, another Country No 1 and a US Top 20 pop hit) and Coward of the County (1979, a UK and Country No 1, and a No 3 on the US pop chart).
Rogers’s yearning vocal tone also made him a natural ballad singer, as he demonstrated with the chart-topping Lady. Another of his talents was picking the right duet partners. He teamed up with Dottie West on a string of big country hits in the late 70s and early 80s, including three No 1s, and reached the US Top 5 with Kim Carnes on Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer (1980). That track came from a chart-topping concept album that Carnes and her husband, Dave Ellingson, wrote for Rogers, called Gideon, the story of cowboy Gideon Tanner.
His collaboration with Sheena Easton on We’ve Got Tonight (1983) was a Country No 1 and reached No 6 on the pop chart. In the same year he achieved one of his best-loved career highlights by duetting with Parton on Islands in The Stream, an international smash. “Everybody always thought we were having an affair,” Rogers said of his great friend Parton. “We didn’t. We just teased each other and flirted with each other for 30 years.”
In 1985 he was one of the featured superstars on USA for Africa’s We Are the World. His album The Heart of the Matter of the same year, produced by George Martin, was his last to top the US Country chart, and the following year he was voted favourite singer of all time by USA Today and People magazine. He won a Grammy award for Make No Mistake, She’s Mine (1987), a duet with Ronnie Milsap that was his penultimate Country No 1 single.
But Rogers had several strings to his bow. His hit The Gambler had spawned a string of TV films in which he played the title role of Brady Hawkes. In 1991, with former Kentucky Fried Chicken chief executive John Y Brown Jr, he launched a string of chicken restaurants called Kenny Rogers Roasters. Having starred as a racing car driver in the movie Six Pack (1982), Rogers collaborated with Sprint car driver CK Spurlock to create the car manufacturer Gambler Chassis.
A keen amateur photographer, Rogers was spurred to develop his skills further when he married his fourth wife, Marianne Gordon, a model. As well as taking portraits of her, Rogers studied with the photographers John Sexton and Yousuf Karsh. In 1986 he published Kenny Rogers’ America, featuring images taken while on tour, while Your Friends and Mine (1987) comprised portraits of superstars including Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson. Country music stars including Willie Nelson, Tammy Wynette and Parton were the subjects of This Is My Country (2005).
He was also an author. The book of his touring musical play The Toy Shoppe was published in 2000, his memoir, Luck Or Something Like It, appeared in 2012, and the following year brought his novel (co-written with Mike Blakely), What Are the Chances.
Among his countless honours were three Grammys, six Country Music Association awards and eight Academy of Country Music awards, and in 2013 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Having delivered a rousing performance in the Sunday afternoon “Legends” slot at the Glastonbury festival in 2013, Rogers embarked on his farewell tour, The Gambler’s Last Deal, in 2016. On 25 October 2017, he was given an all-star send-off at Nashville’s Bridgestone arena by guests including Richie, Parton, Don Henley, Kris Kristofferson and Reba McEntire.
Kenny was wed five times. The first four marriages, to Janice (nee Gordon), Jean Rogers, Margo (nee Anderson), and Marianne, ended in divorce. He is survived by his fifth wife, Wanda (nee Miller), their twin sons, Justin and Jordan, a daughter, Carole, from his marriage to Janice, a son, Kenny Jr, from his marriage to Margo, and another son, Christopher, from his marriage to Marianne.
•Kenny (Kenneth Ray) Rogers, singer and musician, born 21 August 1938; died 20 March 2020
Andy Gill from Gang of Four ▼
The post-punk period of the late 1970s and early 80s bred a number of innovative and challenging bands, of whom Gang of Four proved to be one of the most influential. Andy Gill, a founding member of the band, who has died aged 64 of pneumonia, was renowned for his driving, staccato guitar playing, and was also one of the intellectual guiding lights behind their frequently cerebral songs.
Gang of Four never enjoyed popular success – their debut album Entertainment! (1979) was the only one to enter the UK Top 50, reaching No 45 – but their sound and attitude has been acknowledged as an influence by such artists as REM’s Michael Stipe, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, U2, Rage Against the Machine and Franz Ferdinand.
Their debut EP, Damaged Goods (1978), released on the Edinburgh independent label Fast Product, instantly identified the group as provocateurs, and topped the indie chart. The bellicose funk of (Love Like) Anthrax inverted the norms of commercial pop by likening love to a fatal disease, while the raw, military-sounding Armalite Rifle was like an information leaflet for a favourite weapon of the IRA, its lyrics blankly intoned by Gill. Damaged Goods itself, a somewhat disgusted meditation on love and lust, offered a prime specimen of Gill’s stripped-down and relentlessly thrusting guitar style.
A deal with EMI followed, and Entertainment!, its artwork referencing the situationists much admired by Gill and the band’s vocalist, Jon King – who were both art students – brought both critical acclaim and the highest selling single of their career, At Home He’s a Tourist, which went to No 58 in the UK but was banned by the BBC for its reference to condoms. The band’s mix of punk, disco, funk and Marxism had a hypnotic effect on an adoring music press, who enjoyed the way interviews with the group often turned into animated disagreements between the four of them.
The act of signing to a major record label was a source of ideological angst. “People thought we should be on Rough Trade, but we’d gone with the biggest, nastiest, arms-manufacturing company of them all,” Gill said. “But to pretend that we didn’t want to sell our product would have been dishonest.” Mega-sales would continue to elude them, but they reached No 190 in the US (and 52 in Britain) with a more considered and less polemical second album, Solid Gold (1981). However, Gill’s accusation that King was becoming more politically “liberal” did not augur well.
The following year’s Songs of the Free garnered substantial play in US clubs and college radio, as well as a UK chart position of 61. A potential hit single in Britain, I Love a Man in a Uniform, was scuppered by an airplay ban in 1982 prompted by the outbreak of the Falklands war. But by now the group had already lost their original bassist, Dave Allen, and their drummer, Hugo Burnham, and Hard (1983) was an unconvincing attempt at a more commercial sound. One critic deplored its “insufferable meaninglessness”. The band subsequently broke up.
Gang of Four originally grew out of the close friendship between Gill and King, who had first met in art lessons at Sevenoaks school in Kent. Their contemporaries in the same group included the future film-maker Paul Greengrass (of Jason Bourne and United 93 fame) and the documentary maker Adam Curtis. Their teacher Bob White made an indelible impact. “He demanded real commitment from you and treated you like an adult, which had a massive effect on his pupils,” said Gill (talking to his namesake, the Independent’s music critic, in 2009). Gill’s musical idols at the time included the Velvet Underground and Jimi Hendrix, and he acknowledged Hendrix’s death in 1970 by wearing a black armband.
Gill and King went on to study art at Leeds University, where the teaching was heavily influenced by theories of structuralism and situationism. The pair expanded their horizons further by using grants intended for studies overseas to soak up the musical new wave in New York, which included Television, the Ramones and Patti Smith. Back in Britain, Gill gained further inspiration from the guitarist Wilko Johnson of Dr Feelgood, whose ferociously metronomic style – as well as his robotic movements and piercing stare – could be clearly discerned in Gill’s performances. Gill was still in his final year at Leeds when Gang of Four were signed to EMI.
Gill and King eventually reformed Gang of Four and released Mall (1991) and Shrinkwrapped (1995). The original lineup featuring Allen and Burnham reformed in 2004, and toured internationally in 2005. In 2011 a new incarnation of the group released Content, which won widespread critical acclaim. In 2015 they released What Happens Next, but after a split with King, Gill was now the sole original member. Happy Now appeared in 2019, though Gang of Four were now a three-piece.
Gill also enjoyed a successful career as a producer. His credits included the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ eponymous debut album (1984), the Stranglers’ Written in Red (1997), the Jesus Lizard’s Blue (1998), Killing Joke (2003) and Therapy?’s Crooked Timber (2009).
In 1999 he married the journalist Catherine Mayer, who co-founded the Women’s Equality party in the UK. She survives him, as does his brother, Martin.
• Andrew James Dalrymple Gill, guitarist, born 1 January 1956; died 1 February 2020
Neil Peart from Rush ▼
The drummer Neil Peart, who has died aged 67 of brain cancer, enjoyed such a reputation for his deft, powerful drumming with the Canadian rock band Rush that he became adept at deflecting praise from interviewers on the subject. “What is a master but a master student?” was a common response on Peart’s part, a hint at his interests in esoteric philosophy as well as an indicator of the reflective thinking that made him also an acclaimed lyricist for the band.
The many songs that Peart wrote for Rush, for all but one of their 19 studio albums, were inspired by subjects as diverse as libertarianism, fantasy fiction, religious thought and the pressures of fame – the last of these expressed most clearly in the 1981 single Limelight, in which he used Shakespearean phrases to illustrate his points.
His drum parts on tracks such as Tom Sawyer (also 1981, both from the bestselling album Moving Pictures) and Spirit of Radio (1980), locked in with singer Geddy Lee’s bass-playing to form a complex rhythmic signature, which became renowned. Many fans flocked to see the band live because of the epic nature of Peart’s drumming, performed on a huge, futuristic, gold-plated kit that included wood blocks, timpani and gongs as well as the standard set.
In 2016 Rolling Stone magazine put Peart at No 4 in its list of 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time, after John Bonham, Keith Moon and Ginger Baker. As the Nirvana drummer and FooFighters frontman, Dave Grohl, said: “Neil Peart – that’s a whole other animal, another species of drummer”.
He was born in Hagersville, near Hamilton, Ontario, and grew up in nearby St Catharines, the eldest of four children of Betty and Glenn Peart, who sold farm equipment. Like many budding drummers, Neil had a habit of playing rhythms on household furniture, in his case with a pair of chopsticks: this led his parents to buy him a basic drum kit on his 13th birthday. A year later a full kit followed, accompanied by lessons at the Peninsula Conservatory of Music in St Catharines, and Peart debuted as a drummer at a school pageant.
A series of bands followed, including Mumblin’ Sumpthin’, the Majority, and JR Flood, with gigs at small venues in southern Ontario. Aged 18, he moved to London to try to make it as a musician while also selling jewellery in Carnaby Street, but met with little success and in 1972 he returned to Canada to work for his father’s business.
In 1974, while playing with a local band called Hush, he was persuaded to audition for Rush, a band similar in name but very different in style.
The other musicians, Lee (born Gary Weinrib) and the guitarist Alex Lifeson, had recorded a self-titled debut album that year, but their original drummer, John Rutsey, had left due to health issues. Lee described Peart’s audition in 2018: “He comes in, this big goofy guy with a small drum kit with 18-inch bass drums. Alex and I were chuckling – we thought he was a hick from the country. And then he sat down and pummelled the drums, and us. I’d never heard a drummer like that, someone with that power and dexterity. As far as I was concerned, he was hired from the minute he started playing.”
Rush’s first album with Peart, Fly By Night (1975), demonstrated the musical expertise and lyrical opacity typical of the band. Despite being dismissed by critics as making “music for nerds”, their 1976 album, 2112, was an enormous success. Its 20-minute title track featured lyrics written by Peart that were at least partly inspired by the writings of the controversial author Ayn Rand, adopted by many on the right of politics. Despite having been a young fan of the author, Peart later disavowed those beliefs.
The albums Permanent Waves (1980) and Moving Pictures (1981) saw Rush established as the epitome of prog (progressive) rock, which the subsequent world tours did nothing to dissuade. Live shows included a long drum solo that was the centrepiece of the band’s performance. Audiences responded with enthusiasm, but the introverted Peart did not enjoy being famous.
A major hiatus came after Peart’s 19-year-old daughter Selena was killed in a car accident in 1997 and her mother, Jacqueline Taylor, died 10 months later. The drummer took time away from Rush, seeking therapy in long motorcycle journeys through the Americas. He later recounted his recovery in the book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road and wrote six other volumes of non-fiction.
In 2000 he married the photographer Carrie Nuttall and settled in Los Angeles, becoming a US citizen. He rejoined Rush in 2001, when classic rock was experiencing a resurgence and the band’s profile was on the rise again, and they went on several world tours. Their last studio album, Clockwork Angels, was released in 2012; Rush celebrated their 40th anniversary with the R40 Live Tour three years later. Peart’s lengthy drum solos consolidated his reputation as one of the world’s greatest percussionists.
However, his unique playing style had created health problems, and in 2015 Peart stated that the band would no longer tour due to his tendonitis. It later emerged that he had also received his cancer diagnosis around this time.
Peart is survived by Carrie, their daughter, Olivia, his parents, and his siblings, Judy, Nancy and Danny.
• Neil Peart, drummer and writer, born 12 September 1952; died 7 January 2020
Teneisha Bonner from Spinderella ▼
In the sometimes macho world of hip-hop dance, a form that demands power and immense strength, Teneisha Bonner, who has died of breast cancer at the age of 37, proved she could do anything her male peers could, and more. Bonner was the star female performer in the choreographer Kate Prince’s company, ZooNation, and was instrumental in helping Prince take hip-hop, a once underground culture, to mainstream theatre stages and family audiences.
She played the sassy wannabe DJ Spinderella in the company’s first hit show, the exuberantly energetic Into the Hoods – an urban take on Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods – which was commissioned by Sadler’s Wells and debuted at the Peacock theatre, London, in 2006 and two years later went on to become the longest running dance show in the West End. The Observer’s dance critic, Luke Jennings, wrote: “The piece’s star is undoubtedly Bonner, whose dramatic beauty and fluent line compel the attention whenever she’s on stage.”
Bonner’s dazzling vitality and precision-tooled athleticism arrested the attention of anyone watching a ZooNation show. She could be sinuously slinky or funk it up; a dancer of fierce attack or commanding grace, with a level of finesse that is rarely seen in hip-hop. Her versatility made her a favourite backing dancer for major pop acts, too, touring arenas with artists including Take That, Kylie Minogue and Rihanna.
But more than just a brilliant technician, Bonner was a dancer of dramatic and comic flair who loved to create characters, whether a terrifying Queen of Hearts in the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party (2014), at the Linbury Studio theatre, Royal Opera House, head thrown back in dastardly laughter, or dressed in wig and moustache playing goofy comedy and heartfelt drama as Kerri in Some Like it Hip Hop (2011), at the Peacock theatre, a supremely entertaining spin on the gender-swap and mistaken identity stories of Some Like it Hot and Twelfth Night.
She won a Critics’ Circle National Dance award for that role (along with her co-star Tommy Franzen), the first time hip-hop dancers had won in the award’s history.
Even in fantastical characters Bonner sought to build depth into her performance and communicate with her viewers. “With all of those [fairytale] stories, you can translate them into real life,” she told me in an interview. “I love connecting with people, I love connecting with audiences.”
As a dancer, Bonner owned the stage, but as a person she was modest and kind, with a warm sense of mischief and an incredible work ethic. She was born in St Catherine, Jamaica, to Yvette Singh and Emanuel Bonner. When her mother moved to London to work as a nurse Teneisha was brought up by her grandmother, before joining her mother in Peck- ham, south London, aged seven.
She became the eldest of five children, and in a busy house “my way of escape was to dance,” she once said. Self-confessedly the only “performance geek” in her family, she had her first taste of the stage through open auditions for a production with the dance company RJC at the age of 13. And while she took some local street dance classes – and used to borrow the drama-room key at secondary school so she could practise there on her own at break times – Bonner came relatively late to serious training, joining the Brit School in Croydon at 16.
Her talent was immediately clear. She got her first professional job at 17, dancing for the pop singer Dane Bowers, appearing on Top of the Pops and CD:UK. And she was awarded a scholarship to the London Studio Centre at 18, but her training was interrupted when she successfully auditioned for the Swedish street dance company Bounce and a European tour of their hugely popular show Insane in the Brain (an adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). She was reluctant to return to her degree but was persuaded to complete it by her locking teacher, Jimmy Williams.
Alongside being a core cast member of ZooNation’s stage shows, Bonner performed in the Olympic and Paralympic closing ceremonies. She starred in videos for the British rapper Ty’s track Let’s Start (2013), and a 2013 promo for the pianist Fabio D’Andrea, looking like a Grecian beauty to the sound of Chopin’s Nocturne in E minor, molten arms rippling, mesmeric even when only standing on the spot.
Bonner’s acting talent took her into film, where she played Shawna, the mouthy hairdresser and best friend of the heroine Carly in StreetDance 3D (2010), a feelgood romance that played on a familiar cliche of culture clash between ballet and hip-hop dancers. In reality, Bonner was of a generation who embraced and absorbed other dance styles. She could turn her hand to Lindy hop or contemporary; she appeared in the song and dance show Shoes at Sadler’s Wells (2010), and toured internationally with the Riverdance spin-off Heartbeat of Home (2013), blending hip-hop with Afro-Cuban music and dance.
Even as one of the most talented, most recognised dancers in her field, performing was a precarious career and the bright and pragmatic Bonner had many strings to her bow, training as a masseuse and a personal trainer, as well as teaching for ZooNation. She was a member of Kensington Temple church in Notting Hill, and a devoted godmother.
When I interviewed her for my book Being a Dancer, a collection of advice on making it in the dance world, she emphasised above everything the necessity of focus and hard work.
“The first advice that comes to mind is ‘push harder’,” she said. “Get the most out of every opportunity. Whatever it is that you’re facing, go at it with more intention.” The key to developing charisma on stage, she told me, was learning how to be comfortable in your own skin. “Be confident in who you are and understand that you can be nobody else. Understand what works for you and your body and what makes you shine.”
Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016, Bonner continued to work hard, reprising her role of Queen of Hearts at the Roundhouse in London in December of that year. Her final appearances on film were in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again and Mary Poppins Returns, both released last year.
She is survived by her mother, her father and four half-siblings, Travis, Nathan, Reece and Rihanna.
• Teneisha Phehoma Bonner, dancer, born 31 December 1981; died 11 September 2019
Ginger Baker ▼
Before the arrival of Ginger Baker, the drummer used to be the quiet one sitting at the back of the stage whose job was to keep time. Baker, who has died aged 80, pioneered the image of the rock drummer as a flamboyant virtuoso, engaged in a dynamic interaction with the musicians around him.
According to Neil Peart, the drummer from the Canadian band Rush: “Every rock drummer since has been influenced in some way by Ginger, even if they don’t know it.”
Baker found fame with Cream, the 1960s rock trio also featuring Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce, whose two-year career inspired a new wave of blues-based rock bands. Cream is now seen as the first “supergroup”, comprising outstanding musicians each of whom was blazing a trail on his respective instrument. Baker brought a freewheeling energy to his drumming, prompting comparisons to the jazz drummer Art Blakey. He was not abnormally fast or flashy, but he was innovative, using twin bass drums and displaying a flair for African-influenced beats, to which he had been introduced by the British jazz drummer Phil Seamen.
Baker often claimed he never practised, but relied on spontaneous inspiration when playing with other musicians. Cream’s stage shows often featured improvisations lasting 20 minutes or more, and the group’s 1968 double album Wheels of Fire included a 16-minute version of the Willie Dixon song Spoonful, and 16 more minutes of Baker’s drumming showcase Toad.
The idea of using the drumkit as a solo instrument was an innovation ascribed to Cream, though one that listeners would find a mixed blessing in years to come. The band was undeniably adept, however, at creating unusual but commercially potent singles. Hits such as I Feel Free (1966), White Room (1968), Sunshine of Your Love (1968), Tales of Brave Ulysses (1967) and Badge (1969) are some of the most atmospheric, rhythmic and distinctive compositions of their era.
In 1962 Baker, then a jobbing drummer in London’s jazz clubs, had been recommended by Charlie Watts, the future Rolling Stones drummer, for a job with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, where he first encountered Bruce. Along with Graham Bond and the saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith, the pair formed the Graham Bond Organisation, playing a form of jazzy rhythm and blues that won them a devoted following. However, they also developed a hostility that eventually led to Baker firing Bruce from the band.
Baker then approached Clapton, the rising star of British blues, with a view to forming a new group. Clapton was enthusiastic, but insisted on bringing in Bruce on bass. Despite misgivings, Baker agreed. Cream’s debut single, Wrapping Paper (1966), was uncharacteristic light jazzy pop, but their debut album, Fresh Cream, released that December, found the group already hitting its distinctive stride in powerful tracks such as NSU, I’m So Glad and Spoonful. It reached No 6 on the UK album chart.
The band released two further albums during its lifetime. Disraeli Gears (1967) was a formidable demonstration of their instrumental and compositional skills, while the live half of Wheels of Fire – a US chart-topper – illustrated the self-indulgence they were capable of in concert. The group split up in November 1968, at least partly because of the violent antagonism between Baker and Bruce, and a fourth album, Goodbye, appeared in February 1969. Despite being a short and scrappy collection of live and studio tracks, it gave them a UK No 1, and their four albums sold 15m copies between them.
Following Cream’s demise, Baker joined a new “supergroup”, Blind Faith, with Clapton, Steve Winwood (from Traffic) and bassist Ric Grech (from Family). Despite the huge success of Blind Faith’s eponymous 1969 album, which topped both the US and British charts and sold half a million copies within a month of release, the band disintegrated that October, after completing a US tour. Baker was bitterly disappointed to find that Clapton was jumping ship (he departed to form Derek and the Dominoes) and decided he would form a band of his own.
He brought Winwood and Grech into a new jazz-rock fusion project, Ginger Baker’s Air Force. The 11-piece lineup included drummers Seamen and Remi Kabaka, Bond on Hammond organ and saxophone, Denny Laine on guitar and a trio of brass players. The music was an exuberant and improvisational blend of blues, R&B, jazz and African music. Baker was always bitter that Bruce and the lyricist Pete Brown (the unofficial “fourth member” of Cream) had claimed most of the songwriting royalties from Cream, and so with Air Force and most of his future projects he figured prominently in the writing credits.
Winwood and Grech stayed long enough to appear on the group’s first album, a double LP live recording of a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in January 1970, before departing to join a reunited Traffic. Without Winwood or Clapton, however, Baker could not pull the crowds.
When the now nine-piece Air Force embarked on a US tour, it was met by miserable ticket sales and a lack of interest at radio stations. A second album, Ginger Baker’s Air Force 2, was released in December 1970, but it failed to recapture the spontaneous magic of its predecessor, and both album and band slid into obscurity.
After a near-fatal cocaine overdose that September, Baker realised he needed a complete break and, travelling by Land Rover, went to Lagos, Nigeria, where he opened a 16-track recording studio, Batakota (ARC) studios, and became close friends with local – later global – superstar Fela Kuti. Baker fully immersed himself in the rhythms of African music, and also joined the Lagos Polo Club. He retained his enthusiasm for horses and polo for the rest of his life.
During his spell in Lagos, Baker featured on Kuti’s 1971 album Live!, while Kuti appeared on Baker’s Stratavarious (1972). In 1973 Paul McCartney and Wings recorded Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me), from Band on the Run, at ARC, on which Baker shook a tin of gravel as percussion, though he was disgruntled that McCartney recorded the rest of his album at EMI’s Lagos studios.
In 1974 Baker formed the hard rock band Baker Gurvitz Army back in London, with brothers Adrian and Paul Gurvitz (on the guitar and the bass respectively), but after three albums – the last two of which failed to chart – in two years, the group fizzled out.
Finding himself penniless and reduced to selling drugs, Baker left his wife, Liz (nee Finch), whom he had married in 1959, and their three children, and headed for Tuscany with his girlfriend, Sarah, to try to survive as an olive farmer (the pair married in 1983, but divorced the following year).
He was rescued by the record producer Bill Laswell, who tracked Baker down and took him to New York to play on Album (1986), the fifth studio album by John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd (PiL). “The farm was a disaster,” Laswell commented of Baker’s Tuscan retreat. “There was no electricity, and he had this tiny bed he would sleep in with his dogs. It’s a miracle that he was still alive.”
Born in Lewisham, south-east London, Peter Baker – his red hair earned him the unoriginal nickname of “Ginger” – was the son of Ruby Streatfield, who worked in a tobacconist’s, and Frederick Baker, a brick-layer who was killed while serving with the Royal Corps of Signals in 1943. The young Ginger was aimless and unmotivated until he discovered a passion for competitive cycling.
This ended abruptly after his bike was wrecked in a collision with a London taxi. Then he experimented with playing drums belonging to a friend from Shooter’s Hill grammar school, which inspired him to buy his own set for £3. “I thought, good God, at last there’s something I can do,” he recalled.
He began playing music part-time while working as a signwriter and then with an advertising agency, but after earning £12 for a week’s work with the Storyville Jazz Band he decided to turn professional. By the end of the decade he had played with Terry Lightfoot’s New Orleans Jazzmen and bands run by the jazz clarinettist Acker Bilk and the jazz guitarist Diz Disley. However, the opinionated, combative Baker found himself frustrated by both his bandmates and the music’s stylistic limitations. An unfortunate side-effect of his stints in London jazz clubs was a heroin habit that would dog him into the 80s.
Baker weaned himself off the drug in that decade and, following, his work with PiL, continued to collaborate with Laswell, with his own album Horses & Trees (1986), an eclectic set featuring the violinist L Shankar and percussionist Aïyb Dieng, and Middle Passage (1990), a mix of Afrobeat, rock and jazz-fusion.
In 1988 Baker had moved to Los Angeles, where he met and married his third wife, Karen Loucks. In 1993 he moved to a ranch in Colorado to raise polo ponies. Also that year he recorded Sunrise on the Sufferbus with the hard rock band Masters of Reality, an album that produced the hit single She Got Me (When She Got Her Dress On).
He managed to fit in stints with the Ginger Baker Trio, with the guitarist Bill Frisell and the bassist Charlie Haden, and even briefly reunited with Bruce alongside the guitarist Gary Moore in BBM. However, in the late 90s, problems with the tax and immigration authorities forced him to leave the US for good.
He bought a farm in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, but upset the local all-white polo club by importing a team of black Nigerian players. Again forced to move, he resettled in Tulbagh in the Western Cape. In 2010, he was married for the fourth time, to a Zimbabwean woman, Kudzai Machokoto.
In 2005, Cream reunited for a series of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and New York’s Madison Square Garden, preserved on the album Royal Albert Hall London May 2-3-5-6 2005. In 2009 Baker published Hellraiser: The Autobiography of the World’s Greatest Drummer, co-written with his daughter Nettie. Jay Bulger’s documentary Beware of Mr Baker premiered at the SXSW festival in 2012, and its raw portrayal of Baker’s extraordinary life won it the grand jury award for best documentary feature. The same year, an impoverished Baker had to sell up and leave South Africa. He returned to London and formed a new quartet, Jazz Confusion, which in 2014 released Why?
Baker, who had been suffering from degenerative osteoarthritis and a smoking-related pulmonary condition, is survived by Kudzai, his children, Nettie, Leda and Kofi, and a stepdaughter, Lisa.
• Peter Edward “Ginger” Baker, drummer, born 19 August 1939; died 6 October 2019
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