Haitian drummer Frisner Augustin died in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on February 28, 2012, at the age of 63. He was a master drummer and teacher who preserved the vodou drumming tradition and popularized it through La Troupe Makandal, a drum and dance group based in Brooklyn. He also taught drumming at Hunter College and in various programs for children. He was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1999.
Reggae record producer Philip Burrell died in Kingston, Jamaica, on December 3, 2011, at the age of 57. His numerous recordings were intended to project a positive image during the rise of sexually explicit dancehall music. In the 1980s he founded Exterminator Records and employed out-of-work session musicians despite the popularity of synthesizers and drum machines.
Television producer Don Cornelius died in Los Angeles on February 1, 2012, at the age of 75. His popular television show Soul Train, first broadcast in Chicago in 1970 and then broadcast nationwide, showcased black popular music and dance to American viewers for over three decades.
Cesaria Evora, Cape Verdean singer who often performed barefoot to express her solidarity with poor women, died on December 17, 2011, in Mindelo, Sao Vicente, Cape Verde at the age of 70. She specialized in morna, a Cape Verdean popular lament, and though she began singing in taverns in her teens, her career took off in the late 1980s and 1990s with a series of best-selling albums that eventually made her an international star. She won a GRAMMY award for best contemporary world music album for Voz d’Amor in 2003.
Singer-songwriter Dobie Gray, whose birth name is not known, died in Nashville on December 6, 2011. He is believed to have been 71. He had an early hit with “The In Crowd” in 1965, but his most famous song was “Drift Away,” recorded in 1973. After his recording career, he moved to Nashville and wrote country music for Ray Charles and George Jones among others.
Heavy D (Dwight Errington Myers) died in Los Angeles on November 8, 2011, at the age of 44. He was the MC of Heavy D & the Boyz, who had five hit albums between 1987 and 1994 and pioneered the melding of rap with R & B. He became the president of Uptown Records and recorded with R & B singers, including Michael Jackson. He also became a television and film actor.
Singer Whitney Houston, whose three-octave range and lush soprano made hers one of the iconic voices in late twentieth-century popular music, died in Los Angeles on February 11, 2012, at the age of 48. Her albums sold in the millions, and she won three GRAMMY awards.
Jazz impresario and educator Phoebe Jacobs died in New York on April 9, 2012, at the age of 93. She worked as a contractor for Decca Records and as a publicist for Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Benny Goodman, among others. After her friend Louis Armstrong died in 1991, she promoted his legacy in various ways, including helping to establish the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College and the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens. She headed the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, devoted to community-based philanthropy, including a music therapy department at Beth Israel Medical Center named for Armstrong, and countless educational programs intended to introduce school children to jazz. Jacobs was a long-time friend and supporter of the CBMR.
Rhythm and blues singer Etta James (Jamesetta Hawkins) died in Riverside, California, on January 20, 2012, at the age of 73. Bandleader Johnny Otis first recognized her singing and songwriting abilities when she was fifteen, which led to her first rhythm and blues hit, “Roll with Me Henry,” and to a career on the chitlin’ circuit. In the 1960s she moved to Chess Records, for which she recorded her greatest songs, including “At Last,” “Tell Mama,” and “I’d Rather Go Blind.” During her later career she devoted her powerful voice to blues, rhythm and blues, and jazz. She won six GRAMMY awards and was named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, the Blues Hall of Fame in 2003, and the GRAMMY Hall of Fame in 2008.
Bandleader and songwriter Johnny Otis (John Alexander Veliotes) “the godfather of rhythm and blues” died in Altadena, California, on January 17, 2012, at the age of 90. Ethnically Greek, he grew up in an African-American neighborhood and described himself as “black by persuasion.” He began his career as a drummer with black dance bands, eventually heading his own band. During the heyday of rhythm and blues he discovered and promoted a number of popular artists, including Little Esther Philips, Big Mama Thornton, Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard, Little Willie John, and Etta James. His biggest hit, “Willie and the Hand Jive,” came in 1959 with his band The Johnny Otis Show. Later he became a disc jockey and had a long-running rhythm and blues television show before becoming active in politics, the church, and even organic gardening. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994
Jamaican record producer Winston Riley died in Kingston, Jamaica, on January 19, 2012, at the age of 68. Artists like Tenor Saw and Buju Banton started their careers on his Techniques label and in the 1970s his dancehall records were hits in Britain and Europe and have been extensively sampled.
Sam Rivers, free jazz performer and composer, died in Orlando, Florida, on December 26, 2011, at the age of 88. Rivers studied at the Boston Conservatory and Boston University, and performed at various times with Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor, and Dizzy Gillespie, but he is best known as a free jazz multi-instrumentalist whose Studio Rivbea was one of the main venues of the New York loft scene in the 1970s.
Reggae musician and deejay King Stitt (Winston Sparks) died in Kingston, Jamaica, on January 31, 2012, at the age of 72. In the 1960s he was a pioneer at toasting, rhyming over ska and rock steady backing tracks. Toasting, based in turn on the rhymed jive of American radio disc jockeys, is considered to be one of the main influences on rap. Stitt worked primarily for Clement Dodd’s Downbeat Sound System before making studio recordings, and continued to perform internationally up until his death.
Blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin died in Wayne, New Jersey, on December 4, 2011, at the age of 80. His cryptic, cutting guitar was the signature sound behind the many Chess recordings of bluesman Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Burnett), one of the most popular Chicago artists of the 1950s and 1960s. After Wolf’s death, Sumlin became a bandleader and singer featured at blues festivals in his own right and idolized by a younger generation of blues and rock musicians.
Donna Summer (born LaDonna Andrea Gaines) died in Naples, Florida, on May 17, 2012, at the age of 63. Few artists can be said to have defined a style; Summer’s recordings combined soul-tinged vocals and synthesized sound to create disco. She survived the backlash against disco, continuing to record, including the GRAMMY-winning single “Hot Stuff” in 1979. Later she succeeded as a songwriter, actress, and visual artist.
Fiddler Joe Thompson died in Burlington, North Carolina, on February 20, 2012, at the age of 93. Thompson’s music reached back into the mid-nineteenth century: he learned to play the fiddle from his father, whose father, also a fiddler, had been a slave. Thompson, along with his brother and a cousin, formed a string band in their teens and played at dances throughout North Carolina. Thompson was “discovered” in 1973 by folklorist Kip Lornell and subsequently performed at folk festivals, including a Folk Masters program at Carnegie Hall in 1990. Thompson was a featured performer in several presentations of the CBMR’s program “Black Banjo and Fiddle Traditions in the United States,” which was prepared by and presented in collaboration with folklorist Cecelia Conway. The National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a National Heritage Fellowship in 2007.
Soprano Camilla Williams died in Bloomington, Indiana, on January 29, 2012, at the age of 92. She is believed to have been the first African-American woman to perform with a major American opera company, when she sang the lead role in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly with the New York City Opera in 1946. She also sang before Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. and at his Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 1964. After her operatic career, she taught voice at colleges in New York City before beginning a twenty-year tenure teaching at Indiana University.