We’ve lost far too many people in 2020. The 25 we’ve listed don’t scratch the surface. But they’re artists who mean something to us.
In addition to those below we would also like to recognize the passing of Johnny Nash (“I Can See Clearly Now”), Brian Howe of Bad Company, Charlie Daniels (“The Devil Went Down to Georgia”), Jorge Santana of Malo, Frankie Banali of Quiet Riot, Sid McCray of Bad Brains, David Roback of Mazzy Star, Jacob Thiele of The Faint, and Pop Smoke, who died in a home invasion robbery at age 20 and was nominated for a Grammy posthumously.
We would also like to recognize the Four Seasons original guitarist Tommy DeVito and the other 1.5 million people who have died worldwide of COVID-19, a number which continues to rise every day.
Eddie Van Halen (65) — By Tony Hicks
Early in the career of Edward Van Halen, Rolling Stone referred to his namesake band as nothing more than a “prefab” imitation of Led Zeppelin.
The guitarist’s cancer-related death at age 65 in October slapped an entire generation of American rock and roll kids in the face with its own mortality. Not only did his playing and songwriting help shape American pop culture, Eddie Van Halen simply reinvented how rock guitar is played. He was the Mozart of the MTV generation. As a player he was fierce, smart and fearless. He was so good, he inspired a generation to play like him, then inspired another to play the opposite way. His death was so shocking–even when the world knew he had cancer for years–because he was utterly indestructible the way we usually saw him: wearing his guitar. He left the music world a much better place when he was done.
John Prine (73) — By David Gill
John Prine, one of America’s greatest homespun songwriters, died in April in Nashville from complications arising from a battle with COVID-19. Prine was known for his unadorned folk style and many of his songs tackled working class social issues like poverty and addiction. His prolific output began in 1971 with his self-titled debut. Discovered by Kris Kristofferson, Prine recorded 18 studio albums during his nearly 50-year career. Prine’s output slowed after his 2007 release, Standard Songs For Average People, but in 2018 he returned with a powerful and critically acclaimed final record, The Tree of Forgiveness.
Prine’s songs often dealt with mortality. The Maywood, Illinois native’s “When I Get to Heaven,” from his final album, imagines the singer living larger than ever in the afterlife. “I’m gonna shake God’s hand/ Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand/ Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock-n-roll band/ Check into a swell hotel; ain’t the afterlife grand?”
Kenny Rogers (73) — By Daniel J. Willis
Country singer, actor and restaurateur Kenny Rogers died in March. While arguably best known today for his 1978 song “The Gambler,” he had nine others crack the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, including 1980’s “Lady” and his 1983 duet with Dolly Parton “Islands in the Stream” that hit No. 1. But it was “The Gambler” that inspired the TV movie series of the same name in which he starred, with five entries spanning 14 years. He also lent his name to the Kenny Rogers Roasters chain of chicken restaurants, which closed US operations but still has 156 locations in Asia. He’s survived by his wife, his five children, and his pet goat Smitty.
Little Richard (87) — By Tony Hicks
Rock and roll lost one of its pillars, one of its faces should it ever have its own Mount Rushmore, when Little Richard died in May. He was the epitome of rock and roll’s wild spirit. Screaming, shaking, howling; the man did everything but personally explode on stage simply celebrating life for the rest of us. That’s, at its core, what rock is really all about. He was funny, he was demanding, he said what was on his mind … he was someone we all wanted to be at one time or another. He brought races together.
He lived until he was 87, which is about 60 years longer than a typical lifespan of a rock and roll titan. He maneuvered social complexities as a God-loving, self-proclaimed “omni-sexual” Black man who came up through segregation and triumphed. There may have been no James Brown, Prince or Michael Jackson without Little Richard.
Neil Peart (67) — By Alex Baechle
Neil Peart, the consummate doctor of progressive rock drumming and lionized Rush lyricist, died in January after a prolonged, unpublicized struggle with brain cancer. Peart lived the unthinkable: a healthy, controlled rock star life. Tales abound of Peart riding a bicycle between gigs on tours while the party bus drifted on to meet him at the next gig. Later, after immense personal tragedy altered Peart’s outlook on life, he turned to motorcycle journeys for healing. Peart’s free-wheeling meditations are infamously commemorated on Rush comeback song “Ghost Rider.”
Peart was a published author of science fiction and nonfiction, in addition to his songwriting. His copious lyrics, often inspired by his compulsive reading while on tour, often formed the thematic and conceptual backbone of Rush, the legendary Canadian hard rock band. A private man, Neil Peart nonetheless held onto his convictions. “Nope, I like that one,” he once said of the controversial Rush album Roll The Bones. Though fans were heartbroken at the rhythm perfectionist’s passing, Peart now rests mightily atop a drumming legacy that cannot be equalled.
Riley Gale (34) — By Alex Baechle
Riley Gale, a cyclonic stage presence and Power Trip frontman, died tragically and unexpectedly in Dallas on Aug. 24. Power Trip were rising stars in the skate-thrash revival that anchored the 2010s for street rockers.
Having earned a bachelor’s degree in technical writing, Gale also supported Dallas Hope Charities throughout his career. He made his name shredding his vocal chords to the chunky rhythms of his straightforward, hardcore-influenced band. The Texas quintet amassed two albums of guitar-duelling boogie beats set to party metal and draught-punk vibes, getting along via word of mouth and the festival circuit. Gale is remembered for heading up a tough, cool band and also for his inclusive and generous punk-scene ethos. An outpouring of public support followed Gale’s death. Tributes took the form of street art in Brooklyn and Houston, an eponymous burger at Kuma’s Corner, and a trauma-informed library named after the late artist.
Bill Withers (81) — By Tony Hicks
Bill Withers, who died of heart trouble at age 81 in April, may have been the smoothest soul singer-songwriter who ever exuded a genuine “who me?” attitude. Withers was a musical phantom, the wizard with the gorgeously warm voice whose influence was everywhere while he remained behind an anonymous curtain of his own making. The epitome of an everyman; his first two albums were called “Just as I Am” (1971) and “Still Bill” (1972). Withers’ ’70s catalog has weathered time as well as any of his contemporaries, as evidenced by how much it was passed around online, even before his death was announced, as people huddled in isolation during the COVID-19 outbreak. Withers didn’t care for fame or the music business. But his voice was welcome in 2020; like someone’s favorite uncle with the wisdom of years and the warmth to convince us everything is going to be all right.
Adam Schlesinger (52) — By Rachel Goodman
When I read the news back in March that Adam Schlesinger was in the hospital due to COVID-19, I was heartbroken. This crazy-talented musician was an EGOT contender. He won an Emmy for his original song for “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” He was nominated for an Oscar for Tom Hanks film “That Thing You Do!” While he never won a Grammy for Fountains of Wayne, he took home a statuette for his work on “A Stephen Colbert Christmas.”
From the uber-catchy “Stacy’s Mom,” which put Fountains of Wayne on the map, to my favorite album, Utopia Parkway, there were so many incredible fun, catchy pop songs with witty lyricism. Never one to sit back, Schlesinger also formed dream-pop band Ivy, which deserved to be better known.
Bonnie Pointer (69) — By Daniel J. Willis
When Bonnie Pointer and her sisters were growing up in West Oakland, their reverend father told them rock and the blues were the devil’s music. Fortunately for us all they didn’t listen and formed the Pointer Sisters in the late ‘60s. After working as backup singers for the likes of Boz Skaggs and Janis Joplin, and recording a series of songs for “Sesame Street” teaching kids to count, they had their first hit in 1970. While Bonnie left the group prior to their greatest success in the early ‘80s, her solo career continued, with her last album released in 2011. She and her sister June continued to perform at primarily gay pride events, beginning with the 2002 San Jose Pride Celebration.
Ken Hensley (75) and Lee Kerslake (73) — By Alex Baechle
A formidable duo who shared many stages under heavy rock monikers Uriah Heep and Toe Fat, English musicians Lee Kerslake and Ken Hensley both passed away this year.
Kerslake, who died Sept. 19 of cancer, achieved his greatest commercial success playing drums on two classic Ozzy Osbourne records in the early 1980s. He appeared alongside renowned guitarist Randy Rhoads on Blizzard Of Oz and the excellent Diary Of A Madman. His tracks were actually removed from the albums at one point due to a lawsuit, but were later restored thanks to fan support. Still, his most noted tenure was with heavy metal progenitor Uriah Heep. He appeared on 17 albums including the definitive Demons & Wizards and The Magician’s Birthday.
Multi-instrumentalist and prolific songwriter Hensley, a rock star aspirant since adolescence, gave Uriah Heep hits with “Lady In Black” and “Easy Livin’,” which hit No. 39 on the U.S. charts. Hensley made the rounds in hard rock, appearing at various times with W.A.S.P., Blackfoot and as lead vocalist for the obscure Weed. He died Nov. 4.
Florian Schneider (73) — By David Gill
Pioneering electronic musician Florian Schneider founded the German group Krafterk with Ralf Hütter in 1970. The innovative band emerged from West Germany’s Krautrock scene and soon began experimenting with electronic effects like tape echoes and ring modulators to craft an almost entirely computerized sound that laid the sonic foundation for much of later electronic dance music.
Initially, Schneider played the flute, but feeling like the instrument was too limited in its capabilities, he quickly augmented the flute’s sound with electronic effects and early synthesizers. The electronics supplanted the woodwind instrument almost entirely until Schneider designed his own electronic flute. He hadn’t performed with Kraftwerk since 2006. In 2015, Schneider teamed up with Belgian composer Dan Lacksman and produced “Stop Plastic Pollution” as part of the “Parley for the Oceans” campaign with the help of fellow electronic music pioneer Uwe H. Schmidt.
Lyle Mays (66) — By Max Heilman
Lyle Mays, who died in February, was a pianist and composer lauded for his work with Pat Metheny. Whether as a member of Metheny’s group or a contributor behind the scenes, Mays played a vital role in making the guitarist’s work iconic. Take an album like 1992’s Secret Story. It would’ve worked swimmingly relying on Metheny’s musicality alone, but Mays’ arrangements made it an awe-inspiring spectacle. His intuitive approach to expanding ideas set a standard for people who want to take jazz farther than big bands and combos. He elevated Metheny’s sonic staple to cinematic proportions. And yet, his work on more restrained albums like 1994’s We Live Here demonstrated his taste and tact. There’s a very good reason this year’s Metheny album From This Pace plays out as a tribute to Mays. Though he lost his battle with “recurring illness” this year, his legacy reaches far beyond 11 Grammy awards. He helped define one of the most incredible groups to grace the world of contemporary jazz.
Ronald Bell (68) — By Daniel J. Willis
Ronald Bell, who died in September, was the primary songwriter and creative force of the legendary funk band Kool and the Gang. The son of a Golden-Gloves-winning boxer who lived in the same apartment building as Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, Bell took an interest in jazz at a young age and formed the first iteration of Kool & the Gang at 13. Formally taking the name they’d been known by in 1968, they had their first major crossover hit with “Jungle Boogie” in 1973, and their first and only No. 1 hit with “Celebration” in 1980, which can still be heard after every Oakland Athletics home win.
Peter Green (73) — By Alex Baechle
An accomplished blues-rock guitarist, England’s Peter Green founded the band that would become Fleetwood Mac in 1967. Remaining with the band until 1970, he grounded out tough jams that became signature songs for other groups, notably “Black Magic Woman” and “The Green Manalishi (With The Two-Pronged Crown),” an indictment of monetary greed.
Green’s dark persona was no sham. The somber guitarist disappeared from the public eye for decades as he battled psychosocial demons. Considered an acid casualty, Green ranks with Syd Barrett, Alexander Spence and Roky Erikson as original 1960s blues-rockers who simultaneously ignited and were overwhelmed by their cultural moment. A guitarist’s guitarist, Green earned praise from the likes of B.B. King and Noel Gallagher.
Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert (77) — By David Gill
Frederick Nathaniel “Toots” Hibbert died in Jamaica in September after he was hospitalized for COVID-19 and had been in a medically induced coma and on a ventilator. Toots Hibbert was the singer, founding member and driving force behind the seminal reggae band Toots and the Maytals. He was the first artist to use the word “reggae” on a record—1968’s “Do the Reggay.” While he was lesser known than either of his Jamaican musical contemporaries, Bob Marley or Peter Tosh, his role in popularizing reggae music was arguably more crucial.
Hibbert formed the Maytals, a Rastafari word that translates to “do the right thing,” in the early ’60s. In 1966, Hibbert was jailed in Jamaica for possession of marijuana. The experience inspired one of his most famous songs, “54-46 That’s My Number.” Toots and the Maytals’ debut album, Funky Kingston, was released by Island Records in 1975. In 2013, Hibbert was struck in the head by a vodka bottle thrown by an overzealous fan, which curtailed the band’s touring as a result. He spent much of his last seven years working on new music. He worked with Zak Starkey, the son of Ringo Starr, to pare down this material for Got To Be Tough, The Maytals’ first LP since 2011.
Justin Townes Earle (38) — By Daniel J. Willis
Justin Townes Earle released eight albums in his career, and it was not enough. His star was continuously rising, from his triumphant 2007 debut EP to his breakthrough hit with 2010’s Harlem River Blues, to 2019’s The Saint of Lost Causes. Earle had incredible talent. Unfortunately, like his father Steve Earle and his namesake Townes Van Zandt, that talent was paired with a lifetime of addiction beginning when he was just 12. Despite periods of sobriety and nine stays in rehab, Earle died at age 38 of an accidental overdose due to fentanyl-laced cocaine. He’s survived by his wife, Jenn, and his 3-year-old daughter, Etta.
Bones Hillman (62) — By Rachel Goodman
Bones Hillman, remembered by Midnight Oil as “the bassist with the beautiful voice” passed away from cancer. The New Zealander had been playing with other Kiwi bands prior to joining Australian act Midnight Oil prior to the release of Diesel and Dust, which put them on the map. But, his first appearance would be on the politically aware album Blue Sky Mining in 1990.
Hillman stayed with the band until its hiatus in 2002 (when vocalist Peter Garrett joined Australian parliament). Hillman then moved to the U.S. and became an in-demand session player until The Oils reunited in 2017. He’s probably best remembered for the catchy hook of “Blue Sky Mine,” in which he sang “There’ll be food on the table tonight/ There’ll be pay in your pocket tonight.” Those lyrics were bound to get stuck in your head when you’d hear this song on the radio.
Denise Johnson (56) — By Skott Bennett
For those of us whose lives were impacted and neurons rewired by the Manchester music scene of the early ‘90s, the memories appear like the space between strobe lights. Flash. Joy. Flash. Discovery. Flash. Friendship. Flash. Chemical Beats. Flash. Blissed-out guitar feedback. No voice captured that feeling quite like Denise Johnson.
Getting the spark from seeing “The Sound of Music” as a child, Manchester native Denise Johnson taught herself how to sing and channeled her talent through choirs and cover bands until her vocals on A Fifth Of Heaven’s “Just A Little More” caught the ears of Primal Scream, who were working on their soon-to-be iconic Screamadelica album. After turning them down more than half a dozen times, she finally joined them in the studio to record the vocals for “Don’t Fight It Feel It,” which became one of the album’s signature club smashes. She became a member of Primal Scream for a pair of albums that marked the band’s commercial and cultural peak. In the following years she collaborated with New Order, Johnny Marr, Ian Brown, A Certain Ratio, Bernard Butler, Michael Hutchence, Beth Orton and more.
Her sudden death at age 56 after an unnamed short illness sent shockwaves through the U.K. indie music community and beyond with tributes from peers, friends and collaborators remembering her voice, her humor, her no-nonsense attitude, her sweetness and in the case of Manchester club legends 808 State, her hugs. In September, her debut acoustic solo album of original songs and a selection of Manchester classics from bands like 10cc, The Smiths and New Order, was released posthumously.
Andy Gill (64) — By David Gill
Guitarist for the influential punk band Gang of Four, Andy Gill died of pneumonia in February. Gill formed Gang of Four in 1971 and the band immediately began making waves in the world of punk rock with Gill’s razor-sharp and mathematically precise guitar playing on debut album Entertainment. Born in England, and inspired by The Beatles as a kid, Gill met the other members of Gang of Four at the University of Leeds. His music influenced everyone from The Jesus Lizard to Killing Joke and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Gill’s lyrics reflected both his intellectual curiosity as well as a talent for snark, tackling everything from the postmodernism of The Frankfurt School to Ivanka Trump’s efforts at branding. In an interview about a year before he died, Gill told RIFF, “The thing to remember with Gang of Four was it was never a question of espousing a particular party line, and never to be telling people what they should be thinking. “It wasn’t … banging the drum for socialism. It was much more observational and descriptive. … We describe the situation, and the people go, ‘right, I recognize that.’ It’s a kind of truth telling.”
Billy Joe Shaver (81) — By Alex Baechle
Billy Joe Shaver was the outlaw country musician who could honestly boast he shot a man —where else?—outside a Texas saloon in 2007. Both men survived the incident, and Shaver was ultimately acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.
Retribution haunted him, however. Shaver grew up with absent parents, picking cotton at age 12, then working in rodeos after a stint in the Navy. Following years of excess, he became a born-again Christian in the ‘70s. “Jesus is the toughest man alive,” he sang in “The Tough Get Going.” In 2000, Shaver’s son died of a heroin overdose. Famously a friend of talk-show host Norm MacDonald, Shaver also had an acting role opposite Robert Duvall in the 1996 film “The Apostle.” He engraved a distinctly ornery voice into country music on Old Five And Dimers Like Me and I’m Just An Old Chunk Of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be A Diamond Someday). A duet with Willie Nelson, “Wacko From Waco,” was released in 2011. Shaver died from a massive stroke.
McCoy Tyner (81) — By Alex Baechle
Throughout the 1960s, pianist McCoy Tyner accompanied many of the big names in jazz, including Lee Morgan, Stanley Turrentine and most notably, John Coltrane. Afterward, Tyner released dozens of albums over 47 years as bandleader.
Tyner eschewed electric keyboards and Coltrane’s free-jazz experimentation, breaking with the saxophonist in 1965. His career was defined in large part by a commitment to practice. He grew up playing piano in his mother’s beauty shop in Philadelphia, later becoming adept as a club and concert pianist. “If you’re a true artist, the whole thing is to try to grow and develop,” he said in 2011.
Ennio Morricone (91) — By David Gill
Celebrated soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone died in Rome in early July. He scored more than 400 soundtracks for a who’s who of directors including, Brian De Palma, Oliver Stone, Warren Beatty, John Carpenter, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Terrence Malick and Quentin Tarantino. Morricone’s most famous soundtrack was for director Sergio Leone’s 1966 spaghetti western classic “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.”
Morricone bucked the conventions of the 1960s, which dictated that the music should not upstage the actors on the screen, by using a wide array of distinctive-sounding instruments and strange sound effects to enact his iconic melodies. His soundtracks, particularly in the Westerns he scored for Leone, influenced other directors to feature music more prominently in their movies. John Williams’ iconic themes for both “Jaws” and “Star Wars” were heavily influenced by his work.
Pete Way (69) — By Alex Baechle
Pete Way was a hard rock journeyman and lifer. He made his start with UFO in 1968, teaming up with drummer Andy Parker and vocalist Phil Mogg for a run of 10 consecutive albums, including the band’s best known work with lightning-rod guitarist Michael Schenker. In 1983, Way teamed up with “Fast Eddie” Clark from Motörhead to form the rough and raw Fastway, but left the band before the first recording sessions, opting to pursue arena rock as Waysted. For much of the 1980s, Way consorted with Ozzy Osbourne and other rockers known for their excesses. Way was severely wounded in an accident at his home in June and died two months later.
Martin Birch (71) — By Alex Baechle
The curriculum vitae of Martin Birch, British producer and audio engineer, reads like a who’s-who of influential 1970s hard rock bands. Credited on numerous albums by bands like Fleetwood Mac, Deep Purple, Wishbone Ash, Rainbow, Whitesnake, Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult, it’s almost easier to list heavy groups of the era he didn’t work with.
Birch is perhaps best known for producing the classic Iron Maiden albums of the 1980s. Birch found a place of belonging with his high-flying metal mates. Speaking on his process in 1990, Birch said, “I get involved with the whole spirit of the thing. … I just go with the rest of the guys, get the whole feel of it.” In the liner notes to Deep Purple’s In Rock, he is described as “catalyst.” Birch died Aug. 9.