Jimmy CastorDied: January 16, 2012Notable songs: “It’s Just Begun,” “Troglodyte (Cave Man),” “Bertha Butt Boogie”
There’s no denying the element of novelty present in much of Jimmy Castor’s best-known work; hit tunes “Troglodyte” (with its chanted “gotta find a woman” chorus) and “Bertha Butt Boogie” featured goofy lyrics enjoyed by kids and adults alike. But it’s the hard-edged grooves and rousing brass of Castor’s catalog that have left an enduring mark on pop: “It’s Just Begun” is one of the building blocks of hip-hop, sampled by artists including Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Eric B. & Rakim, the Jungle Brothers, Ice-T, and Ultramagnetic MC’s.
Johnny Otis (“The Godfather of Rhythm and Blues”)Died: January 17, 2012Notable songs: “Willie and the Hand Jive,” “Cupid Boogie,” “Ma He’s Making Eyes at Me”
California-born polymath Johnny Veliotis started out in jazz, charting with his big band rendition of “Harlem Nocturne.” A string of R&B classics followed, including the 1958 Top Ten hit “Willie and the Hand Jive” and the 1957 UK #2 smash “Ma He’s Making Eyes at Me.” Among his many accomplishments as an arranger, producer and composer, Otis discovered Etta James, co-wrote and produced Big Mama Thorton’s original “Hound Dog,” and helped launch the careers of Little Willie John, Esther Phillips, and Jackie Wilson. He was also the father of musician Shuggie Otis ("Strawberry Letter 23," "Inspiration Information").
Etta JamesDied: January 25, 2012Notable songs: “At Last,” “Tell Mama,” Pushover,” “Something’s Got a Hold on Me”
Los Angeles teenager and Johnny Otis protégé Jamesetta Hawkins hit #1 on the R&B charts in 1955 with “Roll With Me Henry” (subsequently retitled “The Wallflower”), an answer record to Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me Annie.” Her soulful voice remained a force in pop music for 57 years to follow, despite wrestling with addiction and health problems. James’ singing influenced artists including Adele, Amy Winehouse, and Beyoncé, and as recently as 2011, her impact was still being felt on the pop charts: Flo Rida’s #3 hit “Good Feeling” featured a prominent sample of her vocals from “Something’s Got a Hold on Me.”
Whitney HoustonDied: February 11, 2012Notable songs: “I Will Always Love You,” “How Will I Know,” “The Greatest Love of All”
The product of a musical family—her mother is gospel great Cissy Houston, and Dionne and Dee Warwick are both cousins—Whitney Houston was one of the best-selling artists of the 20th century, placing seven consecutive #1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. Sadly, in later years she was more often in the news for her erratic behavior, drug use, and a troubled marriage to Bobby Brown. KEXP fun fact: On the 1982 Material album One Down, Houston sang the cut “Memories,” which also featured avant garde players Archie Shepp and Fred Frith!
Dory PrevinDied: February 14, 2012Notable songs: “Theme from Valley of the Dolls,” “You’re Gonna Hear from Me,” “Come Saturday Morning”
Dory Previn started out composing Academy Award-nominated songs with husband André. After the dissolution of their marriage in 1969, she embarked on a series of arty LPs as a singer-songwriter. Camera Obscura named a song after her, and Jarvis Cocker was a big fan, too. “There’s a kind of emotional rawness to [her work], that it says things that really you shouldn’t say to another person, you should keep your thoughts to yourself, which she acknowledges when she says “Oh I don’t know what made me say that, I’ve got a funny sense of humor…’,” the Pulp singer once observed.
Davy JonesDied: February 29, 2012Notable songs: “Daydream Believer,” “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m A Believer”
British actor Davy Jones first tasted success on UK TV shows Coronation Street and in the Broadway production of Oliver!, but found lasting fame starring on The Monkees, the American TV show that debuted in 1966. Though derided by music critics at the time, the prefab band racked up four #1 albums in the space of thirteen months. Jones also parlayed his heartthrob status into appearances on The Brady Bunch and Love American Style, and released an underrated solo album in 1971. KEXP fun fact: David Bowie (born David Robert Jones) adopted his stage name to avoid confusion with the Monkees front man.
Earl ScruggsDied: March 28, 2012Notable songs: “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”
Scruggs’ three-finger banjo-picking style revolutionized bluegrass; at his 80th birthday in 2004, Porter Wagoner remarked “Earl was to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball.” After auditioning for Bill Monroe backstage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1945, he spent three years in Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys before defecting with guitarist Lester Flatt to form the Foggy Mountain Boys. Flatt & Scruggs transcended the realms of bluegrass, finding receptive audiences on college campuses and folk festivals, and their 1962 theme song for the Beverly Hillbillies (“The Ballad of Jed Clampett”) was a pop hit as well as a country chart-topper.
Levon HelmDied: April 19, 2012Notable songs: “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
Though the Arkansas native was their sole American member, drummer Levon Helm’s group The Band played a pivotal role in the emergence of the Americana genre—and in a nice bit of serendipity, he won the newly-minted Grammy Award for Best Americana Album in both 2010 (for Electric Dirt) and 2012 (Ramble at the Ryman). Helm’s gravelly vocals animated Band classics including “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Ophelia,” and even after contracting throat cancer in the late 1990’s he persevered, releasing critically acclaimed solo discs including 2007’s Dirt Farmer. Helm also acted, including a role in Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Adam YauchDied: May 4, 2012Notable songs: “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party),” “Brass Monkey,” “Sabotage”
It was the commercial impact of the Beastie Boys that first caught the world’s attention. Originally a hardcore punk combo, the Brooklyn trio scored the first #1 rap album with 1986’s Licensed to Ill and supported Madonna on tour. But the evolution of Adam “MCA” Yauch over the years wasn’t limited to his verbal dexterity or the musical innovations of Paul’s Boutique and Licensed to Ill. The rapper and bass player embraced Buddhism and founded the Milarepa Fund, which presented the Tibetan Freedom Concert series. He also directed numerous Beastie Boys videos (under the pseudonym Nathanial Hörnblowér) and two documentary films, and started an independent film production and distribution company, Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Donald “Duck” DunnDied: May 13, 2012Notable songs: “Time Is Tight,” “Hip Hug-Her,” “In the Midnight Hour”
Bass player Donald Dunn was a member of both the Mar-Keys (“Last Night”) and Booker T. & the MG’s, though he joined the latter in 1964, after their biggest hit, “Green Onions.” As session bassist for Stax Records, Dunn’s grooves can be heard on classics by Otis Redding (“Respect,” “I Can’t Turn You Loose”), Wilson Pickett (“In the Midnight Hour”), and Sam and Dave (“Hold On, I’m Coming”). Dunn’s post-Stax credits include the Stevie Nicks/Tom Petty duet “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” and playing bass in Eric Clapton’s Live Aid band, as well as appearing in the 1980 musical comedy The Blues Brothers. Here's Dunn playing with the band on "Green Onions" in 1967:
Chuck Brown (“The Godfather of Go Go”)Died: May 16, 2012Notable songs: “Busting Loose,” “We Need Some Money,” “We the People”
Washington DC luminary Brown started out in the early ‘70s with R&B hits like “We the People” and “Blow Your Whistle,” but left his biggest mark on pop music pioneering go-go, a percussive strain of funk that integrated elements of James Brown with Latin rhythms, call-and-response vocals, and plenty of showmanship, yielding songs that often stretched into extended jams both on record and in concert. Though go-go’s popularity was largely confined to the DC area, Mr. Brown topped the national R&B charts for four weeks in 1979 with “Busting Loose”; rapper Nelly subsequently sampled that song on his 2002 smash “Hot in Herre.”