December 31, 1997 – Floyd Cramer was born in Shreveport Louisiana on October 27th 1933 but grew up in Huttig, Arkansas where he taught himself the piano.
After finishing high school in 1951, he returned to Shreveport, where he worked as a pianist for the Louisiana Hayride radio show where he performed with the likes of Jim Reeves, Faron Young, Webb Pierce, and, in his debut, Elvis Presley.
In 1953, he cut his first single, “Dancin’ Diane”, backed with “Little Brown Jug”, for the local Abbott label. During 1955 he played dates with an emerging talent who would later figure significantly in his career, Elvis Presley.
Cramer moved to Nashville in 1955 where the use of piano accompanists in country music was growing in popularity. By the next year he was, in his words, “in day and night doing session”. Before long, he was one of the busiest studio musicians in the industry, playing piano for stars such as Elvis Presley, Brenda Lee, Patsy Cline, the Browns, Jim Reeves, Eddy Arnold, Roy Orbison, Don Gibson, and the Everly Brothers, among others. It was Cramer’s piano playing, for instance, on Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel”.
In 1957, Cramer released his own solo debut, That Honky-Tonk Piano, and in the next year scored a minor pop hit with the single “Flip, Flop and Bop.” As his solo career was largely secondary in relation to his session work, he recorded his own music sporadically, but in 1960 notched a significant country and pop hit with the self-penned instrumental “Last Date.”
The instrumental exhibited a relatively new concept for piano playing known as the “slip note” style. The record went to No.2 on the Billboard Hot 100. He went on to make numerous albums and toured with guitar maestro Chet Atkins and saxophonist Boots Randolph, also performing with them as a member of the Million Dollar Band.
From 1965 to 1974, Cramer annually released a Class Of… album, a collection of the year’s top hits done in his own inimitable style. In 1971, he also teamed with Atkins and saxophonist Boots Randolph for the album Chet, Floyd and Boots. By 1977, Cramer was exploring modern technology, and on the LP Keyboard Kick Band, he played eight different keyboard instruments, including a synthesizer.
In 1980, he released his last significant hit, a recording of the theme from the hit TV drama Dallas. Though largely quiet for most of the decade, in 1988 Cramer released three separate albums — Country Gold, Just Me and My Piano!, and Special Songs of Love.
In 2003, he was inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 1961 he was quoted saying: “Trying to launch myself on a solo career, after being Elvis Presley’s pianist for so long, placed me in an unenviable position. Some people thought I was trying to cash in. If I had wanted to cash in on my association with Elvis, I would have done it five years ago.”
He died in Nashville, Tennessee after a fight with lung cancer on Dec 31, 1997 at the age of 64.
December 19, 1997 – Jimmie Rogers was born Jay Arthur Lane in Ruleville, Mississippi on June 3, 1924. Raised in Atlanta, St.Louis and Memphis, he adopted his stepfather’s surname Rogers. He learned to play the harmonica with his childhood friend Snooky Pryor and as a teenager he took up the guitar.
Big Bill Broonzy, Joe Willie Wilkins, and Robert Lockwood all influenced him, the latter two when he passed through Helena.
He started playing professionally in his late teens with Robert Lockwood Jr. in East St. Louis, Illinois .
Rogers then moved to Chicago in the mid-1940s. By 1946, he had recorded as a harmonica player and singer for the Harlem record label, run by J. Mayo Williams. Rogers’s name however did not appear on the record, which was mislabeled as the work of Memphis Slim and His Houserockers.
In that same year he began playing professionally, gigging with Sonny Boy Williamson, Sunnyland Slim, and Broonzy.
Rogers was playing harp with guitarist Blue Smitty when Muddy Waters joined them. When Smitty split, Little Walter was welcomed into the configuration and Rogers switched over to second guitar and as a direct consequence the entire post-war Chicago blues genre felt the stylistic earthquake that instantly followed.
Rogers made his recorded debut as a leader in 1947 for the tiny Ora-Nelle logo, but then saw his efforts for Regal and Apollo go unissued. Those labels’ monumental errors in judgment were the gain of Leonard Chess, who recognized the comparatively smooth-voiced Rogers’ potential as a blues star in his own right. (He first played with Muddy Waters on an Aristocrat 78 in 1949 and remained his indispensable rhythm guitarist on wax into 1955.)
With Walter and bassist Big Crawford laying down support, Rogers’ debut Chess single in 1950, “That’s All Right,” has earned standard status after countless covers, but his version still reigns supreme.
Rogers’ artistic quality was remarkably high while at Chess. “The World Is in a Tangle,” “Money, Marbles and Chalk,” “Back Door Friend,” “Left Me with a Broken Heart,” “Act Like You Love Me,” and the 1954 rockers “Sloppy Drunk” and “Chicago Bound” are essential early-’50s Chicago blues.
In 1955, Rogers left Muddy Waters to venture out as a bandleader, cutting another gem, “You’re the One,” for Chess. He made his only appearance on Billboard’s R&B charts in early 1957 with the driving “Walking by Myself,” which boasted a stunning harp solo from Big Walter Horton (a last-second stand-in for no-show Good Rockin’ Charles). The tune itself was an adaptation of a T-Bone Walker tune, “Why Not,” that Rogers had played rhythm guitar on when Walker cut it for Atlantic.
By 1957, blues was losing favor at Chess, the label reaping the rewards of rock and roll via Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Rogers’ platters slowed to a trickle, though his 1959 Chess farewell, “Rock This House,” ranked with his most exciting outings (Reggie Boyd’s light-fingered guitar wasn’t the least of its charms).
In the early 1960s Rogers briefly worked as a member of Howling Wolf’s band, before quitting the music business altogether for almost a decade. He worked as a taxicab driver and owned a clothing store, which burned down in the 1968 Chicago riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Rogers gradually began performing in public again, and in 1971, when fashions made him somewhat popular in Europe, he began occasionally touring and recording, including a 1977 session with Waters. By 1982, Rogers was again a full-time solo artist. He continued touring and recording albums until his death.
He returned to the studio in 1972 for Leon Russell’s Shelter logo, cutting his first LP, Gold-Tailed Bird (with help from the Aces and Freddie King). There were a few more fine albums – notably Ludella, a 1990 set for Antone’s – but Rogers never fattened his discography as much as some of his contemporaries did.
He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1995.
Rogers died on December 19, 1997 from colon cancer. At the time of his death, he was working on an all-star project featuring contributions from Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards; upon its completion, the disc was issued posthumously in early 1999 under the title Blues, Blues, Blues.
December 16, 1997 – Nicolette Larson was born on July 17th 1952 in Helena, Montana. Her father’s employment with the U.S. Treasury Department forced frequent relocation on Larson’s family, not an easy task for a family of eight. The Larsons moved every couple of years and the young Nicolette was exposed to every genre of music from soul to pop via country. She especially liked Hank Williams and her singing was undoubtedly influenced by Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn, but her peripatetic childhood and varied taste would later be reflected in albums containing Tamla Motown material alongside songs by Sam Cooke, Burt Bacharah and Jackson Browne.
December 14, 1997 –Kurt Winter was born Kurt Frank Winter in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on April 2, 1946. He attended Daniel McIntyre Collegiate Institute. Winter commenced the development of his music career with a number of Winnipeg bands, including Gettysbyrg Address (1967, with later Guess Who bass player Bill Wallace), The Fifth (1968, with drummer Vance Masters) and Brother (late 1969, with Wallace and Masters). Brother was regarded as Winnipeg’s first supergroup, playing all original material, the live shows of which were greatly admired by vocalist Burton Cummings.
He was not involved in the writing of “American Woman”, the Guess Who’s international superhit in 1969.
November 22, 1997 – Michael Hutchence was born on January 22nd 1960 in Sydney Australia, but spent much of his early childhood in Hong Kong where at the age of eight he made his professional debut singing in a commercial for a toy company.
Back in Australia as a young teenager in high school he befriended Andrew Farriss who was a talented lyricist, with whom he co-wrote almost all of INXS’ (inExcess) songs, and who in tun has attributed his own success as a songwriter to Hutchence’s ‘genius.’
Hutchence and Farriss would spend a lot of time jamming in the garage with Andrew’s brothers. Farriss then convinced Hutchence to join his band, Doctor Dolphin, alongside two classmates, Kent Kerny and Neil Sanders. From a nearby High School, bass guitarist Garry Beers and Geoff Kennelly on drums filled out the line-up and they became serious about the idea of starting a proper band. However his parents’ breakup saw him spending time in California and it was not until 1977 that the band formally took shape as the Vegetables, followed by the Farriss Bros band and finally in 1979 as INXS. Their first album INXS put them on the map with several no 1 hits and Hutchence became the epitomy of the typical rock and roll frontman.
Hutchence became the main spokesperson for the band and, according to rock music historian, Ian McFarlane, “He was the archetypal rock showman. He exuded an overtly sexual, macho cool with his flowing locks, and lithe and exuberant stage movements”. Close friends and family, however, maintain he was more introverted than his on-stage persona, even though his moves into the arena of movie acting in the 1980s would dispute that statement.
He died a victim of love on Nov 22, 1997 at the age of 37 (Asphyxiation)
The Coroner’s Conclusion:
On consideration of the entirety of the evidence I am satisfied Michael Hutchence was in a severe depressed state on the morning of November 22, 1997. Hutchence’s blood showed traces of alcohol, cocaine, Prozac and prescription drugs. This was due to a number of factors, including the relationship with Paula Yates and the pressure of the ongoing dispute with Sir Robert Geldof, combined with the effects of the substances that he had ingested at that time. I am satisfied the cause of death was “hanging”. I am also satisfied there was no other person involved in causing the death. Nothing will be gained by holding a formal inquest.
Hutchence co-founded the rock band INXS, which sold over 75 million records worldwide.
Hutchence attended Davidson High School, where he met and befriended Andrew Farriss. Around this time, Hutchence and Farriss spent a lot of time jamming in the garage with Andrew’s brothers. Farriss then convinced Hutchence to join his band, Doctor Dolphin.
Hutchence, the Farriss brothers, Kerny, Sanders, Beers and Kennelly briefly performed as The Vegetables, singing “We Are the Vegetables”. Ten months later, they returned to Sydney and recorded a set of demos. The Farriss Brothers regularly supported hard rockers Midnight Oil on the pub rock circuit, and were renamed as INXS in 1979.
In May 1980, the group released their first single, “Simple Simon”/”We Are the Vegetables” which was followed by the debut album INXS in October. The early records demonstrated their new wave/ska/pop style, and were followed by near constant touring with almost 300 shows during 1981 as the band developed their status as a live act.
In October 1981, their second album Underneath the Colours was released and became a hit in Australia peaking at No. 15.
In October 1982, Shabooh Shoobah was released internationally on Atlantic/Atco Records, peaking at No. 52 on the US Billboard 200 and No. 46 on the Hot Pop Albums chart. In Australia it peaked at No. 5 and remained in the albums charts for 94 weeks. The single “The One Thing” brought them their first Top 30 hit in United States peaking at No 30.
INXS undertook their first US performance in San Diego in March 1983, to a crowd of 24 patrons. Their first tour was as support for Adam and the Ants, then support for Stray Cats, The Kinks, Hall & Oates followed by The Go-Go’s.
The album The Swing, released in April 1984, received significant attention from around the world, as “Original Sin” became the band’s first No. 1 single in Australia and was popular worldwide. During 1984, INXS toured non-stop, performing across Europe, the UK, the US and Australia. By December 1984, The Swing had gone double platinum, making it one of the five biggest domestic albums in the history of Australian music at the time.
In March 1985, the band re-entered Sydney’s Rhinoceros Studios to record their next album, together with producer Chris Thomas (Sex Pistols, Pink Floyd, The Pretenders, Elton John). As the band was finishing the recording sessions, Thomas stated that the album was not good enough and still had no “killer” track. Andrew produced a demo tape of a funk song he had been working on called “Funk Song No. 13” and evolved it into “What You Need”.
Listen Like Thieves was released in October 1985 to critical approval, reaching No. 3 on the Australian charts and No. 11 on the US charts. With the release of Listen Like Thieves, the band developed a rock sound influenced by Led Zeppelin and XTC while remaining true to the band’s original roots in Aussie pubs. It was also the first album to feature songs written by a combination of band members, with Andrew Farris and Hutchence becoming the primary songwriters.
Kick was released in October 1987 and provided the band with worldwide popularity. The album peaked at No. 1 in Australia, No. 3 on the US Billboard 200. It was an upbeat, confident album that yielded four Top 10 US singles: No. 1 single “Need You Tonight”, “Devil Inside”, “New Sensation”, and “Never Tear Us Apart”.
In October 1990, INXS released X, and scored hits with “Suicide Blonde” and “Disappear”. INXS performed at Wembley Stadium on 13 July 1991, during their “Summer XS” tour stop in London to a sold-out audience of 74,000 fans.This performance was recorded and filmed to become Live Baby Live, a live album that was released in November 1991.
From that point on, they released albums with decline in popularity but still was a major live act draw.
On 22 November 1997, Michael Hutchence was found dead in his Sydney Ritz-Carlton hotel room.
Hutchence and English television presenter Paula Yates had a daughter, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily.
November 10, 1997 – Tommy Tedesco (session guitarist) was born on July 3rd 1930 in Niagara Falls. It took him almost 30 years to make his way to the West Coast, but once there he became one of the most sought after studio musicians between the 1960s and the 1980s. Although Tedesco was primarily a guitar player, he also played the mandolin, ukulele, and the sitar as well as 28 other stringed instruments (though he played all of them in guitar tuning!).
Guitar magazine described him as the most recorded guitarist in history, having played on thousands of recordings, including the Beach Boys, Everly Brothers, The Association, Barbra Streisand, Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Zappa, Sam Cooke, Cher, and Nancy and Frank Sinatra. He recorded with most of the top acts in the Los Angeles arena. TV themes include Bonanza, The Twilight Zone, Green Acres, M*A*S*H, Batman, and Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special. Continue reading Tommy Tedesco 11/1997
October 19, 1997 – Glen Edward Buxton was born on November 10, 1947. He became an American guitarist for the original Alice Cooper band. In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked Buxton number 90 on its list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. In 2011, he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Alice Cooper band.
Born in Akron, Ohio, Buxton moved to Phoenix, Arizona and in 1964, while attending Cortez High School, made his debut in a rock band called The Earwigs. It was composed of fellow high school students Dennis Dunaway and Vincent Furnier (Alice Cooper). They were popular, and changed their name to The Spiders in 1965 and later to The Nazz in 1967. In 1968, to avoid legal entanglements with the Todd Rundgren-led Nazz, Buxton’s band changed their name to Alice Cooper.
October 12, 1997 – John Denver, was born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr in Roswell, New Mexico on December 31st 1943. At the age of 12, he received a 1910 Gibson acoustic jazz guitar from his grandmother and he taught himself to play it well enough to play locally as a teenager in groups such as the folk-music group “The Alpine Trio”.
John went on to become one of the most popular acoustic artists of the 1970s in terms of record sales, he recorded and released around 300 songs, about 200 of which he composed himself.
He was named Poet Laureate of Colorado in 1977. Songs such as “Leaving on a Jet Plane”, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, “Rocky Mountain High”, “Sunshine on My Shoulders”, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”, “Annie’s Song” and “Calypso” attained worldwide popularity.
August 12, 1997 – Luther Allison (blues great) was born on August 17, 1939 in Widener, Arkansas. He was the 14th of 15 children, the son of cotton farmers. His parents moved to Chicago when he was in his early teens, but he had a solid awareness of blues before he left Arkansas, as he played organ in the church and learned to sing gospel in Widener as well. Allison recalled that his earliest awareness of blues came via the family radio in Arkansas, which his dad would play at night. Allison recalls listening to both the Grand Ole Opry and B.B. King on the King Biscuit Show on Memphis’ WDIA. Although he was a talented baseball player and had begun to learn the shoemaking trade in Chicago after high school, it wasn’t long before Allison began to focus more of his attention on playing blues guitar. Allison had been hanging out in blues clubs all through high school, and with his brother’s encouragement, he honed his string-bending skills and powerful, soul-filled vocal technique.
June 27, 1997 – Israel “Iz” Ka’ano’i Kamakawiwo’ole was born on May 20, 1959 in Honolulu, Hawaii, three months before the Hawaiian Islands would become America’s 50th state. In Hawaiian his last name translates to “the fearless eye, the bold face”. Notable Hawaiian musician Moe Keale was his uncle and became a major musical influence. He was raised in the community of Kaimuki, where his parents had met and married. He began playing music with his older brother Skippy and cousin Allen Thornton at the age of 11, being exposed to the music of Hawaiian entertainers of the time such as Peter Moon, Palani Vaughn and Don Ho, who frequented the establishment where Kamakawiwoʻole’s parents worked. Hawaiian musician Del Beazley spoke of the first time he heard Israel play, when, while playing for a graduation party, the whole room fell silent on hearing him. Israel continued his path as his brother Skippy entered the Army in 1971 and cousin Allen parted ways in 1976 for the mainland.
In his early teens, he studied at Upward Bound (UB) of the University of Hawaii at Hilo and his family moved to Mākaha. There he met Louis “Moon” Kauakahi, Sam Gray and Jerome Koko. Together with his brother Skippy they formed the Makaha Sons of Niʻihau. A part of the Hawaiian Renaissance, the band’s blend of contemporary and traditional styles gained in popularity as they toured Hawaii and the continental United States, releasing fifteen successful albums. Kamakawiwo’ole’s aim was to make music that stayed true to the typical sound of traditional Hawaiian music. During that time period, the songs that many people associated with Hawaii, typically, were not traditional-sounding songs.
The Makaha Sons of Niʻihau recorded No Kristo in 1976 and released four more albums, including Kahea O Keale, Keala, Makaha Sons of Niʻihau and Mahalo Ke Akua. In 1982, Kamakawiwoʻole’s brother, Skippy, died at age 28 of a heart attack related to obesity. In that same year, Kamakawiwoʻole married his childhood sweetheart Marlene. Soon after, they had a daughter whom they named Ceslie-Ann “Wehi”.
The group became Hawaii’s most popular modern traditional group with breakout albums 1984’s Puana Hou Me Ke Aloha and its follow-up, 1986’s Hoʻola. Kamakawiwoʻole’s last recorded album with the group was 1991’s Hoʻoluana. It remains the group’s top-selling CD.
In 1990, Kamakawiwoʻole released his first solo album Ka ʻAnoʻi, which won awards for Contemporary Album of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year from the Hawaiʻi Academy of Recording Arts (HARA). Facing Future was released in 1993 by The Mountain Apple Company. It featured his most popular song, the medley “Somewhere over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World”, along with “Hawaiʻi 78”, “White Sandy Beach of Hawaiʻi”, “Maui Hawaiian Sup’pa Man”, and “Kaulana Kawaihae”. The decision to include a cover of Somewhere Over the Rainbow was said to be a last-minute decision by his producer Jon de Mello and him.
Facing Future debuted at #25 on Billboard magazine’s Top Pop Catalogue chart. On October 26, 2005, Facing Future became Hawaii’s first certified platinum album, selling more than a million CDs in the United States, according to figures furnished by the Recording Industry Association of America. On July 21, 2006, BBC Radio 1 announced that “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World (True Dreams)” would be released as a single in America. Facing Future became the best-selling Hawaiian album of all time.
In 1994, Iz, nicknamed Bruddah Iz was voted favorite entertainer of the year by the Hawaiʻi Academy of Recording Arts. E Ala E released in 1995, featured the political title song “ʻE Ala ʻE” and “Kaleohano”, and N Dis Life (1996) featured “In This Life” and “Starting All Over Again”.
In 1997, Kamakawiwoʻole was again honored by HARA at the Annual Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards for Male Vocalist of the Year, Favorite Entertainer of the Year, Album of the Year, and Island Contemporary Album of the Year. He watched the awards ceremony from a hospital room.
Alone in Iz World (2001) debuted at #1 on Billboard’s World Chart and #135 on Billboard’s Top 200, #13 on the Top Independent Albums Chart, and #15 on the Top Internet Album Sales charts.
Throughout his life, Kamakawiwoʻole was morbidly obese and at one point weighed 757 pounds (343 kg; 54.1 st) standing 6-foot-2-inch (1.88 m) tall (body mass index = 97.2). He endured several hospitalizations because of health problems caused by his weight. Beset with respiratory, heart, and other medical problems, he died at the age of 38 in Queen’s Medical Center at 12:18 a.m. on June 26, 1997.
The Hawaiian state flag flew at half-staff on July 10, 1997, the day of Kamakawiwoʻole’s funeral. His koa wood coffin lay in state at the state capitol building in Honolulu. He was the third person in Hawaiian history to be awarded this honor, and the only one who was not a government official. Approximately ten thousand people attended the funeral. Thousands of fans gathered as his ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean at Mākua Beach on July 12, 1997. Scenes from the funeral and scattering of Kamakawiwoʻole’s ashes were featured in official music videos of “Over the Rainbow” released posthumously by Mountain Apple Company. As of October 2016, the two videos as featured on YouTube have collectively received over 279 million views.
June 20, 1997 – Lawrence Payton (the Four Tops) was born on March 2, 1938 in Detroit, Michigan.
At age 15 he became a founding member of The Four Tops, founded in Detroit, Michigan as The Four Aims. The four members -Lawrence, Levi Stubbs, Abdul “Duke” Fakir, and Renaldo “Obie” Benson- met at a party in Detroit in 1953 and the next year began singing around town as the Four Aims. To avoid confusion with the Ames Brothers, they soon changed their name and in 1956 signed a recording contract with Chess Records in 1956, with the help of Payton’s cousin, Roquel Davis, who joined the group as a songwriter.
For Chess they recorded the song, “Kiss Me Baby” but it was a flop and went onto record with the Red Top and Riverside Record Labels. In 1960 they signed with Columbia and had a better success with jazz and pop music.
In 1963 they recorded with Berry Gordy’s Motown Label, and released the album, ‘Breaking Through.’ Gordy later put them back into R&B material and put them with Motown’s Holland-Dozier-Holland writing team.
After a full decade the group had numerous hits including “Baby I Need Your Lovin’,” a Top Ten hit in 1964, “Ask The Lonely,” a hit in 1965, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugarpie, Honeybunch),” #1 in the spring of 1965, “It’s The Same Old Song,” a Top Five hit in 1965, “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” one of their finest singles ever, released in 1966, “Standing In The Shadows Of Love,” a Top Ten hit in 1967, “Bernadette,” a Top Five hit in 1967, “7 Rooms of Gloom,” a Top Twenty hit in 1967, “You Keep Running Away,” a Top Twenty hit in 1967, and two 1968 hits, “If I Were A Carpenter” and “Walk Away Renee.”
In 1970 they joined producer Frank Wilson and they recorded a pop standard of Tommy Edward’s, “It’s All In The Game” and a ballad with ‘the Supremes’ entitled, “River Deep, Mountain High” in 1971.
In 1972 they left Motown and joined ABC-Dunhill, teaming up with Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, and released, “Keeper Of The Castle” a Top Ten hit, and “Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I’ve Got)” a smash hit that was their last Top Five Pop hit. In 1973 they recorded the theme song for the film, “Shaft In Africa” and released the song, “Catfish” in 1976. In 1981 they signed with the Casablanca Record Label and released, “When She Was My Girl” a Top Ten hit. In 1983 they rejoined Motown and in 1988 left and signed with Arista Records, where they recorded, “Indestructible” a Top 40 Pop hit, which was their last.
They remained together for over four decades, having gone from 1953 until 1997 without a single change in personnel and they helped define the Motown Sound of the 1960s.
After their hey days, the Four Tops worked steadily, performing in Las Vegas showrooms, small clubs and large arenas, emerging occasionally with a hit record, such as “When She Was My Girl” in 1981. Among their performing venues in Southern California were Humphrey’s on Shelter Island in San Diego, the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts and several clubs in Los Angeles, where they recorded with ABC-Dunhill records.
In 1990 they were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
Lawrence was the one who created the smooth, sharp jazz – pop hamonies for the group on their many hits such as “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” and “Reach Out I’ll Be There”. Levi Stubbs, the group’s over-shadowing popular lead singer, said that Payton was crucial to the Tops because “he was responsible for the harmony.”
Payton died in June 1997 of liver cancer at the age of 59. He was later replaced by Theo Peoples.
June 19, 1997 – Robert Lee “Bobby” Helms was born on August 15, 1933 in Helmsburg near Bloomington, Indiana.
Though his name is unfamiliar to most, Bobby Helms rules the airwaves every year around December 25th. His single “Jingle Bell Rock” first became a hit in 1957, and it reappeared on the charts four of the following five years to become an all-time Christmas classic. Before he was pigeonholed, though, Helms had a successful country career with two number one hits to his credit.
Helms first performed on his father Fred’s Monroe County Jamboree, singing while brother Freddie played guitar. The Helms Brothers, as they were billed, became a regional attraction. Bobby later cut a single called “Tennessee Rock and Roll,” but then returned to Bloomington to appear on the Hayloft Frolic television show. While on the program, he was encouraged to go to Nashville to sing background vocals on an Ernest Tubb session. Tubb recommended him to Decca Records, and the label signed him in 1956. His debut single, “Fraulein” initially flopped in January 1957 but then hit number one on the country chart in April. (The song also hit the pop Top 40 in July of 1957.) In October, Helms released another number one, “My Special Angel,” which stayed four weeks at the top and crossed over to number seven on the pop charts.
Helms’ next recording was “Jingle Bell Rock”; though Decca released it only two days before Christmas 1957, the single still peaked at number six on the pop chart. It took five years for the song to become a second million-seller for Helms. It reached No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and spent 21 weeks in the chart.
The record gained gold disc status. Accounts that Helms wrote and recorded the song with Hank Garland seem to be apocryphal—ASCAP and Allmusic list the writers of the song as Joseph Beal, Joseph Carlton, James Ross and James Boothe.
Two 1958 singles – “Just a Little Lonesome” and “Jacqueline” – hit the country Top Ten but flopped elsewhere, though a reissue of “Jingle Bell Rock” made the pop Top 40. The country single “Lonely River Rhine” hit the Top 20 in 1960, but subsequent new material from Helms had little success. (Decca reissued his Christmas hit each year from 1960 to 1962 with diminishing returns.)
Helms toured throughout the ’60s and recorded two albums for Kapp in 1966, I’m the Man and Sorry My Name Isn’t Fred — a nod either to brother Freddie or father Fred. Two years later, he released All New Just for You on the Little Darlin’ label. Several singles placed modestly on the country charts during 1967-1968, including “He Thought He’d Die Laughing” and “So Long.” The 1970 Certron single “Mary Goes ‘Round” was his last hit, but Helms recorded Pop-a-Billy for MCA as late as 1983.
Helms spent most of his later years living just outside Martinsville, Indiana, until his death from emphysema and asthma at the age of 63 on June 18, 1997.
He was portrayed by actor Brad Hawkins in the 2007 film Crazy.
Another record by Helms was “Schoolboy Crush”, which was a hit in the UK. It was released in the USA on June 23, 1958 on Decca. The same song was then covered by UK teen star Cliff Richard about the same time as the UK release.
June 16, 1997 – John Christian Wolters was born on April 28th 1945 in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey.
He became part of the already established country rock band Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show in 1973, when Jay David left the band, and stayed until 1985, when the band split up.
The band had a global smash with “Sylvia’s Mother” and a top-10 hit with “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” before Wolters replaced their original drummer on Fried Face (1974). In 1976 Dr. Hook (by then they had dropped the rest of their moniker) had a top-10 hit with a cover of Sam Cooke‘s “Only Sixteen” and a #11 hit with the title track of A Little Bit More.
Dr. Hook had several more hits including, the top-10 singles “Sharing the Night Together” (1978) and “When You’re in Love With a Beautiful Woman” (1979) as well as the top-five “Sexy Eyes” (1980).
The band had more than 35 gold and platinum LPs in Australia and Scandinavia, where they toured to large crowds until their 1985 split.
He died at age 52 of liver cancer in San Francisco, California on June 16, 1997.
June 4, 1997 – Ronald Frederick “Ronnie” Lane (The Small Faces) was born on April 1, 1946 in Plaistow, a working class area in the East End of London, England.
He described his father, a truck driver, as a “saint”, who would work a long work day and then return home to nurse his wife and two sons, all of whom were diagnosed with M.S. at differing points in their lives. Doctors assured Lane as a child that the destructive disease was not necessarily inherited, although he found out later in his life that he had indeed inherited it.
After leaving school at the age of sixteen, Lane met Kenney Jones at a local pub, and they formed a group they named The Outcasts. Initially playing lead guitar, Lane quickly switched to bass. When shopping for a Harmony bass guitar, Lane visited the J60 Music Bar in Manor Park, London, where he met Steve Marriott, who was working there. Lane bought his bass guitar and went to Marriott’s house after work, where Marriott introduced him to his Motown and Stax collection. Lane and Marriott set out to form a band, recruiting friends Kenney Jones and Jimmy Winston, who switched from guitar to organ. Marriott was chosen to be the frontman and singer. (by 1966 Winston was replaced by Ian McLagan as the band’s keyboardist). The name the Small Faces came from the fact that all band members were less than 5′.5″ tall.
Lane and Marriott began writing hit song after hit song, including “Itchycoo Park”, “Tin Soldier”, Lazy Sunday” and “All or Nothing”. At least a dozen successful songs credit Lane, and their concept album Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, they later evolved into one of the UK’s most successful psychedelic acts before disbanding in 1969 when Steve Marriott left to pursue a solo career.
Lane then formed the Faces with McLagan, Jones, Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart in 1969. He shared primary songwriting duties with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood, composing, or co-composing, many of their best-loved pieces and taking a central role during the recording of their fourth and final album, Ooh La La, particularly, as the band’s front man Rod Stewart focused on his own solo career. Unhappy due to poor reviews of the album and Stewart’s lack of commitment, Lane quit in 1973, making his last appearance at the Sundown Theatre in Edmonton, London, on 4 June. He was replaced by Tetsu Yamauchi but tellingly, the group made no further studio albums following Lane’s departure and split in 1975. After which Ronnie, Ian and Kenney were joined by Ronnie Wood (guitar) and Rod Stewart (lead vocals), both from The Jeff Beck Group, and the new line-up was renamed Faces.
Ronnie left Faces in 1973 to form his own band, Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance. The same year they recorded the hit singles “How Come” and “The Poacher”, then the album “Anymore For Anymore”, showcasing his own blend of UK rock, folk, and country music.
During the recording of Rough Mix, (lauded as contender for best album of the year by many critics, but the label did not promote it and sales were lackluster), Lane’s multiple sclerosis was diagnosed. Nonetheless he toured, wrote and recorded (with Eric Clapton among others) and in 1979 released another album, See Me, which features several songs written by Lane and Clapton. Around this time Lane travelled the highways and byways of England and lived a ‘passing show’ modern nomadic life in full Gypsy traveller costume and accommodation.
In 1983 his girlfriend Boo Oldfield contacted Glyn Johns with a view to organising a concert to help fund Action for Research into Multiple Sclerosis. Johns was already arranging Clapton’s Command Performance for Prince Charles so they decided to book the Royal Albert Hall for a further two nights and host a benefit concert. The resulting ARMS Charity Concerts. featured Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood, Kenney Jones, Andy Fairweather-Low, Steve Winwood, Ray Cooper, James Hooker, Fernando Saunders, Chris Stainton, Tony Hymas, Simon Phillips and others. With the addition of Joe Cocker and Paul Rodgers they all toured the US. It was during this time that Rodgers and Page started the band, The Firm.
Ronnie and his Family moved to Texas in 1984, where the climate was more beneficial to his health, and continued playing, writing, and recording. He formed an American version of Slim Chance. For close to a decade Ronnie enjoyed his rock status in the Austin area and even toured Japan.
His health continued to decline, and his last performance was in 1992 at a Ronnie Wood gig. Also in the band that night was Ian McLagan.
In 1994 Ronnie and his wife Susan moved to the small town of Trinidad, Colorado. Jimmy Page, Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood continued to fund his medical care because no royalties from the Small Faces’ work was forthcoming until Kenney Jones and Ian McLagan were eventually able to secure payments, by which time Steve Marriott had died in a house fire and Lane had also died.
Lane succumbed to pneumonia, in the final stages of his progressive multiple sclerosis, on June 4, 1997 and was buried in the Masonic Cemetery in Trinidad, Colorado. He was 51. An album of live BBC recordings was about to be released to raise money for his care when he died.
For his work in both Small Faces and Faces, Lane was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.
May 29, 1997 – Jeff Buckley was born in California’s Orange County on November 17, 1966 and died in a tragic drowning accident in Memphis on May 29, 1997. He had emerged in New York City’s avant-garde club scene in the 1990’s as one of the most remarkable musical artists of his generation, acclaimed by audiences, critics, and fellow musicians alike. His first commercial recording, the four-song EP Live At Sin-é, was released in December 1993 on Columbia Records. The EP captured Buckley, accompanying himself on electric guitar, in a tiny coffeehouse in New York’s East Village, the neighborhood he’d made his home.
By the time of the EP’s release during the fall of 1993, Buckley had already entered the studio with Mick Grondahl (bass), Matt Johnson (drummer), and producer Andy Wallace and recorded seven original songs (including “Grace” and “Last Goodbye”) and three covers (among them Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, Benjamin Britten’s “Corpus Christi Carol”) that comprised his debut album Grace. Guitarist Michael Tighe became a permanent member of Jeff Buckley’s ensemble and went on to co-write and perform on Grace’s “So Real” just prior to the release of the album.
In early 1994, not long after Live At Sin-é appeared in stores, Jeff Buckley toured clubs, lounges, and coffeehouses in North America as a solo artist from January 15-March 5 as well as in Europe from March 11-22. Following extensive rehearsals in April-May 1994, Buckley’s “Peyote Radio Theatre Tour” found him on the road with his band from June 2-August 16. His full-length full-band album, Grace, was released in the United States on August 23, 1994, the same day Buckley and band kicked off a European tour in Dublin, Ireland; the 1994 European Tour ran through September 22, with Buckley and Ensemble performing at the CMJ convention at New York’s Supper Club on September 24. The group headed back into America’s clublands for a Fall Tour lasting from October 19-December 18.
On New Year’s Eve 1994-95, Buckley returned to Sin-é to perform a solo set; on New Year’s Day, he read an original poem at the annual St. Mark’s Church Marathon Poetry Reading. Two weeks later, he and his band were back in Europe for gigs in Dublin, Bristol, and London before launching an extensive tour of Japan, France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Belgium, and the United Kingdom which lasted from January 29-March 5. On April 13 1995, it was announced that Jeff Buckley’s Grace had earned him France’s prestigious “Gran Prix International Du Disque — Academie Charles CROS — 1995”; an award given by a jury of producers, journalists, the president of France Culture, and music industry professionals, it had previously been given to Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Yves Montand, Georges Brassens, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell, among other musical luminaries. France also awarded Buckley a gold record certification for Grace.
From March 5 through April 20, Buckley and his band rehearsed for an American spring tour with gigs running from April 22-June 2. From June through August, Jeff and company toured the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and Switzerland. The band took off for Down Under to play six Australian shows between August 28-September 6, 1995. In November 1995, Buckley played two unannounced solo shows at Sin-é.He performed songs including the new “Woke Up In A Strange Place” on Vin Scelsa’s “Idiot’s Delight” show on WXRK-FM on December 17 and celebrated New Year’s Eve 1995-96 with performances at New York’s Mercury Lounge and Sin-é.
Jeff Buckley and his touring ensemble went back to Australia, where Grace had earned a gold record certification, for the “Hard Luck Tour,” which ran from February 9-March 1 of 1996. Drummer Matt Johnson left the group after the final Australian show. The posthumous album Jeff Buckley-Mystery White Boy brings together some of the high points from Jeff’s 1995-1996 live performances. The DVD/home video release Jeff Buckley-Live In Chicago documents, in its entirety, Jeff’s concert at The Cabaret Metro in Chicago on May 13, 1995.
In May of ’96, Jeff played four gigs as a bass player with Mind Science of the Mind, a side-project of Buckley’s friend, Nathan Larson of Shudder To Think. In September ’96, Buckley played another unannounced solo gig at his old favorite haunt Sin-é. December of 1996 found Jeff Buckley embarking on his “phantom solo tour”; designed to experiment with new songs in a live setting (as in his Sin-é days), these unannounced solo gigs throughout the Northeast U.S. were played under a succession of aliases: the Crackrobats, Possessed By Elves, Father Demo, Smackrobiotic, the Halfspeeds, Crit Club, Topless America, Martha & the Nicotines, and A Puppet Show Named Julio.
At midnight on February 9, 1997, Jeff Buckley debuted his new drummer, Parker Kindred, in a show at Arlene Grocery on New York’s Lower East Side. He also played a couple of solo gigs in New York during the first months of 1997: a gig at the Daydream Cafe (featuring band members Mick Grondahl and Michael Tighe as “special guests”) and a solo performance February 4 as part of the Knitting Factory’s 10-Year Birthday Party.
Buckley and his band had recorded intermittently — with Tom Verlaine as producer — during Summer/Fall 1996 and early winter 1997 in New York and in February 1997 in Memphis. After the conclusion of those sessions, Jeff sent the band back to New York while, during March and April 1997, he remained in Memphis and continued to craft his work-in-progress, making various four-track home recordings of songs to present to his bandmates. Some of these were revisions of the songs recorded with Verlaine, some were brand new compositions, and some were surprising cover versions. The new lineup debuted Buckley’s new songs at Barrister’s in Memphis on February 12 and 13. Beginning March 31, Jeff began a series of regularly scheduled Monday night solo performances at Barrister’s. His last show there was on Monday, May 26, 1997. The night Buckley died, he was on his way to meet his band to begin three weeks of rehearsals for my sweetheart, the drunk; producer Andy Wallace, who’d helmed the boards on Grace, was to join them in Memphis in late June to record his new album.
On the evening of May 29, 1997, Buckley’s band flew to Memphis intending to join him in his studio there to work on the newly written material. That same evening, Buckley went swimming in Wolf River Harbor, a slack water channel of the Mississippi River, while wearing boots and all of his clothing, and singing the chorus of the song “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin. Buckley had gone swimming there several times before. A roadie in Buckley’s band, Keith Foti, remained on shore. After moving a radio and guitar out of reach of the wake from a passing tugboat, Foti looked up to see that Buckley had vanished. Despite a determined rescue effort that night, Buckley remained missing. On June 4, two locals spotted his body in the Wolf River near a riverboat, and he was brought to land.
Buckley’s autopsy showed no signs of drugs or alcohol in his system and the death was ruled as an accidental drowning.
In addition to his Columbia Records releases, Live At Sin-é and Grace, Jeff Buckley has appeared as a guest artist on several other recordings. He can be heard singing “Jolly Street,” a track on the Jazz Passengers 1994 album In Love. He contributed tenor vocals to “Taipan” and “D. Popylepis,” two recordings on John Zorn’s Cobra Live At The Knitting Factory (1995). On Rebecca Moore’s Admiral Charcoal’s Song, Buckley plays electric six-string bass on “If You Please Me,” “Outdoor Elevator,” and “Needle Men” (on which he also plays drums). He both plays guitar and sings backup vocals on Brenda Kahn’s “Faith Salons,” a key track on her Destination Anywhere album (released 1996). Patti Smith’s critically acclaimed Gone Again album features Buckley adding “voice” to the song “Beneath the Southern Cross” and “essrage” (a small fretless Indian stringed instrument) to “Fireflies.” On kicks joy darkness, a various artists’ spoken word tribute to beat poet Jack Kerouac, Jeff Buckley performed on “Angel Mine”; Jeff plays guitar, sitar, and mouth sax (adding words at the poem’s conclusion) on the track. Buckley can be heard reading Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ulallume – A Ballad,” on Closed On Account Of Rabies (Poems & Tales by Edgar Allan Poe) on Mouth Almighty/Mercury Records. He sang “I Want Someone Badly” (Epic) for Shudder To Think’s soundtrack to First Love, Last Rites. Sandy Bell, a friend of Buckley’s during his L.A. days, released the resurrected track “Hollywould” in 2000, which she co-wrote and recorded with Buckley.
An ardent enthusiast for a myriad of musical forms, Jeff Buckley was an early champion among young American musicians for the work of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the world’s foremost Qawwali (the music of the Sufis) singer. Buckley conducted an extensive interview with Nusrat in Interview magazine (January 1996) and wrote the liner notes Nusrat’s The Supreme Collection album, released on Mercator/Caroline records in August 1997. On May 9, 2000, Columbia Records released Jeff Buckley-Mystery White Boy, an album of live performances, and Jeff Buckley-Live In Chicago, a full-length concert (available on DVD or VHS) recorded live at The Cabaret Metro in Chicago on May 13, 1995, in the midst of Jeff’s “Mystery White Boy” tour.
As stated, following the release of Grace on August 23, 1994, Jeff and his group spent much of 1994-1996 performing around the world on the Unknown, Mystery White Boy, and Hard Luck tours. The May 2000 release of Jeff Buckley – Mystery White Boy brought together, for the first time, some of the high points of those shows. Produced by Michael Tighe (guitarist for Jeff’s band throughout their international touring and the recording of Grace) and Mary Guibert (Jeff’s mother) and Jeff Buckley-Mystery White Boy provides an evocative cross-section of Jeff’s repertoire: previously-unreleased Buckley compositions, electrifying live interpretations of songs from Grace, and obscure and marvelous cover choices. The recordings heard on Jeff Buckley-Mystery White Boy have been hand-picked from scores of concert tapes by Mary Guibert and the members of Jeff’s band who played such a large role in helping Jeff realize his musical vision.
April 8, 1997 – Laura Nyro was born October 18th 1947 in The Bronx, New York. Nyro was born Laura Nigro in the Bronx, the daughter of Gilda (née Mirsky) Nigro, a bookkeeper, and Louis Nigro, a piano tuner and jazz trumpeter. Laura had a younger brother, Jan Nigro, who became a well-known children’s musician. Laura was of Russian Jewish, Polish, and Italian ancestry.
As a child, Nyro taught herself piano, read poetry, and listened to her mother’s records by Leontyne Price, Billie Holiday and classical composers such as Ravel and Debussy. She composed her first songs at age eight. With her family, she spent summers in the Catskills, where her father played trumpet at resorts.
March 24, 1997 – Harold Melvin (The Blue Notes) was born on June 25, 1939 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
He became one of the driving forces behind Philadelphia soul, leading his group the Blue Notes. The group formerly known as The Charlemagnes took on the name “The Blue Notes” in 1954, with a lineup consisting of Harold as lead singer, Bernard Wilson, Roosevelt Brodie, Jesse Gillis, Jr., and Franklin Peaker.
The 1960 single “My Hero” was a minor hit and 1965’s “Get Out (and Let Me Cry)” was an R&B hit.
In 1970, Harold recruited Teddy Pendergrass as the drummer for his backing band. When that same year Teddy took over as lead singer from John Atkins, he became the undeniable superstar of the group, until his departure and subsequent death. The group had a string of hits “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, “I Miss You”, “The Love I Lost”, and “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, and socially conscious songs such as “Wake Up Everybody” and “Bad Luck” which holds the record for longest-running number-one hit on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart. (eleven weeks).
After Pendergrass left in 1976 for a solo career, Melvin continued to tour with various lineups of Blue Notes until suffering a stroke in 1996. Melvin died on March 24, 1997 at the age of 57. Lawrence Brown died of a respiratory condition on April 6, 2008 at age 63. In addition, three former members of the group would die during the year 2010. First, Teddy Pendergrass died of respiratory failure on January 13, 2010 at age 59, after having previously dealt with colon cancer. Six months later, original member Roosevelt Brodie, who was the second tenor for the original Blue Notes, died July 13, 2010 at age 75 due to complications of diabetes. And just five months later in that year, Bernard Wilson died on December 26, 2010 at age 64 from complications of a stroke and a heart attack. Pendergrass’ predecessor, John Atkins, died of an aneurysm in 1998. David Ebo, who succeeded Pendergrass, died of bone cancer on November 30, 1993 at age 43. Lloyd Parks is still living and is the sole survivor of the original Blue Notes.
March 17, 1997 –Jermaine Stewart was born on September 7, 1957 in Columbus, Ohio. In 1972 he and his family moved from Ohio to Chicago, where he started in show business by joining a local dance group.
From there he went on the road with the ‘Chi-lites’ and the ‘Staple Singers,’ then to the television shows “American Bandstand” and “Soul Train.” In the early 1980s he joined the group ‘Shalamar’ as a backup singer and dancer, from which he launched his own solo career.
First singing backup for the group ‘The Temptations’ and on ‘Culture Club’s’ hit “Miss Me Blind,” with the help of Mickey Craig from Culture Club he got his first record deal with Clive Davis Arista records. His first single, “The Word Is Out,” was released in 1984, followed by “I like It” and “Get Over It” (a single was only released in Europe). e had a string of hits including “The Word Is Out”, “Frantic Romantic”, and “Versatile”. Also his singles “Get Lucky”, “Don’t Talk Dirty to Me” and “Is It Really Love” found European success, especially in Germany.
In 1991 he released “We Don’t have To Take Our Clothes Off,” a song that reached Number 5 on the Top 50 Pop Charts. In the 1990s Jermaine Stewart battled the disease AIDs. He was working on a new album when he passed away in March 1997.
Stewart died of AIDS-related liver cancer on March 17, 1997 at age 39 in the Chicago suburb of Homewood, Illinois
March 10, 1997 – LaVern Baker was born Delores LaVern Baker on November 11, 1929 in Chicago. She began singing gospel as a child, but she was familiar with more secular styles, as well. Her aunt, Merline Baker, was better known as Memphis Minnie, a blues singer and guitarist. LaVern was blessed with a powerful voice, which she put to use as a teenager singing in nightclubs under the stage name Little Miss Sharecropper. She wore a straw hat and a dress made of patches.
February 9, 1997 – Brian Connolly was born on October 5th 1945 in Govanhill, Glasgow. Whilst the true identity of Brian’s father was never officially made public, his mother was a teenage waitress named Frances Connolly who left him in a Glasgow hospital as an infant whilst he was possibly suffering from meningitis. He was fostered, aged two, by Jim and Helen McManus of Blantyre and took their family name. In his earliest years Connolly was also affectionately known as “snowball” referring to his almost white blonde hair. In a radio interview, Connolly reported that singing was a large part of growing up since there was no television, and that he was regularly called upon to sing for family and friends. Connolly has credited the Everly Brothers as being his earliest musical influence. After inadvertently discovering his lineage he eventually reverted to the name Connolly. Numerous sources have incorrectly asserted that he was a half-brother of the late actor Mark McManus (who found fame in the title role of detective series “Taggart”) but they were not related ( Mark “Taggart” McManus was actually the nephew of Brian’s foster father)
January 2, 1997 – Randy Craig Wolfe aka Randy California was born on 20 February, 1951.
Jimi Hendrix gave him the name Randy California, to distinguish him from Randy Texas, who also played in Jimi’s backing band the Blue Flames, during his 1966 New York stint. His real name was Randy Craig Wolfe and he was lead guitarist and one of the founders of the Psychedelic Rock Band “Spirit” who gained worldwide recognition for songs like “Fresh Garabage”, “Mechanical World” and ‘Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus’ which introduced us to Mr. Skin.
January 1, 1997 –John Townes Van Zandt better known as Townes Van Zandt was born on March 7, 1944 in Fort Worth into a wealthy family. He was a third-great-grandson of Isaac Van Zandt (a prominent leader of the Republic of Texas) and a second great-grandson of Khleber Miller Van Zandt (a Confederate Major and one of the founders of Fort Worth). Van Zandt County in east Texas was named after his family in 1848. Townes’ parents were Harris Williams Van Zandt (1913–1966) and Dorothy Townes (1919–1983). He had two siblings, Bill and Donna. Harris was a corporate lawyer, and his career required the family to move several times during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1952 the family transplanted from Fort Worth to Midland, Texas, for six months before moving to Billings, Montana.
At Christmas in 1956, Townes’s father gave him a guitar, which he practiced while wandering the countryside. He would later tell an interviewer that “watching Elvis Presley’s October 28, 1956, performance on The Ed Sullivan Show was the starting point for me becoming a guitar player… I just thought that Elvis had all the money in the world, all the Cadillacs and all the girls, and all he did was play the guitar and sing. That made a big impression on me.” In 1958 the family moved to Boulder, Colorado. Van Zandt would remember his time in Colorado fondly and would often visit as an adult. He would later refer to Colorado in “My Proud Mountains”, “Colorado Girl”, and “Snowin’ On Raton”. Townes was a good student and active in team sports. In grade school, he received a high IQ score and his parents began grooming him to become a lawyer or senator.
The University of Colorado at Boulder accepted Van Zandt as a student in 1962. In the spring of his second year, his parents flew to Boulder to bring Townes back to Houston, apparently worried about his binge drinking and episodes of depression. They admitted him to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, where he was diagnosed with manic depression. He received three months of insulin shock therapy, which erased much of his long-term memory. Later, his mother claimed her “biggest regret in life was that she had allowed that treatment to occur”. In 1965 he was accepted into the University of Houston’s pre-law program. Soon after he attempted to join the Air Force, but was rejected due to a doctor’s diagnosis that labelled him “an acute manic-depressive who has made minimal adjustments to life”. He quit school around 1967, having been inspired by his singer-songwriter heroes to pursue a career in playing music.
His music doesn’t jump up and down, wear fancy clothes, or beat around the bush. Whether he was singing a quiet, introspective country-folk song or a driving, hungry blues, Van Zandt’s lyrics and melodies were filled with the kind of haunting truth and beauty that you knew instinctively. His music came straight from his soul by way of a kind heart, an honest mind, and a keen ear for the gentle blend of words and melody. He could bring you down to a place so sad that you felt like you were scraping bottom, but just as quickly he could lift your spirits and make you smile at the sparkle of a summer morning or a loved one’s eyes — or raise a chuckle with a quick and funny talking blues. The magic of his songs is that they never leave you alone.
Despite his warm, dusty-sweet voice, as a singer Van Zandt never had anything resembling a hit in his nearly 30-year recording career — he had a hard enough time simply keeping his records in print. Nonetheless, he was widely respected and admired as one of the greatest country and folk artists of his generation. The long list of singers who’ve covered his songs includes Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson (who had a number one country hit with “Pancho and Lefty” in 1983), Emmylou Harris, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Nanci Griffith, Hoyt Axton, Bobby Bare, the Tindersticks, and the Cowboy Junkies.
Van Zandt was a Texan by birth and a traveler by nature. His father was in the oil business, and the family moved around a lot — Montana, Colorado, Minnesota, Illinois, among other places — which accounted for his sometimes vague answers to questions of where he “came from.” Van Zandt spent a couple years in a military academy and a bit more time in college in Colorado before dropping out to become a folksinger. (Van Zandt often returned to Colorado in subsequent years, spending entire summers, he said, alone in the mountains on horseback.)
Van Zandt moved to Houston and got his first paying gigs on the folk music circuit there in the mid-’60s. He played clubs like Sand Mountain and the Old Quarter (where in 1973 he recorded one of his finest albums, Live at the Old Quarter, released four years later), and he met singers such as Guy Clark (who became a lifelong friend and frequent road partner), Jerry Jeff Walker, and blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins, who had a large influence on Van Zandt’s guitar playing in particular.
Another Texas songwriter, Mickey Newbury, saw Van Zandt in Houston one night and soon had him set up with a recording gig in Nashville (with Jack Clement producing). The sessions became Van Zandt’s debut album, For the Sake of the Song, released in 1968 by Poppy Records. The next five years were the most prolific ofVan Zandt’s career, as Poppy released the albums Our Mother the Mountain, Townes Van Zandt, Delta Momma Blues, High, Low and in Between, and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. These included such gems as “For the Sake of the Song,” “To Live’s to Fly,” “Tecumseh Valley,” “Pancho and Lefty,” and many more that have made him a legend in American and European songwriting circles.
Van Zandt moved to Nashville in 1976 at the urging of his new manager, John Lomax III. He signed a new deal with Tomato Records and in 1977 released Live at the Old Quarter, a double album — and the first of several live recordings — that contained many of his finest songs. In 1978 Tomato released Flyin’ Shoes; the long list of players on that album included Chips Moman and Spooner Oldham.
Van Zandt didn’t record again for nearly a decade, but he continued to tour. He moved back to Texas briefly, returning again to Nashville in the mid-’80s. During the early ’80s, both “If I Needed You” and “Pancho and Lefty” became country radio hits. In 1987, Van Zandt was back in business with his eighth studio album, At My Window, which came out on his new label, Sugar Hill. By this time, Van Zandt’s voice had dropped to a lower register, but the weathered, somewhat road-weary edge to it was as pure and expressive as ever. Two years later, Sugar Hill released Live & Obscure(recorded in a Nashville club in 1985), and two more live albums (Rain on a Conga Drum and Rear View Mirror) appeared on European labels in the early ’90s. In 1990, Van Zandt toured with the Cowboy Junkies, and he wrote a song for them, “Cowboy Junkies Lament,” which appeared on the group’s Black Eyed Man album (along with a song the Junkies wrote for him, “Townes Blues”).
Sugar Hill released Roadsongs in 1994, on which Van Zandt covered songs by Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, and others, all recorded off the soundboard during recent concerts. At the end of that same year, Sugar Hill released No Deeper Blue, Van Zandt’s first studio album since 1987. Van Zandt recorded it in Ireland with a group of Irish musicians. Van Zandt sang every song but only played guitar on one.
Van Zandt continued writing and performing through the 1990s, though his output slowed noticeably as time went on. He had enjoyed some sobriety during the early 1990s, but was actively abusing alcohol during the final years of his life. In 1994 he was admitted to the hospital to detox, during which time a doctor told Jeanene Van Zandt that trying to detox Townes again could potentially kill him. A year and a half after the release of No Deeper Blue,Van Zandt died unexpectedly on January 1, 1997; he was 52 years old. Posthumous releases included collections like Last Rights: The Life & Times of Townes Van Zandt and Anthology: 1968-1979, as well as albums like 1998’s Abnormal and the following year’s Far Cry From Dead, which featured previously unreleased songs.
Townes Van Zandt was 52 years 9 months 25 days old when he died on 1 January 1997. Cause; lifelong alcohol abuse.
The early 2000s saw a resurgence of interest in Van Zandt’s music and enigmatic life; three book projects and two films entered production, and features on the musician appeared in such tastemaking rags as Mojo. But perhaps the greatest gem was the discovery of a collection of Van Zandt demos dating from 1966, a full two years before his proper debut. The ten previously unreleased recordings were issued by the Houston imprint Compadre in April 2003 as In the Beginning…. Included in the release were liner notes written by John Lomax III.