We are, of course, living through a moment in which both the threat and presence of death feels suffocating. I’ve always been wary of Soul Sides turning into one long death roll of musicians and artists that I admire because it would feel unrelenting but I also don’t want to ignore all these giants that we seemingly are losing on a daily basis. In the end, we can mourn their passing but also celebrate what will survive them for years to come: the music that made them memorable to begin with.
This isn’t meant to be remotely definitive or comprehensive of everyone we’ve lost…it’s just a nod of respect to some of the artists I’ve long respected, whose work I will continue to cherish.
Manu Dibango (d. March 24, age 86) . For many of us, Manu’s songs were our introduction to Afrofunk. As both an artist and producer, Manu’s influence spanned both a generation and continent. Soul Makossa is the biggest release he ever had but I will forever stay enamored with African Voodoo, a library record he put together a few years after Soul Makossa blew up.
Gene Deitch (d. April 16, age 95). I was introduced to animator/illustrator Deitch’s work through vintage issues of The Record Changer, a midcentury record collector’s magazine where Deitch often did the cover art and interior cartoons. The above, from July 1947, was one of several covers that Deitch did that attacked American segregation by pointing out the hypocrisies of how we love Black music but not Black people. In 2013, many of his illustrations were compiled into A Cat On a Hot Thin Groove.
Don Campbell (d. April 23, age 69). Inventor of The Campbellock, Campbell was a giant in contemporary street dance in helping pioneer “locking” which would then find its way incorporated into early b-boy/b-girl styles. Campbell also had a minor hit with the single that celebrated his dance: “Campbell Lock.”
Hamilton Bohannon (d. April 24, age 78). Bohannon was discovered in the early ’70s by Motown and went onto to have a successful disco-era career but for beat heads, we all gravitated to Stop & Go, his and his Detroit band’s debut album on Dakar: a veritable feast of samples that 100% hold up today.
Tony Allen (d. April 30, age 79). Fela Kuti was the name most people saw on Afrobeat albums but the person actually providing the beat? That’d be Allen, easily the most influential percussionist to come out of the Afrobeat movement. He has a deep catalog but start with his debut album with Africa 70, Jealousy.
Steve “Stezo” Williams (d. April 29, age 52). Stezo started off as a dancer with EPMD before branching into becoming a rapper in the late 1980s. He was part of the last wave of early golden era artists for whom rapping and dancing were a mark of distinction. Stezo’s 1989 debut album, Crazy Noise, is a perfect snapshot of rap music of the era and well worth a listen.
Andre Harrell (d. May 7, age 59). Harrell is best known for starting Uptown Records which would absolutely pivotal to shaping R&B and hip-hop at the turn of the ’80s to ’90s. He was an architect of the New Jack Swing sound, help folks like Heavy D. and Mary J. Blige get off the ground and discovered Sean “Puffy” Combs (and by extension, Biggie). He also was the Dr. Jeckyll in the early rap group, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde.
Betty Wright (d. May 10, age 66). This one really strings and not just because it happened this morning. 66 is really young all said and Wright is such an important figure in soul, especially as the premier artist to come out of the vibrant Florida R&B scene of the ’60s and ’70s. I wanted to include her rendition of Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” above to tip the hat to Withers, who I already wrote about after his passing, but if you’re going to dip your toes into her catalog, start with her debut, My First Time Around, recorded when she was only 14. Just an incredible talent, all around.