November 4, 1994 – Fred “Sonic” Smith was born on September 13, 1949 in West Virginia, but raised in Detroit.
As a teenager, he lived for music with speed, energy with a rebellious attitude and formed a rock group Smith’s Vibratones, before joining up with his old school pal, Wayne Kramer to form MC5, short for Motor City Five. This influential band released 3 albums before their break up in 1972, Kick Out the Jams in 1969, Back in the USA in 1970, and High Time in 1971. After the band broke up Fred went on to form Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, which released one single, “City Slang”.
October 4, 1994 – Danny Gatton was without a shadow of a doubt the most underrated guitar virtuoso the US ever produced…so far. He fused rockabilly, blues, rock, jazz, and country to create his own distinctive style at a mind boggling speed.
Born in Washington DC on September 4, 1945, he began his career playing in bands while still a teenager and began to attract wider interest in the 1970s while playing guitar and banjo for the group Liz Meyer & Friends. He made his name as a performer the 1980s, both as a solo performer and with his Redneck Jazz Explosion, in which he would trade licks with virtuoso pedal steel player Buddy Emmons over a tight bass-drums rhythm which drew from blues, country, bebop and rockabilly influences.
September 6, 1994 – Nicky Hopkins was born on February 24, 1944 in Perivale, Middlesex to the NE London. He began playing the piano at age 3. As pianist, organ player Nicky recorded and performed on an amazing amount of noted superstar British and American popular music recordings of the 60s and 70s as a session musician.
At the start of the 60s he started out as the pianist with Screaming Lord Sutch’s Savages, after which he joined The Cyril Davies R&B All Stars. Due to suffering from Crohn’s disease he mainly focused on studio work in London. He worked extensively for leading UK independent producers Shel Talmy and Mickie Most and performed on albums and singles by The Kinks, The Move, Cyril Davies, Jon Mark, The Who, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Donovan, John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Jeff Beck, Art Garfunkel, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Carly Simon, McGuinness Flint, Bill Wyman, Harry Nilsson, Peter Frampton, the Easybeats, David Bowie, Dusty Springfield and Cat Stevens and many, many others.
Between 1965 and 1968 hardly a week went by without a record release featuring Nicky on keyboards.
In 1967, after turning down an offer from Led Zeppelin, he joined The Jeff Beck Group, formed by former Yardbirds guitarist Jeff Beck, with vocalist Rod Stewart, bassist Ronnie Wood and drummer Micky Waller, playing on their influential LPs Truth and Beck-Ola.
After two years of gruelling schedules he settled in the warm climate of Southern California where helped define the “San Francisco sound”, playing on albums by Jefferson Airplane, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and Steve Miller Band. He briefly joined Quicksilver Messenger Service and performed with Jefferson Airplane at the Woodstock Festival. In 1968 he played piano with the Swedish psychedelic group Tages on the single “Halcyon Days”, produced in Abbey Road Studio.
Nicky joined the Rolling Stones live line-up on the 1971 Good-Bye Britain tour, as well as their 1972 North American Tour and the early ’73 Winter Tour of Australia and New Zealand. He recorded a few solo albums but remained one of the most important rock ‘n’ roll session musicians of his time.
Nicky sadly died on September 6, 1994 at age 50 in Nashville, Tennessee, of complications from intestinal surgery necessitated by his ailment.
With a discography that runs from Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Zappa, few others can boast such a wide range of credits and a presence on so many important records. As Nils Lofgren said, ‘Nicky wrote the book on rock’n’roll piano’.
July 13, 1994 – Eddie Boyd (Blues Musician) was born on November 25th 1914 near Clarksdale, on Stovall’s Plantation, Mississippi. He moved to Memphis where he formed his Dixie Rhythm Boys, after which he relocated to Chicago in 1941.
In the ’50s he wrote and recorded the hit songs “Five Long Years”, “24 Hours”, and “Third Degree”. In 1965 Eddie toured Europe with Buddy Guy’s band as part of the American Folk Blues Festival.
Later he toured and recorded with Fleetwood Mac and John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. Tired of racial discrimination he experienced in the United States, he first moved to Belgium, where he recorded with the Dutch band, Cuby and the Blizzards, then in 1970 he settled in Finland. He continued to record 10 more blues albums, and played at his last blues concert in 1984. After which he performed only gospel music.
He died in Helsinki, Finland on July 13, 1994, just a few months before Eric Clapton released a chart-topping blues album that included Eddie’s “Five Long Years” and “Third Degree”. He was 79.
August 1994 – Kristen Pfaff (Hole) One of the mourners at Kurt’s Seattle memorial was Kristen Pfaff, a member of Courtney Love’s band, Hole, and a former girlfriend of fellow member Eric Erlandson. Two months after Kurt’s death, in 1994, Pfaff died of a heroin overdose in the bath tub at her Seattle apartment, just like Jim Morrison. She was also 27, the third member of the Seattle music community to die at that age within a year.
She was a bass guitarist and a founding member of the Minnesota group Janitor Joe, and more famously, Hole.
April 5, 1994 – Kurt Cobain. (Nirvana) A very talented and very troubled rock grunge frontman, Kurt Cobain became a rock legend in the early 1990s with his band, Nirvana. He committed suicide at his Seattle home in 1994. Kurt Cobain was born February 20, 1967, in Aberdeen, Washington. In 1988, he started the grunge band Nirvana. Nirvana made the leap to a major label in 1991, signing with Geffen Records. Cobain also began using heroin around this time. Nirvana’s highly acclaimed album In Utero was released in 1993.
January 15, 1994 – Harry Edward Nilsson III aka Nilsson was born on June 15, 1941 in Brooklyn New York. His paternal grandparents were Swedish circus performers and dancers, especially known for their “aerial ballet” (which is the title of one of Nilsson’s albums). His father, Harry Edward Nilsson Jr., abandoned the family when young Harry was three. An autobiographical reference to this is found in the opening to Nilsson’s song “1941” and “Daddy’s Song”.
Because of the poor financial situation of his family, Nilsson worked from an early age, including a job at the Paramount Theatre in Los Angeles. When the theatre closed in 1960, he applied for a job at a bank, falsely claiming he was a high school graduate on his application (he only completed ninth grade). He had an aptitude for computers however, which were beginning to be employed by banks at the time. He performed so well the bank retained him even after uncovering his deception regarding being a high school graduate. He worked on bank computers at night, and in the daytime pursued his songwriting and singing career.His uncle, a mechanic in San Bernardino, California, helped Nilsson improve his vocal and musical abilities.
By 1958, Nilsson was intrigued by emerging forms of popular music, especially rhythm and blues artists like Ray Charles. He had made early attempts at performing while he was working at the Paramount, forming a vocal duo with his friend Jerry Smith and singing close harmonies in the style of the Everly Brothers. The manager at a favorite hangout gave Nilsson a plastic ukulele, which he learned to play, and he later learned to play the guitar and piano. In the 2006 documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?, Nilsson recalled that when he could not remember lyrics or parts of the melodies to popular songs, he created his own, which led to writing original songs.
Uncle John’s singing lessons, along with Nilsson’s natural talent, helped when he got a job singing demos for songwriter Scott Turner in 1962. Turner paid Nilsson five dollars for each track they recorded. (When Nilsson became famous, Turner decided to release these early recordings, and contacted Nilsson to work out a fair payment. Nilsson replied that he had already been paid – five dollars a track.)
Nilsson went on a steady track upwards to success with songwriting credits that included names like Phil Spector, Glen Campbell, Fred Astaire, the Monkees, the Shangri-Las, the Yardbirds, but did not give up his bank job until late 1966. With special admiration for his work from the Beatles and especially John Lennon, Nilsson’s name became household. (When John Lennon and Paul McCartney held a press conference in 1968 to announce the formation of Apple Corps, Lennon was asked to name his favorite American artist. He replied, “Nilsson”. McCartney was then asked to name his favorite American group. He replied, “Nilsson”.
Nilsson acquired a manager, who steered him into a handful of TV guest appearances, and a brief run of stage performances in Europe set up by RCA. He disliked the experiences he had, though, and decided to stick to the recording studio. He later admitted this was a huge mistake on his part.
Yet within a couple of years, he started making records with casual disregard for how things were done. He made albums that jumped from style to style, and from era to era. He made an album of 1940s standards long before anyone else thought of it (eat your heart out Rod Stewart!). And he was a hard-drinking artist who rarely played live.
His real breakthrough came in 1971 when he recorded Badfinger’s “Without You” with reached Billboard No.1 for 4 weeks.
Close friends with John Lennon who produced his album “Pussycats” in 1973, he also maintained an apartment in London that became a tragedy chamber with a curse as Mama Cass Elliott was found dead there in 1974 at age 32 from heart failure and the Who drummer Keith Moon four years later also at age 32 from an overdose of Clomethiazole, a prescribed anti-alcohol drug.
Nilsson was profoundly affected by the death of John Lennon on December 8, 1980. He joined the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and overcame his preference for privacy to make appearances for gun control fundraising. He began to appear at Beatlefest conventions and he would get on stage with the Beatlefest house band “Liverpool” to either sing some of his own songs or “Give Peace a Chance.”
After a long hiatus from the studio, Nilsson started recording sporadically once again in the mid to late 1980s. Most of these recordings were commissioned songs for movies or television shows. One notable exception was his work on a Yoko Ono Lennon tribute album, Every Man Has A Woman (1984); another was a cover of “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” recorded for Hal Willner’s 1988 tribute album Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films. Nilsson donated his performance royalties from the song to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
His career took several turns before he passed away but it was always interesting and it rarely repeated itself.
Nilsson himself passed away on January 15, 1994 at his California home from heart failure.